Sitting here, I stare at my retired hardhat; scuffed up and damaged, it is a constant reminder that this career comes at a cost. Speaking of sacrifice and hardships is not something that comes easy to me; I think this is a common notion among wildland firefighters. Perhaps that’s why the struggles associated with this line of work have gone unrecognized and unrectified for so long. Five years ago if I had been asked why I sacrifice so much for a job, I would have simply said that I’m doing what I love. The truth is I don’t believe it’s often that we’re explicitly asked to make sacrifices; we’re only asked to prioritize an emergency rather than personal stability. Reinforced with the idea that being a wildland firefighter is a calling rather than a choice only makes it harder to alter those priorities when the call comes in.

This all changed when I awoke on the ground, confused, listening to a medical incident report of a firefighter struck by a tree. 

Cumulative stress, cumulative fatigue, a need for overtime, and a desire to be where the action is happening are things which all wildland firefighters can relate to; and all things that led to an early morning mistake. Being the foreman on a type 2 IA handcrew comes with much responsibility. The crew had been bounced around from fire to fire and from days to nights with exhausting frequency that season. Fatigue and morale were a constant concern. After an especially dynamic roll, we returned home hopeful to get some reset. But the nature of this work is unpredictable. And at 0130 hours the next day I got a call from dispatch; “resources on-scene of a new fire are requesting the handcrew, can you respond?” I didn’t hesitate. By 0430 the fire had been contained; a hazard tree was identified near the heel but was close to a powerline and expected to stand long enough for a more qualified faller to arrive. We started mopping up: ops normal. I knew where the tree was, I knew that it would eventually fall. It wasn’t until weeks later as I processed what had happened that I began to understand why I was anywhere near it when it did. I had been mitigating risks for the crew and myself all summer, not only physical threats but personnel issues, group fatigue, decline in morale. By that morning my brain was tired. I could no longer distinguish a real threat from a perceived one. Call it normalization of deviance, but I had seen a thousand hazard trees before, why should this one be any different from all those that fell into the black when no one was around? 

I came-to in a daze. If you’ve ever passed out before you know the feeling.

Why was I on the ground? Why was someone holding my head? Where was I? Who was I?!

Slowly at first, then all at once, I knew: I had been hit by a tree. It was soothing actually, to answer the EMT’s questions, to wiggle my fingers and toes and to understand that I wasn’t paralyzed. After the visit to the hospital the FMO of my district was going to take me home, but I insisted on seeing my crew first. After watching me get carried off the hill on a backboard I needed them to see me walking. I wasn’t prepared for the emotions that were in store for me. As I sat at home the next day, I ran through the events over and over and over. Not only those leading up to the incident, but the aftermath. The call home was heart-breaking; hearing the fear and worry in my mom’s voice nearly broke me. Yet the worst was listening to my crew speak about what they had experienced. Guilt plagued me. How could I, as a leader, make such a costly decision? I was determined not to let this be a career ending event, but a turning point.

I could no longer afford to prioritize the work over my mental wellbeing. I understood now that doing so is a deadly mistake. 

Last season I detailed with a hotshot crew where personal values were often a topic of discussion. Admittedly, I wasn’t prepared to answer the question when asked what mine were, and I wasn’t alone. Determining our values all comes down to the “why?”. Why do I come to work every day? Why do I want to be a leader? This is true in all aspects of life, but when a career demands so much of us, it is even more critical to ask yourself why you do it. As weeks passed and my injuries healed, I came around to a new perspective. I could no longer just uphold the status quo; I needed to make changes for myself so that someday, hopefully, I could affect real change in the wildland fire community. From day one, firefighters are inundated by a decades-old, deeply established culture (albeit slowly changing), of “embrace the suck”. This job is not a comfortable one; it’s hot, dirty, arduous, often monotonous, and there is no changing these things. What can be changed is the mentality that we must be firefighters first, and individuals second, or that life actually stops in April and starts again in October. When first starting in this career most folks understand that they’ll be sacrificing weekends, missing birthdays and weddings; starting out it almost feels natural and makes sense, until it doesn’t. There comes a point when you realize just how much this career can take from you, and at that point you need to have the fortitude and support to change the terms of your commitment.

There is no work-life balance, there is only life.

After having this change in perspective my supervisor and I made changes to the crew. We encourage people to take days off when needed, to not miss those weddings or family vacations. We need more than 20 names to fill our manifest, we need 20 mentally, physically, and emotionally fit firefighters. I come to work every day now because I value being a part of this changing culture.  

I appreciated the leadership on that hotshot crew for asking me what I valued and encouraging me to look within myself to find an answer. It took a near miss and several extra years to even begin understanding what motivates me in this career. Sharing my experiences, inspiring others, and working to improve the culture are very high on that list. I’ll never ask a new firefighter what they’re willing to sacrifice for this job, or what they’re willing to risk; instead, I ask, “what are your values?”