When the pandemic hit in 2020, it flipped everything sideways for the fire community and most things were uncertain except for one; fires would still happen, and firefighters would have to respond.
At the time, I was in a secondary fire position which didn’t require me to take an assignment but with the position I held it felt imperative to get out there during the pandemic, plus my viewpoint was that of, “don’t ask someone else do to something that you wouldn’t do yourself,” so I didn’t consider it to be optional. I have a family that I care about and I had concerns about exposure and bringing sickness home to my family, but so did everyone else. Knowing that helped light a fire under my ass to get my boots in the dirt, and I did; as a fill-in on a Hotshot Crew in August no less!
For those who may not understand the significance of that last statement, allow me to explain. Hotshot Crews are 20-person fire crews who essentially ramble from one fire to the next for months on end and are considered to be elite in their fire experience and physical fitness level. People in fire understand that you wouldn’t want to fill in on a hotshot crew during the last half of the fire season (like I was) if you can help it, because the crew will be super dialed by then. Not to mention the hiking pace will be fast and difficult to keep up with, and it is by no means “OK” to show up as a fill-in and not keep pace with the crew.
As many of you will remember from last fire season, accepting fill-ins onto your crew was a rarity due to “module-as-one” and the desire to keep doorknob lickers out of your germ circle. Lucky for me, I was able to fill-in on a crew where I knew some folks and they trusted that I wasn’t the doorknob licking type. So, I migrated several states away to arrive at the crew’s home district, then I took a COVID test and sat in a hotel waiting for my results. But before the COVID testing site opened that morning I had a crucial stop to make.
Up the Hill
I woke up early and made way for the crew’s local PT hike. I had done this hike before (I worked on this forest in the past) and clearly remembered that it was steep and miserable with multiple false tops to boot. I also knew the timeframe I should be shooting for to arrive at the top when fully outfitted, so I geared up and got ready to endure some discomfort.
This is what I needed to do in order to mentally prepare myself for tying-in with the crew. Especially since I was coming from an area that had no real concept of what steep ground actually is and also, being in a secondary fire job meant that I wasn’t just bumping over from an engine crew or something. Sure, I was consistent with PT but being this far into the season my muscle memory for fire hadn’t even been activated yet and it needed a serious jolt.
And so, I began chugging up the hill. I fought against the stretches of loose dirt that had me taking one step forward and one large slide back. I was sweating like mad and mostly head down so that I wouldn’t have to endure the mental warfare that would be brought on by seeing all of the false tops as I progressed. My legs felt weak and shaky, and my lungs were on the verge of spontaneously combusting but eventually I crested the top.
I checked the time to find that I had just squeaked into the acceptable timeframe and immediately began flinging off my gear while simultaneously cussing about the hike, panting, and pacing around in circles. After a few minutes I finally plopped down on the ground to rest, feeling extremely grateful that I was alone on this hike rather than breaking myself back-in with the whole crew there to spectate.
After taking my COVID test and receiving a negative result I breathed a large sigh of relief and promptly headed to the helibase of the nearby Type 3 fire to wait for someone from the crew to scoop me up. Sitting there gave me time to reflect on how long it had actually been since I worked on a hotshot crew. Let’s just say it had been longer in years than it felt in my memory.
Next thing I knew some dude came rollin’ up in a crew rig telling me to hop in. I had no idea what I should or shouldn’t do with COVID being a factor and even though I had a negative test result I still felt paranoid about the potential of bringing disease into their bubble so I told him I would wear my mask for the ride. He just smirked at me and said something along the lines of, “You’re in it now. You can’t just dip a toe-in, it’s cannonball all the way!”He was right. Even with layers of extra precaution it’s completely impossible not to share germs on a hotshot crew. Everyone is touching the same stuff, riding in the crew buggies together, and inadvertently flinging sweat on one another. Nothing left to do but… cannonball!
