What draws us in…what pushes us out.
I have worked for the last six years as a forestry technician in the US Forest Service for both recreation and primary fire resources. I started my fire career on the predication of making a good chunk of money in the summers while waiting for winter to start back up. At that point in my life, ski patrolling and winter activities were the main focus in my life. Over the next six summers, my passion for the work I was doing for the Forest Service began to overtake my winter interests. I began to see myself working towards a year-round position in the Forest Service.
I fell in love with the work I accomplished as a forestry technician in both fire and recreation. I loved caring for the land. Logging out trails, putting in handline, problem-solving, and being pushed mentally and physically in a dynamic landscape all created a sense of accomplishment that I had not experienced from any other job.
When I became a crewmember of Zigzag IHC, these feelings were compounded. Despite the tasks becoming more challenging and dangerous, I felt like, and still believe, I was working for a group of people that had my best interests and safety at heart. Through Zigzag and the greater IHC community, I was part of something greater. We were a group of people that completed daunting tasks with limited resources. We continued to learn from these challenges ever remaining students of fire.
In the pre-fire season months, we worked to be ready for the challenges ahead, both physically and mentally. We created a curriculum to practice operational incidents and medical incidents that went well beyond the required refreshers and reviews that were asked of us by the agency. Each preceding season left us with lessons that we wanted to pass on to new crewmembers and other modules, and we worked hard to do so.
The culmination of these shared experiences is creating forestry technicians that have so much to offer the agency. These knowledgeable workers are those that we rely on to bring different perspectives to tasks and problems. I became someone that helped to keep my crewmembers safe and work more efficiently to complete the mission. My understanding of the fire environment had become priceless.
In the spring of 2019, I was fully prepared to return to fire. I was hired as a PSE 5 in Monticello, UT district of the Manti-La Sal National Forest, on the Abajo fire use module.
It was my first-choice position for both career and family reasons. As the season approached, I learned there would be some vacancies on the crew but that the forest service was working to detail in the vacancies. I was then told that as a result of the government shutdown, my anticipated start date would be pushed back a few weeks. As the weeks passed, my start date continued to be pushed back without any real answer as to when I would be able to begin work.
In this limbo period, without a place to live yet, without the purposefulness of work, I began to reflect on the job. I went back and read my journals from seasons past. I called fellow forestry technicians that were ahead of me in their career. I called family and friends. The resounding feedback from this reflection was that it was not worth it to continue to work for the United States Forest Service. How could I have been so sure about this career path and lifestyle five weeks earlier and now be willing to let it all go?
In that period of reflection, I realized how much of my personal life I had set aside and how many dangers of the job I had downplayed and suppressed in order to rationalize the career of a forestry technician. All it took was the disruption of my personal mental timeline—my mental narrative—to realize I was not being valued for the work I was doing. In that void of compensation for the employee I had become, I had used my own personal sense of loyalty, duty, and ego to continue the job.
So far this summer, I miss fire tremendously. I frequently feel lost and disconnected without the men and women that I worked so hard with. I feel like a deserter to my fellow forestry technicians because I am not there for them in their physical and mental challenges of the season. The fact that I feel this way despite the freedom of not facing another fire season away from my family speaks to the emotional bond created and needed to justify the job.
The position of forestry technician as a primary fire resource needs to be redefined to match the needs of our public lands and our workers' needs. It has been my observation and personal experience that our field resources, our 'boots on the ground,' have been left to pick up the slack of the agencies they work for. To 'do more with less.'
Next season will bring plenty of fresh young faces to the agencies—clamoring to the prospect of making some good honest money, relationships that cannot be forged in any stronger way, and dreaming of a permanent position that will get them their first health insurance and retirement plan. They will become students of fire—they will become invaluable.
What will their employer do to retain them? To care for their mental and physical well being, to build a better agency?