I was hungry for adventure, challenge, something to dedicate myself to and paycheck at the end of the season. Sign me up!
Just for one season of course. Then two. Then three...then a permanent position. I was hooked. I had stumbled into a career I loved, working with an incredible group of people with opportunities to grow. After nearly a decade I find myself with three seasons on a hotshot crew, three seasons on a helicopter rappel crew, a spouse in fire, a one-year-old boy and a baby girl on the way. Things have naturally morphed from being single and making life and job decisions on a yearly interval to having a meaningful career, an incredible family and a place to call home.
I love fighting fire for many of the same reasons other people do. The incredible and diverse group of people who—for the most part—crack me up on a daily basis. There are laughs and camaraderie that only come with the shared experience of severe sleep deprivation, exhaustion one day and boredom the next, sweat, tears, blood, smoke, MRE's and, at times, the most stunning scenery most people never get to see. This job will change you, force you to grow and push your limits. I was lucky enough to form close friendships with many people I never would have otherwise and have created many unforgettable memories.
A few years ago, there were a handful of these friends who were all starting families around the same time. We had all met when we were fresh into new relationships, helped each other through long seasons away from our partners and eventually enjoyed the privilege of attending each other's weddings. It was another shared experience and we talked at length about how life would change once we had kids.
But it was obvious my experience would be drastically different: they were all about to be dads and I was about to be a mom.
This one difference turned our lives in very different directions. While they all talked about how much they would miss their babies during a long fire season and how to best be present and support their families, I was suddenly on the other side of that issue. It was probably the first time being a woman in fire had made any difference to me. I had gotten by with never feeling like anything but a member of the crew doing my job. Suddenly I could no longer do that job.
It has been a struggle to say the least, figuring out what to do. I tried to stay engaged: I did all the refresher training, took a wilderness EMT re-certification course at five months pregnant, did the pack test at six months pregnant, participated in a prescribed fire training program at seven and half months pregnant. I loved my career but the love and desire to raise my children goes far beyond that. The demands of working in fire are long hours, irregular schedules and weeks spent away from home at a moment's notice. My husband and I have searched many avenues but the reality of having two parents work in fire means that someone else will have to raise our kids. Not only does my job not pay enough to cover that, we want to be the ones to raise our children.
I have reached out within the fire community for help and guidance on how to navigate this. All I can find is that it is a unique challenge requiring you to get very creative and advocate for yourself by finding someone who is willing to basically create a new position and hire you part-time or create a work share situation. The simple answer: Dispatch. However, the idea of sitting at a desk for 8 to 12 hours a day behind multiple computer screens is a hard reality for me, whose job was primarily outside working in the woods. All the aspects I loved, the very reason I had that job, would be changed to the very thing I had spent my life avoiding - being inside in front of a computer. I hope this brings no offense to our incredible dispatchers - it is a crucial and difficult job we absolutely rely on in the field. It is just not a job for me.
My supervisors have been very understanding and allowed me time and flexibility to explore different options and find a path that will allow me to be the mother I need and want to be and work on the fireline. Simply put, I am still wandering in search of that path and, unfortunately, feel no closer to finding it than when I started. During this time, I have been exploring options in totally different areas as well and have decided on an alternative backup route that is quickly becoming my main focus. Soon I will begin taking prerequisite classes for a program to become a Physical Therapist Assistant. A route I hope will allow a healthy work and family balance. Whatever happens, in the end, I will always have my fire experience, lifelong friends and many great memories.