When I arrived, the crew was staging because decisions were still being made about how and where to engage, which gave me a chance to see some familiar faces, meet crewmembers, and find a seat in the buggy. But the staging was short-lived and once we got handed our super steep chunk of ground, we began our cup-trench building bonanza. My digging muscles were definitely getting a rude awakening. Within an hour my forearms felt like they had turned to stone, which made gripping my tool about as easy as using a straw after being given Novocain at the dentist’s office. All the while, crewmembers surrounding me dug in the dirt with relentless fury. And did I mention it was steep? The kind of steep where if you fell down, you’d still be upright. That is the kind of steep we’re talking about here. But there’s always a silver lining, right? The steeper it is, the slower the crew hiking pace. All this to say I was very quickly reminded of how hard the hotshot life is.
Out of all the facets of fire I’ve worked in, I have always remained a hotshot at heart. Even still, this reintroduction took the romance right out of it and handed me my ass. So, I decided to do what came naturally after a career in fire; I suffered silently and did the work, because not only was I the “fill-in” but as it turned out, I was also the second oldest person on the entire crew! I learned this from a friend on the crew during staging (the oldest person, at 41…!) and was completely perplexed. How at 40 years old am I a fire elder?!?
I ultimately decided to keep the fact that I was their 40-year-old fill-in to myself. I was just happy to be there, even if I was… “old”. And for all the pain the job throws your way I still felt in every cell of my body that I was home.
The Fortunate One
By taking this assignment I was living out the dream of many a’ firefighters who’ve moved-up and moved-on in the fire world. The “crew days” are the epitome of why we fall in love with this profession and yet somehow, the higher you move up in the organization, the further you get from nearly every single aspect of fire that made you fall in love with it in the first place until there is nothing left but meetings, personnel actions, endless task lists, and a mountain of stress. It truly is some sort of cruel joke. If I had a nickel for every person at a higher level that I’ve heard mutter, “I would love to just be an FFT2 on a crew again”, well, I’d have a lot of nickels.
And here I was, the fortunate one. A GS-9 fill-in with the Entiat Hotshots. It was not lost on me that the only other person on the crew with that same pay grade was the Superintendent, and in my opinion, it is absolutely shameful. The Hotshot Superintendent pay grade has long been an active irritant for me because I fully understand what is being asked of a Supt. and what they give up on a personal level in order to fulfill the obligations of their position. Then on top of that is the weight of responsibility they are saddled with on a daily basis. In short, no way should the paygrade for my position be equivalent to that of a Hotshot Superintendent.… but I digress.
The Forgotten Familiar
I really was back in the thick of it again. Crew life at its finest. I got my spot in line order and with a trusty Pulaski in hand I followed the boots in front of me up the steep, steep slopes of Leavenworth, Washington.
There are so many micro-sensations to firefighting that stick with you and form career-long habits; whether it’s how you shift your weight to avoid pack-rub, the slight tilt of your hard hat for comfort, how you carry your tool as you hike, or the way you dismount the back of the buggies, those things converge with all the creature comforts you’ve meticulously chosen over time (SOCKS!) and the methodical ways in which you approach things (like your tool sharpening ritual for example) and voila! it all solidifies into one unique package of how you fight fire. Just like snowflake patterns, no two are the same. Upon re-entry I effortlessly slipped back into my field habits and it felt as if I had never left.
These are the types of things that I felt particularly honed into on this roll. We are all here doing the same job, but there is actually a wide spectrum within the uniformity. Although, admittedly you tend to see the same “characters” emerge in crew settings; like say, the guy who under no circumstances will wash his yellow all-fire-season, the first to rise, the last to bed, the suspender wearing crowd, the loner, the agro dude, the “just happy to be here” person, the deep thinker, the lifelong sawyer, the “I’ll eat anything for 50 bucks snookie”, the trendy mullet and ‘stache’ guys, the prideful chew obsessed rookie, the tough as nails fire chick, the prankster, and of course, “that guy”… All of them wandering around in the woods diggin’ in the dirt in their own unique way. Fire people really are the best people; eccentric perhaps, but salt of the earth just the same.
In the beginning of the roll we slept alongside an airstrip, which provided the opportunity (for a very limited number of us due to COVID) to attend morning briefing in person. For me it felt like a reunion. Familiar faces and longtime fire friends everywhere I turned, all working on different parts of the same fire. Sure, there were some oddities due to the pandemic but on the whole the world of fire was much the same as it always was. Of course, this was August, which meant many of the COVID strategy kinks had already been worked out, thankfully.
