Choose to Do Something  

Have you ever found something that makes you come alive, something you enjoy doing, something that makes you stop for a second to take it all in while you’re busy doing it and leads you to say, “This is why I’m here?” Well, at the age of 29, I did. After eight or so different jobs, a degree in theology I won’t be using in the conventional way, many years of believing I should do what I’m talented at and follow one purpose, and a pandemic that left me unemployed and directionless, I found myself doing an online course in “Bushfire: Response, Relief, and Resilience” through a university in Newcastle, Australia, for free, of course. This was a completely random thing to do to pass the time, but it sparked something new in me.

And no, I’m not talking about fire; I’m talking about the freedom to choose.

On this course was another local South African who, after answering my question about the burning nature of Fynbos, introduced me to the Western Cape’s Volunteer Wildfire Service. This is an organisation made up of incredible unpaid humans who freely volunteer their time to fight fires and assist in prescribed burns in the various volunteer roles available. Due to the pandemic, they weren’t taking in any new recruits at that stage. Recruitment opened again in 2021, and I made sure I signed up. I wasn’t really someone who liked trying new things, let alone trying them alone, so this was a pretty big deal for me. I come from a family with five children, so one was never really without someone to do something with. I say “I wasn’t” because now I am, largely thanks to my new interest in wildland fire.

I kept showing up to training in great efforts to prove and improve myself. Training season can be really intense for a newbie, and it was for me, especially as we had to train with masks on. Around October each year, we do our arduous pack test. Now, I am 1.76m (5’8”) tall and have never weighed more than 53 kg (117 lbs), no matter how much I eat, so the prospect of having to carry 20.5 kg (45 lbs) over 4.8 km (3 miles) in under 45 minutes was daunting. They allowed us a trial pack test a few days before the real assessment, and being an enneagram six who prefers to be prepared for all things, I loved this option. About 10 steps into that test, my backpack strap broke, and I was very discouraged, but there was no option of giving up, not by my standards. I white knuckled that strap every single step of the way, which seemed like one step further from making the allotted time under the stress and pressure to do well.

I remember almost being in tears going around one of the corners because my body was burning. I had acquired a weird limp because of the strap that failed me so dramatically, which probably made it seem to the people driving past like I was reenacting the scene where Gollum frantically searches for his lost ring. The Cape Town wind was howling, I had no support, I was definitely at the back of the group, literally, and I remember thinking, “If only I wasn’t so small and skinny!” And there it began: this psychological pandora’s box was opened. I had used these words as weapons against myself in the face of something I was finally choosing to do for myself.

The well-kept graves of the once-loud comments from friends, family, colleagues, and sometimes strangers were resurrected in that moment as I became painfully aware of my limitations and self-believed flaws in my design.

I guess, maybe, if I had eaten a cheeseburger every time someone suggested, “Hey, you’re really skinny, you should eat a cheeseburger.” Maybe I would’ve been better off having listened to their words of ignorant wisdom. I remember hating myself and being at war in my mind about my predisposition to fast metabolism and genetics. I remember my mind being flooded with memories of people commenting on my weight as if they possessed some inherent right to do so: “I could snap you like a twig.” “Do you shop in the kids’ section?” “Let me see if I can fit my hand around your wrist.” “Do you not like food?” “Careful, you might fall through yourself.” “Are you sure you’re not anorexic?” “Put some meat on those bones!” “You’re so frail and fragile.” Just to recall a few... I remember thinking, “step, step, step, step” to the carefully chosen 45-minute playlist housing songs of 120 beats per minute playing through my headphones just to drown out the noise. I remember feeling shame. Shame for not being faster, heavier, or stronger. Shame for clearly struggling as much as I was and more than anyone else there that day. Shame for wanting to achieve this. Shame for thinking I could when my body clearly didn’t match the design for the new thing I wanted to do.

