“Wait,” she said. “This is how you guys sleep?”
“I mean, yeah,” I shrugged.
“What? You thought we got hoteled up every night?”
I laughed but she didn’t.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I just didn’t think about it at all really. I mean, I think about you all the time, but, as far as the specifics of what your day-to-day life is like...I don’t know. I guess you just live in such a strange world that it’s hard for me to imagine the particulars of it.”
I shrugged again and didn’t say anything. The fact that my sister didn’t understand certain aspects of my job or the specific conditions in which I lived and worked didn’t bother me at all. If anything, it made me a little bit happy. I was proud of the obscurity that shrouded my line of work, and of the fact that I was able to live and operate in wretched conditions without any glamor or spotlight, and without expecting any acknowledgement from anyone except the people who worked next to me on the fireline. There was something romantic about it.
Over the past few years, however, I have realized just how common ignorance like my sister’s is, and I’ve grown more and more disillusioned by the obscurity surrounding my occupation. I don’t use the word ignorance in a derogatory sense; I simply use it to describe the great chasm that exists between the reality of my job as a wildland firefighter and the public’s understanding of it. I’ve had countless conversations in which I’ve surprised people by telling them that we sleep on the ground every night; that we don’t shower; that we hardly ever use water at all, except to drink; that we don’t wear masks; that we eat MREs, which they don’t even know about but are disgusted by after a Google search; that we make $15.00 an hour, which is less than the starting wage advertised by several fast food chains; that we don’t get paid when we sleep, even if we’re spiked out deep of the wilderness, miles away from any other human, setting up our bed roles in the middle of a cold ash pit, everything around us already having burned.
That last one is always a favorite.
“Really?” people ask. “You sleep in ash?”
“Yes,” I say. “We sleep in the black because it’s the safest place. There’s nothing left to burn.”
“What’s it like?” they ask.
“It’s like sleeping on the moon.”
The fact that there is such a disconnect between the basic reality of our work and the public’s understanding of it is not unique to our industry. I have no idea what the day-to-day conditions and operations are like for workers of countless occupations. What is it like to work in a poultry factory? Do train engineers get paid well? Do telemarketers have access to health benefits? What is it like to be a taxidermist? What about a paparazzo? Or a local television station receptionist? I simply could not tell you.
However, when it comes to wildland firefighters, there is something particularly strange about the public’s misconception of our labor and our lives. This strangeness arises out of the fact that, every summer, wildland fire takes over the news and is front-and-center in the public eye. It’s like the Olympics, but more frequent, more devastating, and more controversial.
Is the rise in fire activity being caused by global warming? Is it due to decades of bad policy and forest mismanagement? Is it arson? Bad luck? God’s will? And what in the Hell are we going to do to stop it?
Yes, I say. Yes. I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe. I don’t know.
Of course, what gets lost in this line of questioning is the fact that there are people already out there, on the fire’s edge, doing everything they can to slow down the destruction. You hardly ever see pictures of them. The men and women you do see likely work for a state agency, or for a city or county department, and while their jobs are essential, and their work is noble, it is altogether different from the work that a hotshot crew does.
A hotshot’s work is a bit like a trail builder’s and a bit like an arborist’s. Sometimes it’s like a conservationist’s and sometimes it’s like an arsonist’s. Some days are like a demolition derby and some are like a day spent in the garden.
Often enough, it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done, and it feels like your feet have become a gathering point for all the pain you’ve ever felt in your entire life. The whole thing is like a nosebleed or a call from an ex-girlfriend.
It’s like adrenaline, boredom, exhaustion, elation, empathy, apathy, and fear have all been rolled up and baked into one giant stale cookie that keeps showing up in your lunch every day, and that you have to figure out how to eat with a cotton mouth and a sore throat. For the most part, it tastes like dirt, but there’s some secret ingredient in it that makes it crazy addicting and keeps you coming back for more and more and more.
At some point every season, maybe at 3:00am or 4:00am, in the middle of a thirty six hour shift, we ask ourselves, and each other, why we choose to come back to this job, year after year. During your second or third season, the answers vary. We come back because we’re proud, because we want to do the job better than we were able to do it the year before, because hard work is addicting, and because winters spent in Mexico are addicting too. But, at some point, after you realize how much the job is taking from you, both physically and emotionally, and how little monetary compensation you’re getting in return, you begin to understand just how unsustainable this way of life is, and none of those reasons continue to hold up. At some point in everyone’s career, the only reason they continue to come back is “for the crew.”