It’s like going with an Olympian on a training run. Slow just isn’t a tempo they can actually achieve.
Even though everything was familiar I was rusty and had forgotten a thing or two. Like for instance, the unspoken rule of eating at warp speed. And I have to say, I didn’t miss it. That and the fast wake ups… those are two crew realities I could definitely do without. In hotshot universe, this crew could be considered to have more of a “relaxed pace” for both, which is still super speedy for any normal human; it’s like going with an Olympian on a training run. Slow just isn’t a tempo they can actually achieve.
It wasn’t long before we were throwing gear into cargo nets and heading for our very own perfectly secluded spike camp high up on a ridgeline. Latrines were dug, fire rings were established, and people claimed their chunk of ground to sleep on. Fortunately for us (very fortunately) this spike camp had just been vacated by the jumpers who were kind enough to leave us a bounty of random food and gear from their cargo boxes. It was like fireline Christmas!
In the years away from crew life I’ll acknowledge that I did get older and with age comes wisdom (I’d like to think!) and thereby, habits. You know, healthy habits like say, cleaning my face/body at night and caring about nutrition. Now I was stuck trying to meld my old ways with the new. What resulted was more planning and a lot more quality time spent with baby wipes. There was also the fact that since I was last on a hotshot crew, I had given birth (to a human thank you very much…), which apparently doomed me to a life of getting up in the middle of the night –every single night- to go pee. The “Miracle of Birth” strikes again!
Our days were spent flipping-flopping between digging cup trench and cold-trailing long fingers of the fire -ensuring a perma-dirt cold trailing hand that would last much longer than the fire assignment itself- until it was time to hike back up through the baby powder/moon dust ash to spike camp. Nights were spent bundled up and huddling around warming fires telling stories and patching together culinary masterpieces as spectacular sunsets painted the sky all around us.
There is something very grounding about the crew environment. There’s an unspoken assurance that the hard things are hard for everyone, and the best memories of your life are being developed without your even realizing it
For so much of the fire world that has remained the same, it hasn’t all remained unchanged. For example, this spike out that felt like a million other spike outs I had been on in the past, are much less common. The crew told me how rare it is to spike out in the modern-day fire world. I couldn’t believe it! I sat there thinking about how much less (efficient and) fulfilling my crew time would have been if we were constantly forced to shuttle back and forth -surely on dodgy roads- to fire camp.
There’s a long-standing joke that you get paid for this job in sunsets, (because the wages are pathetic to the point of being embarrassing) but if you aren’t allowed to spike out does that mean you are now getting paid in blue room toilet visits? Or fairground cowpie pillows? Or humming generator lullabies? I suppose in some sense, the pandemic actually gave crews the opportunity to get back to their roots. (There’s that silver lining again!)
By the Blue Light
Another shift to crew life is technology. There are so many beneficial advancements to operations because of technology, like say, the ability to check the 1,000 useful fire apps with regularity, or access to maps; but it isn’t an all-around positive. Perhaps I stand alone in thinking that smartphones are an aggressive disease. A disease that has been rapidly dismantling basic human interactions, and therefore wreaking havoc on humankind (kind being the operative word there) but I would care to wager that I’ve at least got a little company in feeling this way.
I remember one night in particular; while sitting near the warming fire having a great conversation with some crewmembers, I looked behind me at the people around the other warming fire. They were surrounded by darkness and posted up next to the fire, every one of them staring into the blue glow of their phones. It took my brain a minute to process what was even happening. Watching them scroll on their phones while sitting around the warming fire as if they were someplace else entirely; well, it was the most surreal thing I’ve ever witnessed on a fire.
The technology component has now saturated everything, including the middle of the wilderness. Battery life and internet connection are very prominent concerns on any modern-day crew. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no saint here… I’m a card carrying member of the smartphone club and even though I tend to curse its existence most days I still use it -much more than I intend to- on a regular basis.