But I made it. I made it in the allotted time, both at the trial test and the official thing. Even if it was literally with 2 seconds to spare. There I was carrying just shy of half my weight and incredibly emotional, knowing that I had just secured my first year as a volunteer wildfire firefighter, even if it meant not being able to walk properly for three days after the test. I then ordered my PPE through the unit, as we must do, and unfortunately none of it fit. Ill-fitting PPE is not ideal when running through Fynbos, be it too short, too tight, or too loose, so the team was happy to assist me. But there was this nagging thought of, “Is it too big, or am I too small?” The narrative in my mind was that I was the problem with the PPE not fitting. It was an interesting dynamic to be faced with this demon, as it were. In order to step out into something new and something I could feel I would really find value in, I had to face a very deep pain point in my life head-on. Words are powerful. I guess the saying is true, “There’s no growth in a comfort zone, and there’s no comfort in a growth zone.”

Throughout my first season, I was so excited to learn about this newfound passion. I signed up for every fire call I could, a prescribed burn when possible, and extra stand-by shifts in efforts to keep learning from others in the unit. It wasn’t until June 11, 2022, the end of my first season and technically the start of our winter training season, that I responded to a call of a multi-day fire that was burning between Helderberg Nature Reserve and Stellenbosch. I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be involved in and contribute to the world of wildland fire in some way because of what that day meant to me. It was here that my “small and skinny” was useful because I saw the objective and knew I could knock it out of the park–or bush, in this case. The dense Fynbos stood over 3 metres (9 feet) tall, 30 years of age, and wasn’t moving for anyone– but that didn’t matter for me. I enthusiastically put my hand up, and the awesome crew leader was happy to let me go do my thing. I was on the branch, leading the way through the vegetation and heading towards the left flank. Pushing my way through branches, being able to be nimble and quick-footed—finally, it was my turn! One of the local farmers, seemingly rather impressed by all this, perhaps also as I was the only woman on the crew, asked me in his thick Afrikaans accent as we were wrapping up the day,

“Does your dad know you do this?”, to which I responded, “He does. And he is very proud of me.” 

This experience was a big deal for me at the time because this new direction meant doing and being something no one expected me to be or do. This would be a choice I’d make all on my own. It was, perhaps, the second most significant step I took in stepping outside of the confines of my upbringing, the narrative of my life, and the limitations in my head from the many voices over the years. And although these limitations still exist in my head and continue to trouble my mind on odd occasions, it is definitely something I am beginning to take control of, and when someone mentions something about my body that I feel is unwanted, I'm starting to highlight to them the importance of thinking before speaking. However, the limitations are very real in my physical body too. These are limitations I don’t speak about because, being so skinny, it’s not apparent I would struggle in any obvious way, so people only express unasked opinions, obvious comments, and small-minded ways of thinking when they see me on the line. Contrary to assumed belief, I naturally struggle to put on weight, as I've mentioned. With the genetics I have and a fast metabolism, I haven’t cracked the code to what my body needs to gain weight just yet. It’s beautifully poetic that after all the comments I’ve received about my body and weight for the greater part of 20 years, I am now pursuing something that is so physically demanding, and three years later, I’m still here and loving it. I’m not sure where we went wrong as a people to raise humans who feel they can render comments about another person’s weight, let alone other things that have nothing to do with them, but what I’ve been on the receiving end of has remained in my mind. In all honesty, as a means to cope with all this, my mind projects to me a Ruthanne who is larger and stronger than what I actually am, likely because I hate feeling useless, weak, and skinny, so when I see a picture of myself, I am reminded that I am “so skinny.” While I don’t play victim to my body, I am merely expressing the reality of my mindset every time I respond to a fire. Hidden behind the excitement, adrenaline, and anticipation of doing what I love is my silent hope that my body and mind will work together and embrace the new narrative that I am able. I bring what I bring best to the unit.

