What Happens When Your World Ends?

Looking back on my life, I probably should have started as a wildland firefighter much earlier. My dad did seven years with the Baker River Hotshots in the '70’s and '80’s. Some of my most favorite childhood memories involve being responsible for burning the bark stripped from the Douglas Fir logs felled and milled on our property on Orcas Island, WA to build our house with. I would try my best to make glass by building the fire up hotter and hotter over sand, while not “losing” the fire to the fields. I am oozing with pride in the pictures. No Nomex, just hand-me-downs, absurd sunglasses for safety, a rake, and a shovel. The '90’s were great.

But life is never lived in a straight line. I was 27 when I finally started fire. Maybe that was a good thing? I had proven to myself that I could excel in academics (Environmental Studies and Climate Change degree from the University of Montana), workplace teamwork and leadership in multiple fields, independently developing mechanisms to process personal trauma, and any activity I put my mind to. In a decade, I was a competitive sailor, a rock climber, a swing dancer, an angler, a backcountry hunter, a backpacker, and a rafter, none of which I grew up doing. Every one of those things made me a better wildland firefighter.

My first year was off-the-charts amazing. 2018 was go, go, go from April 1st almost to Thanksgiving on a highly-rated contract T2IA crew. Technically, I was homeless for the first half of that due to a long-term relationship break-up right at the start of the season, and it didn’t even matter. I could leave it ALL behind. I found heaven, and it was running a drip torch to blackline prescribed burn units for aerial ignition, and later, to fight active fires. From fires in Montana, Wisconsin, or Arizona, it all felt the same: like I had become the person I was made to be.

For how incredible life can be, it also can be incredibly cruel.

I have to be thankful that I survived COVID, especially considering the terrifying neurological symptoms I experienced, like not breathing while sleeping, losing vision, repeating the same conversations at 10-minute intervals, and the crippling chronic fatigue. It was July of 2020, so it wasn’t recognized yet in the US, nor that the “young and healthy” could incur significant illness from it. I had always been able to be sick for a day or two, and immediately return to the same high-functioning baseline. This was different. 28 months later, it still is different.

I lost myself.

It took months after the first positive COVID test for me to lose hope. I was acutely aware of the mental health consequences if that was going to be my reality. I finished out the 2020 season willing my body to move, praying that I wouldn’t pass out from shortness of breath, and stricken with anxiety over the seemingly endless list of new symptoms like chronic chest pain and vertigo. I had a few near-drowning experiences before fire, and I would almost meditate in those memories to find the inspiration to keep going, both physically and mentally, on even the easiest hikes and line digs. I didn’t die then, maybe I wouldn’t die now.

Realizing my surprise and very unintended pregnancy in September of 2020, despite my IUD, was when I started to first accept that I needed to lower my expectations. I was willing to lose my own life in order to keep doing the career I loved so much, but I wasn’t willing to ruin someone else’s life for it. I would hear well-intended words of encouragement of other female firefighters who worked through a pregnancy, or “bounced back” after delivery. I was lucky to hit my second trimester just as the season was winding down, the ideal timeline for a female firefighter to have a baby and still participate in the next season in some way or another.

I must have had an undetected rupture shortly after my 20-week anatomy scan. On January 6th, 2021, just barely at 23 weeks, I lost my mucous plug at home, followed by passing clots and infection, and discovered in Triage that labor was starting. I weighed significantly less than when I got pregnant. I was so weak. I was still randomly testing positive for COVID with no symptoms or known contact. My body couldn’t fight the persistent illness and maintain the pregnancy.

After two weeks in the hospital, under the care of some of the most incredible doctors I will ever meet, Maesyn Cahoon was born at 1 lb. and 6 oz. Marcus, my husband, and I had a few precious seconds with her before she was rushed to NICU, and I immediately went to the OR for an emergency D&C to remove the dying, infected, abrupted placenta and stop my bleeding before I needed a transfusion. Marcus, also an ex-wildland firefighter, was left alone in a dark, hot, and humid labor room, with my blood still all over, and no word on how Maesyn or I were doing. All hands were on deck between two hospital units, saving both Maesyn’s life and mine. 

