When I was fighting fires full time, I would often get asked what it's like to be a hotshot. I always gave pause when asked that question and felt a little uncomfortable when trying to explain it. Maybe, if I was feeling chatty, I might offer a short explanation of how the days were long and the work was rewarding.

Trying to explain this type of work to someone who has never done it–or anything like it–always seemed hopeless.

How do you go about explaining all the highs and lows that you experience over the course of a fire season, to someone who has no idea of just what it takes to commit to this type of work? How do you go about explaining what it is like not to see family, friends, or loved ones for months at a time, or to lose relationships because you're not present? Or the mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion you feel after the end of a long fire season?

How do you describe the eerie beauty of being on an active fire night, the differences between the light and heat of the fire and the cool blackness in the shadows? Or that unnerving feeling you get when a smoke column blocks out the sunlight and makes day turn into night? Perhaps it's the satisfaction of watching the sunrise after a seemingly endless night shift and seeing only the smoldering remnants of what was only hours before a chaotic scramble to catch a fire that didn't want to be caught? Or the stoke you feel when a crew, 20 strong, is firing on all cylinders and the vibe is so intense that you can feel it in your soul?

Someone once showed me a picture of a fire I was on while on a Type I crew, and they pointed out approximately where my crew was when the photo was taken. I was a little taken aback by the location of my crew when the photo was taken, fire activity at that location, the column of smoke and how big the fire seemed. I remember thinking to myself "that looks kind of dangerous." Yet when I thought back to what we were doing at the time it was taken, it didn't seem like anything out of the norm. Being on a Type I crew you often don't have the time to take a step back and look at a fire from the perspective of an outsider (in this case a photographer from a local news outlet). You do the arduous work in front of you. The cutting and swamping away of brush and trees, pounding and scraping away the earth with tools made of wood and metal. While these are tasks that are exhausting and often seem never-ending, when you look back at them, they will provide you insight and perspective you cannot get anywhere else.

While doing this work it might seem like you're not gaining perspective on life or learning any valuable skills that will be useful the rest of your days. But when you finally do have that opportunity to take a step back and look at it from a different angle, I guarantee that you will have a newfound outlook on life. You cannot gain this kind of perspective in any normal 9-5 job. This is perspective that is earned through experiencing the sheer harshness of working on a Type I fire crew. You earn perspective like this by experiencing the mental and physical fatigue that comes with spending long, hot days strapped with 40+ pounds of gear, slogging away on an endless piece of line, sleeping in your sweaty clothes curled up against a rock or tree, humping any number of heavy items forever, just to find it wasn't needed after all, wallowing in your own grime and going without a shower for weeks at a time, enduring shifts that could not possibly end soon enough.

You will walk away from this type of work with the perspective that any job you have for the rest of your life will be easy by comparison.

Yeah, you'll have stressful days. Yes, it will be challenging. But it will be easy. You will realize that there is a certain amount of security in knowing that nobody is going to get hurt or killed, that it's not going to be a 16-hour shift, that you can go home at the end of the day, meet a friend for a beer, have weekends and holidays off, sleep in a bed.

The perspective I earned while hotshoting has given me a work ethic that has followed me through my professional and scholastic career. When I have fallen into work situations where others are sheepishly following the leader, I found myself taking the lead. When others were reluctant to volunteer for an assignment, I was the first to say, "I can do that." When others were ready to quit for the day, I found it easy to add the extra work to finish something right.

That being said, my career in wildland fire was not all unicorns and rainbows. I cut my teeth in wildland firefighting in the mid-nineties. That was a time when the old school mentality of wildland fire was still prevalent. When the mantra of the day was "assholes and elbows" and crew bosses weren't afraid to tell you exactly what they thought about the added value a rookie firefighter most certainly could not provide. This was also a time when information sharing wasn't practiced openly. Especially to new firefighters. I have vivid memories of crew bosses totally ignoring questions from staff, and getting looks that said, "who do you think you are asking me a question?" This could have been something as simple as the audacious question of "where are we headed?" If I got a response at all it was probably something like "Nevada" or "Wyoming." Even details about the fire, terrain, and local weather were rarely passed down to the new guy.

Fortunately, things have changed since then. I feel as though we have made a lot of progress toward providing a healthier workplace for the new generation making inroads into the world of fire. When I look around now, I see more and more folks that are advocating for better healthcare for firefighters and better pay. My hats off to these folks. They are the ones behind the scenes trying to make the world of wildland fire a better place for all of us. Dare I say "heroes?"

I long ago moved out of permanent seasonal fire work. Now I ride a desk as a hydrologist for a regulatory agency in Montana. Yet, I have found a way to stay engaged in the world of wildland fire. During the summer months I detail with a sister agency that conducts all of the state's response actions. Now my time on fire is limited to some short-term IA rolls as a helicopter manager or as a Logistics Section Chief with a Type III team. But I continually think about what it means to be a wildland firefighter today.

I think about the stresses that wildland firefighters are experiencing today and how they are more prevalent than that of what a rookie would have experienced when I first started. Longer fire seasons, more intense fires, more opportunity for something to go wrong.

These stresses are real and they come on and off the fire line, both during and after the fire season.

Even with my limited time spent on fire these days, within the time span of one year, I was on two fires where my crews were involved in critical incidents. One a deployment the other a helicopter crash. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt in either incident, but it's a sign of where things might be heading in the fire years to come. There was a time where either of these events could have been a once-in-a-career event. I'm afraid to say that that might not be the case any longer. I used to hear older firefighters say that the longer you stay in this business, the more likely you are to know someone that would be killed or seriously injured while on a fire. Thankfully, it has not come to that yet, but I wonder what is waiting in the future.

The stress you experience working in wildland fire could be something as simple as trying to fit back into a normal life after a fire season. No one tells you how to go from being a ragtag, chainsaw/drip torch wielding woodsmen one minute, to a responsible, present member of society the next. The physical and mental transition process can be daunting. This is not just a transition that occurs at the end of the fire season. The tougher transition comes when you make a career move away from fire. I know from my experience that it took me a few years to get over not being on a hotshot crew. In some cases I would say that it affected personal relationships. I would be amiss if I said that I never found myself being resentful of those that didn't experience what I did, or go through what all crew members go through.

If my son or daughter wanted to work at the Type I level in wildland fire, would I tell them not to? Hell no I wouldn't. The years I spent working in the woods were the most formative of my life. I experienced things I never thought I would have. I would, however, give them some advice. I would tell them to be prepared to push yourself mentally and physically further than you thought possible. Be present and engaged every day, and to be hyper diligent about safety and the wellbeing of your fire family. Be prepared to fight and scrape for every training opportunity and task book. Be prepared for a system that isn't necessarily supportive of your career aspirations in fire or your health off the fireline at the end of the season, or after you have moved on to other endeavors. Be prepared to live like a cave man or woman for months on end. I would tell them to do it as long as it makes sense, have a contingency plan, and do not look back.

I would also tell them that they need to be prepared for this work to get under your skin and to never get it out of your system. That the friends that you make while in fire are the ones that you will likely keep for the rest of your life. These folks will be family to you; you will count on them in more ways than you know and they will do the same for you. In the end, I think these connections are what makes working in fire the most influential experience of my career. That's what kept me on the shot crew for four seasons. That's what keeps me involved in wildland fire to this day.

Having that kind of purpose and meaning in life is priceless and something that everyone should experience at least once.