Fire is Calling?

Fire is Calling?

lifeinthewildlands

Female wildland firefighter poses in fire gear at the top of a mountain, with the mountain valley in the back ground. Mokelumne Wilderness.

After several seasons on the trail crew and working as a wilderness ranger, I decided to travel to Alaska for a field season to work on another trail crew.  The lifestyle of working in the outdoors was running deep in my blood and now I was off for another adventure in an amazing place.  I mean, it’s Alaska! Chagach National Forest, here I come!

I have many stories to share about my time there, but I want to share one in particular that almost steered me away from trails.  I had previously taken the mandatory basic fire course the year before and had completed the arduous pack test within the first few weeks I had arrived for my new job. What I didn’t realize is that the forest would assemble and organize a “pick up” fire crew, or essentially a 20-person hand crew—taking any qualified wildland firefighters, folks who primarily are in non-fire positions. 

After having several years of experience on trails and being in the best shape of my life, I knew this was something I wanted to experience.  I was extremely confident in my ability and knew I could do it.  Other trail crew members had gone out before and talked about nothing but about how much fun it was.  It was apparent that I “had to be there” to fully understand their stories.  I want to do this so bad. It sounds like so much fun!

I got my chance and before I knew it, I was on a plane flying from Anchorage to John Day, Oregon for a 14-day assignment as a type 2 firefighter!

The crew was first assigned to work a section of the fire from a spike camp to a location right off of the Snake River in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.  A spike camp generally means there is absolutely no amenities other than camping gear and a supply of MREs (as the military refers to them but really just ready-to-eat meals that will destroy your gastrointestinal system, or at least make you feel like it is).  I had never been there before, so I was excited to see new ground.  I was corralled into a helicopter a flew all the way to the spike camp. To see the fire from above was truly amazing and my excitement grew with every moment.

Once we got to the spike camp, the first assignment was to perform mop-up or, in other words, extinguish any hot areas in the post-burn area. After several days with no fire to be seen, I was beginning to think I would never see fire again. However, one day I got to assist another crew member on being the lookout which required a hike up a steep mountain to get a view of any potential signs of fire. Still no fire to be seen but the break in monotony was more than welcomed.

The view at the top of the lookout spot was breathtaking but I had made one mistake– I had brand new boots that I had only worn a few times doing trail work. I had no idea that good-fitting boots were going to be critical for sustained comfort for traveling this type of terrain. It was steep and these clearly were not the right boots. My feet were in pure agony as they started developing large blisters. After the day was over, I was trying not to hobble as each step I felt the pain. Rookie move again! I really need to stop my pride from getting me in these situations.

From there, my mental toughness was challenged but grew every day. Days were long, my feet hurt badly, it was over 95 degrees, and I was physically put to the test.  After eating nothing but MREs for the last 7 days the crew was assigned to perform burnout operations on another area of the fire. Oh, I am so happy to go to fire camp with hot meals made with real food, commissary and showers!

One day, was cutting fire line and digging trenches to catch rolling debri from up the mountain.  Suddenly, a burning log cut loose from above and started rolling downhill towards me a several crew members.  Luckily, I heard it in time and yelled out “heads up!”.  We all got out of harms way, just in time. Phew!! I mean, that log was coming straight for me and I could’ve been taken out if I wouldn’t have noticed 2 seconds sooner. My heart was pounding with adrenaline.

Not long after, the fire started to become more intense.  We were instructed to reverse tool order and head back to the safety zone.  From there we witnessed tree torching and my nerves were on edge.  What was I doing?  Am I safe here? Do I really trust the guys running the show? We sat and watched the fire continue to burn around us.  I have never experienced that kind of rush before.

As we kept working and digging line, a few days later I was super lucky and received the opportunity to light things on fire–legally! Eeek! Okay, now things are starting to get interesting!   I used a drip torch, fuzees and fired off a gun that shoots to ignite fire from afar. This is awesome, I’m getting paid to light things on fire!!  I even was forgetting about my painful, blistered feet! I felt very fortunate to get to experience this as not all of the crew members were assigned to do these things. 

As scared and unnerved I was at times, I was also having the time of my life. It might have physically and mentally pushed me to my limits, but it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

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