A question session with Mike West – Former Permanent Employee
What would you tell your 18-year-old self?
Dude, be careful! You can get killed. Also, pay attention to your health – both mental and physical. It's okay to get scared. It's okay to cry when really bad shit happens. Be kind to all your coworkers. Don't get caught up in the mob mentality. Have a good time. Observe, don't absorb. Remember what happens to you in this job and how you react to it affects other people – it especially affects the people who love you.
What does it take to be successful on an interagency hotshot crew? And how much time is dedicated to being successful in the off-season?
To be successful on a hotshot crew, having common sense is key. Obviously, show up in shape. In the beginning, just watch the experienced people and do what they do. Volunteer for the hard tasks. As the years go on, you have to step up and leave your comfort zone so you can grow.
No matter your personality, you have to have a love for the people around you. You must learn to embrace discomfort, boredom, uncertainty, and poison oak.
The off-season preparation as a temp doesn't take much time. Probably 4-6 hours of PT a week. Just don't get hurt, or drink too much, or overtrain. As a permanent, there's a lot more work required in the winter. Training, meetings, projects, conferences, etc.
How much time and effort does it take to be physically and mentally prepared for the fire season as a temporary or a permanent employee?
Well, I'd say as a temp, just PT steady at least 4-5 hours a week. I'd take 2-4 weeks off of hard PT right after the season ends to rest and heal. Just be consistent with your PTs and start to pick up the pace in the late winter. Listen to your body, though. Better to rest a few weeks than get injured and be out for three months. As a temp, the hard part is the metal transition in and out of fire season. For me, it bred anxiety and depression, as well as an identity crisis. I'd recommend finding things to do not related to fire to stay busy. Idle time was always bad for me mentally.
As a permanent, I think it takes more effort on the mental side. The physical is easy because you're going to work all winter, so you might as well PT every day. Plus, it's free gym equipment and plenty of people to run and hike with. In today's fire world, the perms are away from home a lot in the winter. You're training, teaching classes, prepping for the season, hiring, going to conferences, and doing fuels projects. It's easy to burn out. It can be like a never-ending season.
What do you love about the job?
The people. The friendships, love, and laughter were my favorite part. I loved going to cool places. I loved spiking out. I loved running a saw and burning. I loved driving buggies. I loved getting primitive and weird— primitive, meaning only caring about food, water, sleeping, and not getting killed. I loved getting filthy dirty and wiping boogers on my pants that I'd been wearing for ten straight days. I loved eating with my hands. (The gross hygiene stuff was pre-COVID. I wouldn't do that in 2020.) I loved spraying super-hot water on my poison oak and scratching it really hard. I loved growing beards and cutting my hair into a mullet. I loved walking into camp filthy after running tanks all day and glaring at people in clean clothes who didn't do shit all day but made three times more money than me. I still love knowing I can call just about any person I fought fire with, and they'd drop what they were doing to help me, and I'd do the same for them. I loved putting out fires. It was awesome tying in a piece of line or successfully pulling off a burn operation. I loved meeting members of random communities and talking to them. I met some cool people when I'd go to their towns to fight fires.
Why did you leave the Forest Service?
I left for a bunch of reasons:
- I was diagnosed with PTSD, and I didn't think I could heal from it if I stayed in fire.
- My career had a very negative impact on my family life. I found it impossible to balance fire and my personal life.
- I always wanted to be a teacher.
- The whole forestry tech/firefighter thing. No need to beat that dead horse. We all know the issue.
- I wanted my summers back.
- I think the FS could retain a lot of forestry techs with better pay and support systems. But I wasn't going to stay. By the time I decided to leave, the title of firefighter with good pay wouldn't have kept me. I was totally over it. There's a lot of fun to be had in fire, but I wasn't going to sacrifice my family relationships for it.
What are the advantages, and how does working a seasonal job fit your life?
