I recently dropped everything to fly across the country and attend a reunion for the hotshot crew that I had worked on several years back. Making the time to go proved difficult because life schedules are complicated and I’m busy, but, we’re all busy. That wouldn’t be a valid reason to miss the reunion for this crew, with these people, which only happens every ten years. No, missing the reunion wasn’t an option. Afterall, these are my people. But how they came to be “my people” is something to reflect on.
Obviously, a huge part of it has to do with the nature of the profession. To start with, there aren’t many job descriptions which include dropping groups of humans into remote parts of the wilderness for weeks at a time to work, eat, and sleep together in a high-risk environment, but that is a wildland firefighter’s reality in a nutshell. That reality -as intense and relentless as it can be at times- creates camaraderie among firefighters that is second to none.
It develops because of the high stakes decision making, and absolute trust that occurs on a daily basis. It stems from time spent mopping up, and gridding side-by-side. It has to do with driving for countless hours around the country together, and also learning what each person does/doesn’t like to find in their lunch. It comes from accepting dares, bestowing nicknames, and being doubled over in bouts of genuine laughter.
Of course, the work itself helps to build the team; suffering together through line digs and horrendous hikes will naturally create a bond of mutual respect, but it’s the moments in-between that are actually more crucial to camaraderie. Sitting in a comfortable silence or telling stories around a warming fire, talking about off-season plans, sleeping next to each other under a sea of stars, discussing the methodology of bee keeping; whatever it is, it’s consistent connectedness.
We refer to ourselves as fire family with great intention because we aren’t close friends, that would actually be quite the misrepresentation. The term family signifies a closeness, but it also encapsulates the ruggedness of human relationships. Family members understand that they have an unspoken obligation to one another. You may not always like all of your family members. You may have to bail one of them out of jail, call them out on their shit (or vice versa), or quite literally talk them down off of a ledge. That’s real. And that’s us, true and gritty.
But then, there’s the other side of family. Where the sound of someone’s laugh can instantly conjure up pure joy, or when inside jokes are so deeply rooted that they’ve essentially become their own language. There’s a familiarity so profound that you can read a person’s mood just by tone of voice, and recognize someone by their stance from 50ft away. We know one another’s rhythms and daily rituals inside and out. It’s a connection that’s all about eye contact, firm handshakes, high-fives, and real hugs. It’s telling people how you feel because you’ve learned the hard way that people can die before their time in this job, so it’s best to leave no words unspoken.
Just as every person is born into a family with immediate and extended family members, the fire family is much the same. We are collectively “raised” in our smaller tribes (crews), where we’re taught to “do for the crew, before you do for you,” but we’re all related and we all learn that the core values of firefighting; Duty, Respect, and Integrity, are a way of life. That being said, the fire family doesn’t let much slide.
We have high expectations for ourselves and the people around us, but on the flip side, it’s hard to find a more supportive group of folks anywhere. We root for one another. We take care of our people, and our people’s people. When someone gets injured or worse, we’re there to meet the need. We’ll split firewood, make meals, remodel houses, give rides, and donate money at the drop of a hat because the fire family doesn’t leave our people down and out, we pick them up and bring them with us.
The job requires teamwork, because no one person can do the work of a whole crew. We need each other out on the line to accomplish our mission, and in daily life we need one another to help navigate “normalcy.” We’re our brother/sister’s keeper in more ways than one, which is as much an honor as it is an awesome responsibility.
It’s difficult to encapsulate our connection through the written word, because more than anything, the fire family is a palpable yet intangible sense of knowing that runs deep within all of us.
So, getting back to the hotshot reunion… from the second I saw “my people” everything felt exactly the same as it had always been in the best way possible. We spent two days having excessively good times telling stories, belly laughing, joking around, and having heart-to-hearts. It felt like time went by in a flash and before I knew it, we were parting ways again. Even though the time felt fleeting, we made sure to have -all- the fun while we were together.
If I could wish anything for the upcoming generation of firefighters, it would be for them to take note of the seasoned folks around them, and continue to carry on the traditions that keep the fire family strong. It’s no secret that there has been a deep infiltration of electronics into every aspect of life, including the fireline. The ever-sacred moments of connection that have always taken place between firefighters in the middle of the wilderness are instead being stolen away by social media updates and death scrolling. Playing card games or creating your own fun in the field is on the verge of extinction, but it doesn’t have to be.
The connectedness of the fire family is a precious gift, and if you’re in it you know that to be true. However, it requires us all to be active participants, and if we take it for granted the fire family will turn into a shell of what it once was. The good news is that the tried-and-true recipe for success is really quite simple.
Teach the young bloods our traditions.
Be open to the traditions of the fire family, and carry them with you
until it’s your turn to pass them on.
This is how we maintain an unshakable connection between one another as the world around us fragments.
This is how the fire family carries on.