A letter to my young Hotshot self:
Take care of yourself and learn to be happy. When you are young, you will think happiness is a given, but you understand you must work for it as you age. I know you are young and full of spirit, but those years of hard living with a bottle will catch up to you.
The time you spend caring for your own mental, physical, and spiritual well-being will pay dividends down the road, especially when you hit the lows.
Of course, you will have fun but try to understand the give and take of self-care. Practice a little meditation, a little weight work, a little hiking, and a little running; keep moving. The better well-rounded you are, the more resilient you will become. You are the master of your destiny.
Know right now you have up to a 30-40% increased chance of cardiovascular issues and cancer based on our own agency research. You likely won’t understand this until you are in your thirties. Your life expectancy is decreased significantly from the general population. So, if you continue in this line of work, make the most of it; the years will slip by like water over stone.
Learn to manage the emotional ups and downs with the cyclical nature of wildland firework.
You will want to fight every person you see on the street because no one can relate to what you just went through for six months except your crewmembers; the dirt, the smoke, the yelling, the adrenaline, the exhaustion, the fear, the hunger.
You will be so emotionally disconnected from the outside world you won’t understand how to communicate. Be patient with the outside world and your family. Inform your friends and family what you went through and how you need space or caring or just decisions to be made for you for a minute until you orient yourself outside the world of fire. Stay connected to your fire friends; they will help, hopefully in a positive way. Learn to forgive yourself.
Understand the land management agencies are huge bureaucratic machines that will chew you up and spit you out. It’s easy when you are young to look down on the old engine captain near retirement who is effectively retired in place until you get there, and you understand the toll of the years of firework and the bureaucracy. Crew loyalty is special, but don’t let it hinder you from exploring the world of fire, finding your niche, and enjoying life. Don’t choose career paths based on loyalty because you are a number when it comes down to it outside your crew. Moving around will give you insight. Learn how to negotiate the bureaucracy to your benefit.
Practice patience. Fire is not rocket science but managing people is.
You will go through years of junior leadership, and just because you can crush everybody in physical training doesn’t mean you should. Not everyone will respond the same to your direct leadership style; the earlier you develop more tools besides the hammer, the better you will be. Understand the value of mentorship for yourself and others. Be sure you give back by teaching fire classes at the regional and national levels. Engage the fire community.
I am sorry you won’t be a wildland firefighter in the eyes of the land management agencies but a forestry and range technician. You’re a number, a statistic, a forestry technician until you die, then you’re a hero, a firefighter, a brave member of this proud heritage of fighting forest fires. As wildland firefighters, we are hidden. The perception of our profession is clouded in bylines of climate change and homes burning down and Hollywood movies and leadership who went on one fire one time and now have a skewed vision of what it’s like to devote your life and your family’s life to serving in times of emergency, to constantly being on-call, to giving every last ounce of energy to make it up the hill.
Understand the battle continues, and one day the world will understand exactly what we contribute to the world of emergency response and the sacrifice we make. But for now, carry the torch forward for the next generation and never forget the lives that came before.
Choose happiness, duty, respect, and integrity.
All my best –