Forget the pride. Forget the work. Forget the fucking forest itself.
At the end of the day, the only thing that makes the job worthwhile is the incredible company you find yourself in, the men and women you are fortunate enough to work next to every day, and who you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, will be there for you, and will sacrifice themselves for you, without hesitation.
Later that same trip, my sister and I sat in the desert after a long day of climbing and drank and talked and fed little sticks into a little campfire.
“Are you ever scared?” she asked. “When you’re on a fire.”
I shook my head. “No,” I said. “Not really. It’s not my job to be scared. It’s my job to put my head down and work and let other people be scared for me.”
“You mean like Mom and Dad?”
I laughed. “No, I don’t mean Mom and Dad. I mean my bosses. Like my captains and my superintendent. They’re the ones who have to be worried all the time. They’re the ones who have to think about the worst-case scenarios and make sure they always have a plan for when things get weird. Someone is always posted at a lookout spot - watching us, and watching the fire, and talking with our captains and making sure we’re in a good spot. And I guess I just trust that all of that is being taken care of. I mean, at the end of the day, everyone is responsible for him or herself, and you have to maintain a pretty high level of awareness because anything can happen. Like the tree you’re standing next to might have just had its roots burned out and the right breeze could come along and tip it over. So, you have to be aware, but you also just have to put your head down and work too.
“The reality is that I can work for hours at a time without having a good idea of what the main fire is doing. And that’s not ideal, but I don’t worry about it because I trust my captains and I trust my superintendent, and I trust the people around me. I know they’re looking out for me and I know they’ve put in the years and that they have the experience to make good decisions in difficult situations. So, no. I’m never really scared out there. I know I have people looking out for me, and they’re people that I trust.”
I didn’t say anything else after that. I felt like I had been rambling and I didn’t know if what I had said made sense or not. I don’t remember what my sister said in response, and I don’t know if she was comforted by or understood what it was I was trying to tell her. I just know that, after a while, she fell asleep, and I laid in my sleeping bag, staring up at the sky and at all of the stars, and I thought how lucky I was to spend so many nights underneath them.
That was more than four years ago, and, since then, I’ve fought many more fires and spent many more nights out under the stars. Still though, I have so much to learn. I don’t have as much experience as I’d like, and there are countless situations that arise and leave me wondering what it is I should do. Despite this, another fire season is upon us, and I find myself in the position of having more experience than many of the people on my crew. This past winter, we lost one of our captains and both of our squad bosses. After a combined forty something years spent as hotshots, they are moving on to better paying, less back-breaking work. I’m thrilled for each one of them, and I know the moves they are making will lead to a better work / life balance and to a better quality of life for them and their families; but I recognize the fact that their leadership and experience are impossible to replace and that their absences will make my job more difficult and more dangerous.
During the 2021 fire season, we had twenty people on our crew. This year, we will have just as many, but nine of them will be first year hotshots, and our cumulative experience will have dropped by nearly fifty years. This problem is not unique to our crew. The “brain drain” - a.k.a., the rapid departure of experience and leadership among wildland firefighters - is the single greatest threat the federal wildland firefighting workforce is facing right now. As more and more experienced firefighters tender their resignations and move on to other jobs and other agencies, early career firefighters are being asked to fill more roles and take on more responsibility. This is leading to less effective crews and more dangerous working conditions.
I go into this fire season knowing that I will be asked to fill the role of a person whose knowledge and experience I cannot match. I will be responsible for things that I am not comfortable with, and that I would not have to be responsible for if so many people from last year’s crew had not moved on. I will do the best I can and I know that everyone on my crew will be there to help and support me, just as I will be there to help and support them. But it’s impossible not to reflect on the conversation I had with my sister, only a few years ago, and realize that the people I was talking about then – the people that were looking over my shoulder, who I trusted, and who I knew were keeping me safe – are now mostly gone.
It’s as if all our guardian angels decided enough was enough and flew off to faraway lands, out of the smoke and away from the fire.
There is no way to replace them. The only option is to go back to work and do the best we can, even if we’re more scared now than we have ever been before.