I suppose my feelings about the technology invasion probably validate my fire elder status because I’m about to start up with, “back in my day ________ !” And here we go… Back in my day we talked to one another or collectively sat in a comfortable silence. We waited around together for the cowboy coffee to brew in the morning, we played cards or came up with random contests in our down time, we talked shit to one another, and we laughed. We laughed a lot. Now, I’m not saying that at least some of these things don’t still happen on crews with regularity, but for the benefits that (soul sucking) smartphones provide in the fire environment they also have a negative effect on the depth of camaraderie that a crew develops, and camaraderie is a precious commodity.
Camaraderie is not something that can be artificially generated; it’s developed over time in the field. Camaraderie happens naturally during PT and mop-up, while holding a chunk of line, by sitting around a warming fire, riding in the back of the buggies, and by working together when things get squirrely. It isn’t quantifiable, yet it’s the most crucial aspect of a successful crew. As the fire world continues to evolve the new generation of firefighters won’t ever know what they’re missing but all us fire elders sure will, which I suppose solidifies the importance of storytelling in our culture. Somebody once told me that it’s terrible getting old when you have a memory long enough to remember how things used to be. I have to admit, that sentiment resonates with me more and more as the years go by but only in relation to the things I wish would stay the same, of course.
Somebody once told me that it’s terrible getting old when you have a memory long enough to remember how things used to be.
Speaking of this whole Fire Elder thing… I had multiple conversations a day with crewmembers who had questions about what steps they should take to in order to try their hand at Helicopter Rappelling or Smokejumping, or wondered how to push for change in the fire world, and/or how to advocate for the boots on the ground. Each conversation left me feeling humbled that these crewmembers placed value in my insight and I could see my younger (fully impassioned) firefighting self in many of them.
It wasn’t until this moment in time when I realized that I had evolved as a firefighter with how I look at things. The depth of my experiences and the knowledge I’ve gained along the way have given me a new lens to peer through and it’s much different than the lens of my younger firefighting days. I was left feeling a bit stunned about even the notion that I could have something to offer, because this far into my fire career I still feel like I have so much more to know and learn about fire.
In a quick turn of events- even with all the additional health precautions- there was a small group of us who developed “the crud.” (I suppose you can only hike through moon dust so many times before it breaks down your immune system.) Which meant we had to bump down the hill and go on what felt like a wild goose chase to find a COVID testing site. From there we spent a couple of stress filled days sequestered to hotel rooms while we awaited our results.
The obsessive thought, “What if I have COVID and exposed everyone?!?!” relentlessly circled around in my brain along with all the -WHAT IF- scenarios that could potentially follow if so. The weight I felt of potentially burdening this crew with significant financial loss, not to mention the possibility of severe illness? Well, it was heavy. Thankfully, we all tested negative and headed back up the mountain.
From that point forward the hours seemed long but the days felt short and before I knew it the assignment was over and we were back at the district refurbing gear. I managed to make it the entire roll only having to throw on my “Crewboss Hat” for those couple of days while we awaited our COVID test results, but otherwise I was free to enjoy all the best aspects of firefighting at the crewmember level, and it was everything I dreamt it would be. Having the opportunity to be back with tool in hand on an IHC again felt as if I had a wish granted by a fire genie or something.
I was incredibly fortunate to have gone out with this crew in particular; this hard working, deliberate, funny, and thoughtful group of people. They welcomed me in wholeheartedly (which isn’t always the case when it comes to fill-in assignments) and treated me like one of their own. I learned so much from crewmembers at every level of this crew and was left feeling consistently impressed by everyone’s easy nature.
You know a crew is quality when the crewmembers demonstrate vulnerability through the telling of their own experiences in order to benefit their fellow crewmembers, and I witnessed a lot of that. Openness such as this is always a direct reflection of the leadership and the environment which they foster, and in my humble opinion solid leadership will always win the day. All that, annnnd they designate a “sauce boss” every year on their crew. (We’re talking about hot sauce people!) You know they’re legit if they’ve got a sauce boss…
After handshakes and high-fives a plenty I went on my merry way and just as quickly as I had hopped into that former era of my life, I hopped right back out again.
—This is the 40 Year Old Fill-In Signing Off—
Now where the hell is that Tiger Balm…
A Huge Thank You goes out to the Entiat Hotshots!