So, what’s not very obvious to people is that underneath this skinny or slender exterior is a struggle with chronic left leg and glute pain and discomfort for the better part of a decade. I started to notice that I couldn’t sit cross-legged without being unable to stand up again because my leg had “died,” as they say. I’d have to wait for my leg to feel like I could put weight on it again before I could move. I couldn’t sit or lie down for too long, and don’t even get me started on the creativity it takes to sleep sometimes. It then finally clicked that my collar bones are not aligned, nor is my ribcage, so perhaps there was something going on for years that my body, muscles, ligaments, and all of it had basically adapted to as best it could. When the scan clearly showed an inward rotation of the left hip bone, thus explaining the difference and struggle, at least in my mind, it was downplayed by the surgeon. After that initial assessment in 2010, I never did anything about this pain because no one, not even the surgeon, seemed to believe it was troubling me so much. Well, my family did, but we trusted the opinion of the surgeon. Being raised to listen to authority, I did so, respected the opinion and belief of the older person, and slowly but surely began to mentally detach from my own body and deny the reality of the pain and discomfort. Which, looking back, was a very deep and personal violation of my body in the form of self-abandonment. This little child-like voice in my head would say, “It hurts. Something must be wrong”... I silenced it because I had never learned to stand up to comments about my body. I always just took it. I never learned that my body was mine to have ownership of.

Years and years of predominantly negative comments about my body caused me to reject myself. If people weren’t judging how skinny I was, then they would be envious of my weight. Being painfully aware of my size, I never cared enough about my body to take it seriously. I tried a few approaches, like physiotherapy, a biokineticist, a chiropractor, dry-needling, prayer, yoga, and massage therapy, but there was no real guidance or plan to improve on the state of whatever is going on. There was no one saying pain is not normal. No professional took it or me seriously. So, I carried on living and believing pain is normal, and I pushed the whole issue aside. I was raised to believe in sacrifice and putting others first, which largely accounted for the ease it took to ignore my own reality. I was raised in service, which in this case is a positive thing because it brings me to the fireline; however, the flipside of that can be self-neglect due to that service, as if that is somehow heroic. It’s not. But if you knew me, you’d know that I do not enjoy being this slender. I do not enjoy not being able to put on weight yet. I do not enjoy being so empowered by something I want to do and having a body that doesn’t always align with that, or at the very least makes it difficult to achieve and enjoy sometimes. I do not enjoy the trauma I have to heal to be able to immerse myself in this field in the capacity that I want to. And as soon as that plays in my mind, someone will surely remind me what a “blessing it must be to be so skinny.”

If there is one thing about me, though, it is my determination. And as of March 2023, after experiencing the first international WTREX (women’s prescribed fire training exchange),

I am now the one taking myself seriously. The mental switch has been flipped, and I will implement steps towards taking control and ownership of my body as much as I do my mind.

It’s been a wild five years deciding who I want to be and what I want to do right now, but wildland firefighting has been a great guide in my life and has kept me grounded through many turbulent events. Entering this field has been one of the most enriching decisions of my life. This has also brought me to an issue that has become close to my heart.

