Burning Questions

While firefighters wait in the chow line at fire camps, there's a common running joke. It's about what the title would be to our memoirs on a life fighting forest fire – long, hard shifts after which you feel physically and mentally ruined lend themselves to lots of inner questions, and these questions morph perfectly into dark humor for our memoir titles.

The joke works like this…

"insert dark title here"
My life as a Hotshot

For example, I've heard titles like…

"One foot in the Black"
"Interior Burning"
"Coming in Weak and Broken"

And my personal favorite so far…

"Full Suppression"
My life as a Hotshot

The internal questions about your decision to create a life around fighting forest fires start on day one of work and never end from that point on. The voice inside asking the questions gets louder with each hard assignment; as the years go by, the questions become repetitive, but new ones continue to creep into your brain.

The questions range from mundane and repetitive like "Can my body do this anymore?" to urgent and existential like "Is fire ruining my life?" to the dark and scary, like "Can I get out of this place, is this the end?"

I can't think of many careers where you ask yourself so many questions so frequently and often without any real answers.

Maybe, that's our attraction to the gig, the never-ending self-assessments, or the fact that we are spending our time doing something that is so hard we must continuously question its necessity in our lives.

Without many accurate channels to communicate the reality of life on the fire line, my personal journal has always been the only option to portray the job and the people. The job and the people. The job isn't so hard to portray; it's the people I worry I will forget unless I document them somehow.

After all, fighting fire is a job for people persons. It's a line of work that requires excellent communication skills, and it's a home for big personalities and strong opinions.

Who would have thought? It's not really about the digging or chainsaw work or burning or mountain hiking. It's about dedicated people coming together to broker a common reality and plan during an emergent situation. That takes people and communication and all the things good and bad that comes with it.

I'd like to share the type of people I work with, and what goes on in our heads, the never-ending questions on our journey to becoming effective, brave, integrity bound public servants. I could care less about communicating the awesomeness of fire and the gargantuan tasks we accomplish. I'll leave that for the news and social media to get wrong.

What you can't see and what you can't know is inside our brains and our hearts. It's worth folks knowing because I don't see this passion elsewhere in society. And because of its novelty, maybe the reader, the agency, ourselves will better appreciate what we do and why.

So why would someone decide to take on a career as lacking in benefits as fighting wildfire? It's a good question because federal firefighters receive dismal pay, barely enough to keep afloat, in case you aren't aware. We rely on massive amounts of overtime just to pay the bills and save a little after. We aren't classified by our government as "Wildland Firefighters," rather "Forestry Technicians." The reasons for this range from wildly conspiratorial to mundane, but the folks on the ground usually agree it's an out the Feds use to control our pay and benefits.

The work is challenging, tough physically, tough on the body's systems, and mentally exhausting. The pay is not commensurate, the benefits are only temporary for many, and the only thing predictable about the hours is that they are all-encompassing.

To have a family is a great feat. Many families break apart. Romantic relationships are tough to sustain. Having a life during fire season just isn't an option. So why? Why do it?

When young people join the crew, I am equally excited for them and their future as I am sad. I am excited about the belly laughs. You won't find as many belly laughs anywhere. It's the nature of engaging in risky situations, living in close quarters, and the type of people who chose this line of work. I am sad because I don't know if they're aware yet of how undervalued they are. Of how quickly they will feel their bodies degrading. Or how risky the job truly is. Not to mention the prevalence of PTSD and ever-increasing suicide rates.

The only real answer I can ever achieve when thinking about all these questions. When trying to answer the big one. The why do it? Is that we are a certain breed of people. People who can set aside the desire for riches. People who can put their personal and love lives on hold. People who can accept the inherent risks and balance them in their minds.

These people value the experience and the challenge.

There's something inside their psyche that yearns for a higher, more meaningful, more fulfilling way to spend their lives. For most, the job can only be tolerated for a few years, but some make it a living.

What's frustrating is that more quality people would be able to make it a living if simple benefits were in place. If the higher powers that claim we are "heroes" actually supported policies that reflect that claim. In most cases, none of us think we are "heroes" or feel comfortable with that reference. But I can guarantee that all of us would appreciate policies that were at least commensurate with the sacrifice.

It's a major unknown to me whether, in my career fighting fire, the requisite changes will ever see the light of day. But for the future of this job, for the health of our forests, and the people who enjoy them, I hope some progress can be made.

As soon as this happens, we can at least answer a few of those burning questions jostling around our heads as we hike into a forest fire. We can worry about whether our minds and bodies can make it up the hill. Whether we are mitigating risk the best we can or whether we are kind to our fellow crewmembers. But at least we can set aside the questions of whether we can pay the family bills or if our insurance will cover our injuries.

We have enough questions we must ask ourselves every day to complete our duties on the fire line. It would be nice to eliminate whether we can complete our duties in life.

About the author: As a second career, Sam left his political job in Chicago and joined a Hotshot crew at age 29. He’s currently employed with an R3 Hotshot Crew. He enjoys living in and traveling in his 1985 Toyota Motorhome and fishing trips with his parents.