115 days later, and all the highs and lows imaginable, we held Maesyn outside on a perfect spring day for her to pass away in peace, unable to do anything to rid her incredibly resilient and powerful body from Fetal Inflammatory Response Syndrome. Only two short weeks before, she was healthy enough for us to start planning our discharge to go home.

Marcus and I leaned on each other through this trauma, but it was previous traumas that made us this resilient.  

2017 was Marcus’ first year of fire, and he had a whole group of friends that started with him at the same company, including Trenton Johnson, who passed away on his first roll from a tree strike. Marcus was not a stranger to death and grief, and much of the crew from 2017 stayed together for 2018. I started my fire career in this cultural emphasis on the realities of fire-caused firefighter and civilian mortality, the importance of being mentally prepared to handle trauma at any time, and a brotherhood that remained strong through the dark times, not just the good ones. I never personally knew Trenton, though I felt like I did because of how the crew created a cultural legacy around him.

Call me crazy, but I know that Trenton helped Marcus and me. We had learned trauma response skills to fall back on. We had confronted the morals of death before, both culturally and individually. We had turned intentionally practiced resiliency into habit. Without Trenton, we would not have entered this phase of pregnancy complications and infant loss with as good of a tool kit as we did.

Still, after Maesyn passed, the immense love was replaced by an immense void.

Marcus didn’t have the child he had always wanted. I didn’t have the health or abilities that I always took for granted. Marcus couldn’t cure me from my loss of self. I couldn’t reverse the feeling of responsibility for my body failing Maesyn, passing on an illness that eventually killed her.

That empowered woman who wore a personal, size extra small Mystery Ranch Hotshot TL like it was an extension of her body, even in the off-season, who said “No, that is my drip torch,” who never stopped challenging herself and her crew to “take more and do better,” who saw the future as a playground of organized chaos and loved it… gone.

The greater culture of wildland firefighting is doing better at addressing the mental health challenges that exist in the line of work, and, I should say, within the people attracted to the job. Admit it, we are all a little “different” than most. Off-season depression, combined with the challenges forced by the transient nature of agency hiring practices, is something we actively work on addressing now, rather than being hush-hush about it. Suicide rates for firefighters and other first responders are openly noted to be similar to the military. This openness indicates social progress.

But what about loss of self when your career ends?

We love ourselves as wildland firefighters, otherwise, we wouldn’t return to it the following season. This crazy job ignites something deep in us. That internal fire means that we live to embrace the suck, to refuse being a hero because we think we are being normal, to critique and develop line digging skills, to run squirrel missions, to conquer snags, to feel the spray of bucket drops, to eat smoke and be proud of our dirty faces, to get stoked about higher quality gas station food, to build the bonds of brotherhood, to be leaner and meaner, to play with heavy equipment or aircraft in the face of danger. Sadly, this is not an endlessly sustainable lifestyle.

All fires die out, eventually, one way or another. What does it look like when it is the fire within us, not the fire beyond us, that is suddenly extinguished? I would like to think that we don’t have anxiety after death, but we sure do have it while we are still alive, searching for that flame like it is that video of a raccoon who tried to wash his sugar cube in a puddle. Where is it? How can it be gone? It was just here?

I’d be lying if I said that I never considered suicide as a reasonable option. The Mac Miller line “Fell asleep and forgot to die, goddam” would be on repeat in my mind. I would look at pictures of Marcus holding Maesyn and cry, and then I would scroll further back at pictures from fighting fires and cry even harder. I never wanted to be a mom. I always wanted to be a wildland firefighter, just like my dad. Long COVID has taken so much from me.

