I have witnessed people have vastly different reactions to the same fire season with the same crew. Some found the season to be a transformative experience, a truly once-in-a-lifetime six months. Others found it dull and a waste, or even worse, a mistake. I always wondered how could two people, on the same crew, have such drastically different reactions? The answer lies with the mindset each person brought to the crew when they arrived on Day 1. We all carry expectations, hopes, and, well, fantasies even, of what the fire season will be like. How a person squares reality with their expectations determines how satisfied they will be with their fire experience.
Just to be clear – You don’t control who will be on your crew. You don’t control the weather. You don’t control what fires you will be dispatched to. You don’t control what assignments you will have on the fires that you do get dispatched to. When for the first time, you watch a fire blowout through a canyon, or race through the canopy of a forest, you will appreciate how little in life you do control when you’re in this business.
The only thing that you do control is how you will react to these events. Will you choose to remain positive and upbeat despite some bad luck, or adversity? Or will you wallow in your misery? Will you complain to whoever will listen? Or will you look at every experience as a challenge to be overcome, as a unique life experience that offers something to be learned from?
On paper, the fire season is short. Six months at its longest. 180 days or so. But believe me, you will pack a year’s worth of life into that time period. Don’t waste this experience. There are millions of people, who aren’t strong enough, or well enough, to even consider this job. You are lucky. You are fortunate. And just because you’re not on CNN every day, carrying a beauty queen from a burning cabin, doesn’t mean you didn’t have a good day. Keep that in mind always.
Welcome the Opportunity to Meet New People
Fire crews are melting pot of cultures. Outside of the military, you won’t find the mixing of people from such varied backgrounds anywhere else. You will work with Native Americans who were raised on reservations and rancherias. You will work with rich kids from the east coast who went to Yale. White people. African Americans, Hispanics, Asians – the dream to be a firefighter spans race, gender, and ethnicity. You’ll work work with people who have spent time in prison. You’ll work with people who were born and raised in the mountains, and people who have literally never spent a night in a tent. You’ll work with 18 year-olds and folks in their fifties, all on the same crew.
Honestly, this was one of my favorite parts of the job. Firefighting gave me the opportunity to get to know people from just about every walk of life imaginable. Groups of people that, were it not for fire, I might never have had the pleasure to get to know. I will always be grateful for that. While you might not remain in touch with those folks after the season ends, you’ll carry an appreciation for who they are and what their values are for the rest of your life. You’ll be a better American because you have sat in the dirt, with ash on your face, and eaten a terrible MRE with a guy on your left who went to Dartmouth and a guy on your right who didn’t finish high school. That’s the fire world. At the end of the day, all that matters is if you swing your tool hard all day. If you do that – people will respect you. If you embrace all the different types of people you’re going to meet as an opportunity to learn more about different ways of life – you have the right mindset. You’re going to enjoy your first fire season, and all the fire seasons still to come. And honestly, you’re going to be better prepared for a life after fire as well.
Learn to Embrace the Suck
I came across this phrase on a GORUCK Patch a few years back, and I love it. I love it because, as a Philosophy major, I love a clever shout-out to Stoic philosophy. But even more than that, this phrase summarizes the mindset you need to have. You’re going to have times where you literally sit around all day. You’ll feel like you did nothing. The highlight of your day will be playing cards and counting clouds. That is just as much a part of firefighting as cutting hotline. No one loves it, but it’s part of the job. Embrace the downtime to work on yourself. Read. Study. Do push-ups. Get stronger. Get harder. Or just stare up at the clouds and be thankful that you’re one of the lucky few who’s strong enough to wear the green pants and the yellow shirt.
On the flipside, you’ll have soul-crushing mop-up shifts. You’ll be roaming nuked-out moonscapes, with no shade for miles, and the sun will feel like it’s searing any spec of exposed skin. You will be hot. Tired. Exhausted. Fatigued. You will feel like a zombie roaming through the wilds of post-apocalypse America. Minutes last an eternity. Your energy will be sapped, and your motivation depleted. It is during those moments where again, you must remind yourself to “Embrace the Suck”. This is the job. This is what you signed up for. While it might be hard, remember that there are millions of people sitting behind desks, in windowless office cubes, staring blankly at computer screens, typing numbers into spreadsheets, or having meetings about meetings. You’re outside. You’re moving. You’re physically active. You’re doing your part to help your community. You embrace the suck so that the people you love are a little bit safer. You embrace the suck to begin rebuilding what has been destroyed. You don’t control your environment. But you do control your perception of it. You control your reactions to it, and you, and you alone, control your attitude.
Embrace the Suck.
Push Yourself Beyond Your Limits
Most of the people you will meet as you go through the course of your life will never be truly ‘tested’. They will never really know if, when it all goes to the dogs, if they had the courage to put their head down and go to work and get the job done. They will never know what it feels like to have people depend on them during an emergency situation. They will never experience the camaraderie that forms among people who have persevered through a harrowing journey.
Every firefighter I have ever known has had a moment in their career where they felt like they had nothing left. Mine was in Utah, while on the Lassen Hotshots. We were on a fire outside of St. George, Utah during the July 4th weekend. St. George is about 120 miles to the northeast of Las Vegas, about a 90 minute drive. Needless to say – it gets hot in the summer in St. George. One of the first shifts we pulled, I vividly recall having drank almost all my water by 10am. I had never felt so exhausted. The line cutting was hard, the heat was miserable, and I had never felt so low. It was one of the few times where I didn’t think I was going to make it through the day. So I just started thinking, if I can make it to lunch, I’ll get a rest. Just two more hours. And then we got to lunch, and I thought ok, I made it to lunch. I just need to make it to 2pm. Then, once I get to 2pm, we’ll probably start bumping out around 4pm. Then there’s only two hours more. I stopped thinking about the day, because that was overwhelming. But I could handle thinking about the next hour. About the next tree I need to limb up. Or the next pile of brush I had to pick up and chuck off the line. So that’s what I did. And I pushed myself through. While I’m no longer in fire these days, I’m still benefiting from the lessons that I learned on the fireline. There were plenty of times when I was tired, and didn’t want to fire up the computer and type. But I did. Because that’s what you learn to do when you’re a wildland firefighter. You will learn to push yourself physically and mentally past breaking points that will cause 99% of people to quit. You will learn that your body is capable of far more than the mind gives it credit for. You will learn to ignore that voice in your head that’s telling you that you’re too tired, too sore, or too weak to go on. And you will go on. As you will in everything else that you do in life. Because you will have a confidence in your abilities to overcome obstacles that very few people will ever develop.
You will be a stronger human because of your experience as a firefighter.
That is why this is the craziest job that you will ever love.