This newfound love for wildland fire has a downside when it comes to employment opportunities in South Africa. In relation to our current social, political, and economic crisis, and, granted, everyone is struggling, opportunities are few and far between, so I volunteer as a wildland firefighter instead. Why do we need volunteer agencies here? Because without us, there would probably not be enough personnel to fight the fires and assist at the prescribed burns in the way that we do. There are great wildland agencies and fire protection associations here that are employed and do good work, but as it is globally too, we still need our wildland volunteers to bridge the gap. We have an incredible group of volunteers, that’s for sure. How we operate is that we have to self-fund as a NPO and rely on public and corporate funding to help us do what we do. We pay for our own PPE as volunteers, and we are constantly doing fundraising activities through quiz nights, mall activations, events, scout visits, and marshaling at marathons. We go through training every year to re-qualify for our respective roles within the unit. This always happens “out of season.” Training for wildland firefighters consists of attending five sessions, which are made up of hikes and scenarios. Scenarios are where we simulate a fire call and have an opportunity to practice radio communications, hand signals, pump operation, hoses, GPS navigation, teamwork, and so on. After we’ve completed five training sessions, we are then evaluated on the above, including theory in the form of the 10’s and 18’s, LACES, and other fire principles within a certain time frame. And let’s not forget about the pack test, too. It’s safe to say that we are very well trained as a volunteer organisation, and that is a reputation we are proud to have. Training season spans about five to six months, and once we’ve ticked all the boxes and passed our evaluations, we are then qualified to respond to callouts and deployments. As a volunteer NPO, we are not the first point of call. The system is such that our volunteer unit is usually the last resource to be called out simply because the paid wildland firefighters get called out first, as they should. When we see reports of fires, we sit anxiously by our phones waiting for the “ping,” or usually an appropriate alarm sound for some, to alert us that we are needed, because after all, we just want to help. When the fire call comes out, we need to respond to it with our respective ETA’s at the fire base. This call comes out via SMS or WhatsApp. The call can either be an emergency, in which case being assigned to a crew is on a first-come, first-served basis when you get to base, or it is a planned dispatch for which we usually break into a day crew and a night crew and have shifts of about 12 hours+. Being a volunteer unit, we like to ensure all volunteers have the opportunity to volunteer in their respective roles. This means that just because you may respond to a callout, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you will be assigned to a crew. While this approach is understandable on a certain level, it can naturally leave those of us who’d like to make a career out of this feeling benched, as if our commitment and drive need to be diluted for the sake of fairness. But this is all part and parcel of being a volunteer, I guess. A few of us just wish for more opportunity.

With that, I want to turn my attention and energy to creating paths for opportunities abroad, for which there are close to none for international wildland employment from a volunteer background. No one seems to hire internationally for wildland firefighters. This is not a job listing you can apply for, and as we know, it is also rarely an occupation that receives the recognition, pay, and attention it deserves from local governments and agencies, even though the reality of wildland fire is global and increasing. The number of volunteer wildland firefighters is also greater than the number of employed wildland firefighters globally. What are we doing with those resources?

Our South African passport, otherwise known as the green mamba, was ranked 51 out of 105 in 2022. This impacts any prospect of a work visa in countries where working in wildland fire management would be beneficial to a career path. If I want to go to Canada, for example, I need a visa. To get that visa, I need Canada to “need” to employ me. The same process applies for Australia and the US.

So, what does this skinny woman with a heart for positive change and a desire to try to do something about the evident gap, living in a country in a political and financial crisis with a limited access “visa required” passport, do to create employment in wildland fire elsewhere? The path is not entirely clear, but I am choosing to try and do something.

I’m working to start conversations and hopefully join some, and I am doing this with the support of the volunteer unit and amazing people I’ve met in fire internationally. We are only as limited as we believe ourselves to be. Many significant things have come to light for me since March 2023, and I can only hope to start conversations that will generate discussions around global wildland firefighter employment and figure out how to facilitate a different process for hiring individuals or international volunteer groups when crisis comes, and crisis will come.

Imagine how impactful it would be if we could unite volunteer wildland firefighting efforts globally. There must be room for opportunity to facilitate international training programmes, exchanges, emergency volunteer assistance, or employment opportunities for volunteers like me to sign up to globally. I would love to be able to go back to my all-girls high school one day as a paid wildland firefighter or working internationally in emergency management and speak about a profession that gets very little mention. I would love to stand there and present them with international training opportunities, not because a country necessarily needs more wildland firefighters, although it is starting to seem that way, but because they deserve to know that if they resonate with the energy this industry gives me, someone who never really fit in, who always enjoyed being in the background helping to get things done, someone who loves hard work and being outdoors, that there is a place for them in the world too. I would love to do this alongside strong women and others who are working to bring respect to this workplace of wildland fire. I am naturally a supporter of the underdog and those who do work in the background, I guess from always feeling that way myself.

A friend highlighted to me recently that there are a lot of “we’ll see what happens” in my life now. This is a space that encourages me. Life is simply a collection of the choices we make. I am choosing healing, strength, growth, and change. I am choosing me. I am choosing to do something on my part in the global wildfire community.