When my wonderful therapist had me define what confidence looked like, I immediately went to my Mystery Ranch on my back, for both fire and hunting solo. I haven’t been able to wear it again after my pregnancy complications happened. A solo hunt while pregnant in 2020 was the last time I did, tagging a whitetail doe not far out of town. When I have my good moments, I imagine that I have my pack on, with that yolk holding my shoulders back in a posture that opens my chest, and my muscles comfortably pushing back on that weight. I remember that weight, that swagger, that pride. I do the task at hand. I appreciate feeling strong before the inevitable grief dip arrives that I have learned to predict and manage.

Grief and PTSD are complex and simple at the same time. My “lizard brain” relates my happy life with my Mystery Ranch on my back with my daughter’s good weeks of life because both involved carrying that weight, and loving it. Both involved subsequent immense loss.

Both defined me, and now they don’t.

My return to working after Maseyn’s death brought me to a support staff position in the NICU that she lived in. I needed to heal, not just to work. I love my job, but I need more. It has been enormously helpful in my healing journey, though I can’t stop thinking about everything climate and fire related, fueling an intense need to return to that world. Yet, when I imagine myself leaving NICU, I can’t imagine not speaking up about pregnancy, neonatal, and pediatric complications either.

Returning to firefighting would be physically unsafe. Non-arduous USFS jobs would pass me up due to lack of preference points, especially since Missoula is a high-volume application location. Jobs that combine the two worlds, looking at public health impacts of larger and longer fires, want a recent graduate, seemingly always with a certificate that I don’t have. How do I communicate that my value extends far beyond any job title that I have had?

I wear that imaginary backpack when I speak up about wildland fire or infant loss. I was featured in a video series on Long COVID, filmed in part by a helicopter pilot who works fires in summer. I presented at the Montana Perinatal Association Conference about my story of fire, COVID, pregnancy complications, NICU parenthood, and infant loss. High Country News featured me in an article about Long COVID and wildland firefighters when others interviewed with similar health issues felt the need to stay anonymous. I have been a cornerstone for news and media campaigns across Montana to defeat LR-131, a measure that would criminalize medical professionals for facilitating the kind of peaceful passing that Maesyn was gifted. I stand tall with all of those projects, feeling the imaginary backpack giving me confidence and strength, learning that my identity is now described with the word “advocate.” I have done all of this in a little over a year, yet I still don’t have what I yearn for the most: that Mystery Ranch on my back in real life, and a drip torch in my hand. 

I seem to exist everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I can’t find the perfect answer for the question of “what next?” and maybe I don’t need to. The only constant is change. My crew boss used to say that often about fire, but after I became closer with him, I realized that it really was about life, all of it, including parenthood. Being overly attached to very specific plans rather than setting broad goals with multiple routes for success is a recipe for disappointment. Something unexpected will happen. It always does. “Work got done and no one died,” is a perfectly acceptable standard for a good day.

Life changes for me in the past have felt like a healthy burn, a clean-up of litter for the next spring to bring more vibrant life. Losing myself and my daughter within a few months was a fire that nuked. The trees seemingly liquified with their trunks left like ribs with no lungs to protect, the soil turns to moon dust that illustrates our surface atmosphere that we breathe as a fluid of near constant movement carrying particulates, the subsequent snowpacks loses the ability to release slowly and gouges away at the already traumatized land as it rapidly disappears, and the animals left without reason to return to their home, if they survived. It takes everything in you to look at that landscape and find hope, but I always do. Life seems so far away, yet, someday, that blackened landscape will become a sea of fireweed, blooming in shades of purple, inviting back the insects, birds, and mammals, setting the soil for subsequent plant species to return, and paving the way for a new ecosystem dynamic to emerge.

I can’t be a wildland firefighter anymore, but I can fight the fires of trauma and loss in nature and society, for Maesyn, and for Trenton. I will sow the seeds for that field of fireweed, and watch it grow.