Well, I was a seasonal from 2003-2012. It was really cool for the most part, and it was an excellent work experience. I got to travel in the offseason, and I got to work on my stand-up comedy career. I didn't have any money issues during college. I got to be a ski/snowboard bum. In my opinion, it was the ideal job for a single person in their twenties.
Do you feel you are adequately trained for what life in a fire as a forestry technician looks like?
No. I was trained physically. I was trained on how to be proficient and safe doing my job. But I was not at all prepared for the mental and emotional side of the job. When I was new, one thing I took notice of was the people who had been doing it 15-35 years all seemed really weird. My friends and I just sort of joked about it. But deep down, I could tell something wasn't quite right with some of these people. But I didn't put it together that their mental health had most-likely been damaged.
I wish I got a heads up on the signs and symptoms of mental health issues related to fire, but maybe in the early 2000s, we didn't know about it. Or perhaps it wasn't cool to talk about it. (I'm not bitter about this, but I hope there can be changes made on the educational side.)
Some of the mental health issues I've seen in fire probably aren't PTSD, but just extreme stress from the nature of the work. I think that should be talked about more too.
How does the job affect family life? How do I balance it?
It made family life difficult. I tried to balance it by leaving the crew and going to prevention and then dispatch. I tried to take fewer assignments and work less overtime. But it's hard to say no to an assignment or no to working on a day off when you have a hotshot mindset so, I couldn't balance it, which is one of the main reasons I resigned.
What's it like to deal with an injury during fire season?
I had two injuries that impacted my career. I injured my back a few weeks after the 2010 season while I was laid off. At the time of the injury, I was in the best shape of my life. I didn't handle it well mentally and developed a terrible attitude. The injury derailed my career goals. It made the 2011 and 2012 seasons challenging because I was not healthy and in constant pain. It took about 2.5 years to get back on track. I'm still bitter about the timing of the injury, and I'm angry at myself for how I handled it. For two years, I acted like a victim instead of just adapting to the situation. It wasn't until I stopped feeling sorry for myself that it started to heal.
On a fire in 2013, I dislocated my shoulder while swamping. I had to hike out about a mile. But I was able to get it back in the socket on my own before I got to the hospital. Surprisingly the FS and OWCP handled it all well. I got an MRI right away. Everything was paid for, including physical therapy. I got one bill, but I just mailed it back and said, "This ain't mine, bro." And then it magically got paid. The injury put me on light duty for two months in the middle of the season. I did all the physical therapy, and it healed alright. It has slid out of the socket a handful of times since then. It gets sore sometimes and makes weird sounds. But I'd say it's 85-90% of what it was before the injury. That injury didn't rattle me mentally as the back injury did.
I also had many minor injuries over the years; burns, insect bites/stings, etc. Random trips to the ER, but none of those sidelined me for more than a shift.
What do you lead by, and how do you stay relevant and engaged?
I like to think I lead by example, accountability, and empathy. It's vital for the people you lead to know you genuinely care about them. Show them you aren't afraid to admit your faults and ask for help. I think now I stay relevant by answering these questions – telling people my story because I'm sure there are others with similar stories, and maybe it can contribute to positive change. Perhaps somebody can learn from all the things I did wrong. I think I also stay relevant in my new career – teaching kids is a lot like a crew boss assignment. Most of the tactics that work for me are the same things I did when leading crews or squads. Kids are curious and ask cool questions about fire, and I like to tell them about it. Wildfires have impacted all my students in one way or another. I also worked with many of their parents. So, if I can tell them about fire or teach them some valuable life skills I learned in my career, then I'd say that's a win.
Right looks like this: It's a team/crew where the leader is valued as much as the brand-new person. Everybody knows what's expected of them and how to do their job. They understand why their job is important and how it contributes to the big picture and the team's success.
When things are right, individuals hold themselves accountable. The end product is clean and crispy. Something else to look for when it's right; the people laugh and smile...you can tell they love each other.