I sat beneath a canopy of lush, green Ponderosa pines, but I did not smell their sweet fragrance. Instead, I was still choking on the thick smoke I had just hiked through, my nose running and my eyes watering profusely. My legs felt so tired I could no longer feel their pain, and my back had been dully aching for several days, so much so and for so long that I no longer noticed that either. But I was not thinking about the fire I had been fighting for the last 12 days, nor the crew members I sat next to on the dirt floor of the forest. Instead, my mind wandered to the place it often did when I had a moment of quiet: I was remembering a day that was the opposite to the one I was experiencing. I reflected on how the clean, small apartment contrasted the expansive, dirty forest I was sitting in, but also how strongly the joy I felt through my tired muscles after having accomplished so much contrasted the sick, hopeless feeling of not being able to do anything.

I thought about that brief moment in time–which stretched into what felt like hours but had really been only forty minutes–when I was unsure if my mom was alive, and grappled with the knowledge that if she was not, it was because she had taken her own life.

I found myself remembering the night of my mother’s attempted suicide nearly every day the summer after I graduated college. My workstation was in Utah, but the wildland fire crew I was a part of traveled wherever needed. This meant I had a lot of long days and long nights working and traveling to think and remember and reflect. In wildland firefighting, the most exhausting thing can be just waiting for something to do. Once you have a task, you often have enough adrenaline to keep you alert and motivated. Those weeks of waiting gave me the time I needed to heal from the experiences of my undergraduate career, but the seemingly endless time to think while we performed mindless physical labor was intense as I grieved how complicated my relationship with my family had become. My mother was saved from her own painful reaction to grief the night she tried to take her own life, when a rescue party found her and brought her home. Years later, she is alive and healthy, and though our relationship is forever changed, I think in many ways it is for the better. Working over 1,000 hours of overtime fighting fires the summer after graduating college may not sound like the most productive way to move past such a painful event, but in many ways, fighting fire is the best way to cope with anything. All of the energy you have to give, and then some, is demanded.

Wildland firefighting is often described as a remnant of an older west. It is the American Dream distilled in the modern world. You work as many hours as you possibly can, doing things that are hard and dangerous, for as many months as required of you. Its greatest reward is an indescribable satisfaction that can only be experienced by those who live a life driven by service and fulfilled by doing things that make them uncomfortable.

The four seasons I spent as a wildland firefighter began as a way to financially support myself as I worked tirelessly to become the first college graduate in my family, but turned into the most formative and instrumental years of my life. The work ethic, passion, and ability to do hard things that wildland firefighting taught me will carry me through the rest of my life. I know that I will not be fulfilled unless I am working towards reaching my fullest potential, and I know a career in law will serve that purpose. I am prepared to pursue the difficult but worthwhile endeavor of becoming a lawyer, and continue working towards the passion for service and achieving my goals that motivated me to work such a demanding job as a means for doing so.

The ultimate gift fire bestowed upon me during those seasons is one which I am still reaping the benefits of. Both my now husband and I fought fires, and the majority of our closest friends still work in fire. The family that came together to support me as I grew past the grief of the events with my mother were also there to support me as I decided to leave fire and pursue my Juris Doctorate. Not a single winter has passed since I left fire that we haven’t had at least one transient fire friend sleeping on our couch, or in their vehicles in our driveway, for some of their offseason.

The people that have lifted me up year after year–that have given so much and only asked for the occasional use of our couch or washer and dryer–are the same people that motivate and push me everyday to work hard in law school.

My husband left fire two seasons after I did. We had agreed to both go all in on fire careers, or both leave together, and ultimately leaving seemed like the only sustainable option. Every offseason one of us was dealing with injuries from the season and exhausted by the effort of living without health insurance or a place to call home. We traveled in a 12 foot travel trailer, bouncing from family to friends to family, hugging everyone we hadn’t seen in eight months. We also traveled, and skied, and ran, and spent everyday together, drinking coffee for an hour each morning. The offseason gave us as many highs and lows as the fire season did. When we left, we realized the harsh seasonality of the job that made it so endearing, also made it difficult to connect with anyone we loved that wasn’t also doing fire. It was a pattern that we saw in our closest friends. Anyone that struggled with grief during the season was left to face that same grief alone during the offseason, with less responsibility and less structure.

While leaving fire was the right decision for us and the lifestyle we want to live, we both miss it. Every spring when our friends start to move back to their work stations, we feel the exciting anticipation with them. Spring brings a feeling of endless possibility, even to those of our friends that have now been in fire for over a decade.

Everything in my life today has been made better by fire. During my first season, I was only 19 years old. I grew up during my fire seasons, married my husband between fire seasons, and had some of my best and worst days while working on fires. Because of fire, I enjoyed off-seasons traveling to new countries with my husband, climbing trips with friends, endless nights of extravagant feasts followed by weeks of only eating canned chili and ramen noodles.

When I left fire, I worried that I would leave the parts of myself that came alive because of those experiences. I became a more resilient person the summer after my mothers attempted suicide, but I also became more adventurous, more confident doing the outdoor sports I loved on my own, and more confident in the person I was. I have been pleasantly surprised to find that while I might have left the job, I am still that same person. One of my closest friends from fire told me that they didn’t think fire was a service oriented career, because they loved it so much, made enough money to live off of, and were able to enjoy months without working every winter. I think that this is the truest representation of the reason I love our friends that worked fires. There are few jobs that fit the description of a service oriented career–of dedicating your time to public service–more than fire. Yet, most of our close friends do the job because they genuinely love it. The work is exciting and engaging, but more than that, the coworkers so quickly become closer than family. It can be difficult to view fire as a public service career when you feel as if you are gaining so much from it. But I believe it is a service to the public to dedicate six to eight months every year to being available whenever you are needed.

Jumping from loving such a physically demanding job to one that involves much more sitting and reading may seem like a drastic change to outsiders. To my former coworkers, this jump made perfect sense. I’ve never had more intellectually engaging conversations than those that I had on the fireline, even in the law school classroom. These conversations filled me with the confidence to consider attending graduate school, and the people I had them with supported and encouraged me as a family would.

I am grateful for the time I worked as a wildland firefighter, grateful to the friends who became family, and grateful that my mom will be at my law school graduation in two years.

The connection between fire and all of the good in my life feels obvious, and fills me with a desire to give back to those that continue to do a job that is so often thankless.

Wildland firefighters deserve a livable base wage and year round health insurance. This should not be controversial. It is a dangerous, challenging job that requires as much, and so often more, then it gives in return. I hope to help this become a reality, to watch as wildland firefighters are no longer ‘forestry technicians’ or ‘unskilled workers’ in the eyes of the politicians that depend on them so much during the summer months. Law school has propelled me into a trajectory that makes it feel much more possible to create change for those that are too tired, too busy saving the world from burning, to do so themselves.