As January passed and February unfolds, many of us seasonal forestry technicians know that summer will be arriving in a few short months, maybe even weeks.
This off-season has been filled with adventures, many trips to the dog park, as well as Matt, my fiancé, and I getting our fill of Vice documentaries and Netflix. For me, the winter months have also been filled with space. Space to just be. To reflect. Learn. Develop. To make sense of things, to get lost in ideas, not rushing. Being a wildland firefighter is not like any job I’ve had in the past, or ever imagined. Having space and time to reflect on this new field of work, and life itself, has been very significant for me.
People aren’t perfect.
Days don’t always go as planned.
And that’s ok.
How you play the hand you’re dealt is what matters. And that is kind of the moral of this story, how all my thoughts organized themselves.
I want to be as real as I can with you the reader. To be raw, and talk about the concepts of emotions and human interaction; and that none of us are utopian. In this I hope I was able to highlight those imperfections as I bring you on part of my journey of growing as a human being and a firefighter. The title “wildland firefighter” is viewed as heroic, associated with courage and almighty selflessness. But we are people just like everyone else. And I feel the need to express my experience with this job title, and how I’ve seen this line of work affect others.
There were quite a few times when I doubted how I wanted to present these thoughts, or if they should even be sent out into the world wide web in the first place.
You cannot swim for new horizons until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.
- William Faulkner
Ah, thank you Mr. Faulkner, ‘twas only the voice of my inner critic saying, no one else talks about this, who would care, it’s out of line!
I believe that being honest with ourselves and others is a vital step towards a greater good. I believe self-development can improve the field I work in. And I hope that this piece serves as a guide to understanding yourself, the human species, and one perspective in the community of wildland firefighting.
In the typical 9-5 job working 40 hours a week, by NYE you will have put in about 1,800-1,900 hours. That’s not factoring in commute time, sick days, holidays, etc. Honestly, I just punched those numbers out for this piece and it’s kind of crazy the amount of time we spend working every year! As a forestry tech in fire though, that’s how many hours you clock in - but in half the time. A little more or a little less depending on what kind of crew you work on and how busy the summer is. I know!! That’s a lot. And why by the end of the season, most are ready to be done and have a break from seeing the faces of people they have been with practically every single minute the past 6 months. That also means there is generally no time to do, think, or see anything else during those 6 months other than fire. In this job, “work/life balance” has unique context. *insert chuckle*
The organization of time has also changed my perception of it. In fire, there’s two parts to our calendar year. Fire season and the off-season. 6 months on, 6 months off. A bit different for a permanent employee, but in essence there are these two drastically different periods of time. During one segment all there seems to be is work, and the next you aren’t sure what to do with this wide-open schedule! To try and briefly explain this change in perception; I am grateful for all the moments in my life, no matter what section of time it falls in. Because each period of time flows along with the changing of the seasons; each hold a unique purpose and rhythm. And along with that, I have simply been more conscious of my daily activities, the love given and received, and the interconnection of everything and everyone in my life.
But ya know, sometimes there’s still bumps in the road. Sometimes we have those periods of time in life where you feel stuck, like it feels like you’re falling apart, or you’re just thinking what the f*ck is going on. Well, my second season was one of those what the f*ck times in my life. I believe there were quite a few factors that played into my roller coaster-like emotional state throughout the summer; everything happened for a reason though, and today I feel like a completely different person than I was last year, even compared to the end of the season in October.
Time was a blessing and a curse in regards to growing as a person over the past year or so. At first it was a curse - there are not many moments for yourself during the season. I would cry and be confused get angry tear up more be happy cry again love my job again then frustrated again, not being able to figure out why I was getting upset. Along with that, I felt like I had no control in how I reacted. But alas, the off-season. A blessing. An abundance of time.
The first season involved learning the basics, familiarizing myself, getting my toes wet. The second time around I sort of dove into some of the inter-workings of wildland firefighting. And at the end of the summer, reflect on my experience with it all.
Structure & Communication:
People suggested the Air Force and other branches of the military growing up, but I was always like, Nah, that’s not for me. I’m a free bird baby. The rigidity of it all never appealed to me. And after looking into my Myers Briggs personality type again not too long ago, some of the traits I resonated with all too well made me realize why I had some resentment at times during work. (I’m an ENFP by the way, “Extroverted iNtuitive Feeling Perceiving”)
Where ENFPs do not shine is in systems of strict regimentation and hierarchy, such as military service. ENFPs thrive on the ability to question the status quo and explore the alternatives, and if this is a quality that is not just unappreciated but actually frowned upon, this will not only make them unhappy, but it may even threaten their emotional stability.
Well hot damn.
Unlike other jobs I’ve held where you have multiple levels of correspondence, and was used to the fluidity in previous employment, wildland fire has a ladder of communication and authority; a handful of firefighters who have been in the service have commented on the similarities of structure and other aspects. The military and fire are definitely two different entities though! Anyways, I was used to working alongside higher management, going to networking events, and essentially talking to anyone and everyone. Then I got a fire job. So really, this in’t a huge deal. I just get frustrated (ahem, butt hurt) sometimes since I’m still at the bottom of the barrel. I know, it seems ridiculous. With time, I’ll be communicating with more people, have more connections, yada yada all those things that I love though. And my plan is to eventually complete a PIOF (Public Information Officer) task book*. Essentially, PIOF’s are responsible for communicating information about the incident (fire) to personnel on the fire, local communities, and the news media. I’m getting excited just typing about it.
What is a task book, you may ask? Task books are the evaluation tools used to earn qualifications through on-the-job training. That’s also a super awesome thing about wildland fire. You don’t need a degree or special training prior to getting into the field. You eventually gain qualifications and knowledge through experience to make a career out of it. Badass, right??
I may not like it sometimes, but the hierarchy structure is very valuable, especially when it comes to safety and accomplishing assignments. This set up is vital to ensure all resources are on the same page of who’s doing what, where the fire is at, etc. Another aspect of communication is the utilization of AAR’s (After Action Reviews). The use of them varies from crew to crew or district to district, but a lot can be accomplished and understood, even with a quick AAR after a shift or assignment. It’s a way to talk about what the initial plan was, what happened, and how we can learn from it/do better next time. And it also offers a chance to have that fluid communication across all levels of position, and have transparency amongst the in’s and out’s of an operation.
With that being said though - I will still persist in questioning the status quo and exploring alternatives. This piece is a way for me to break the mold and look at things from a different perspective.
Masculine & Feminine:
In wildland fire, it’s necessary for some of those “alpha” qualities, like taking charge and getting things done. That can-do attitude that most firefighters have lived by and still do. Those traits are what power the miles of line dug, trees snagged, and every other task that is assigned to crews. We are proud of the work we get accomplished!! That attitude can make a twenty-man crew an unstoppable force, and an initial start taken care of in no time. The masculine traits of perseverance, courage, and goal orientation are vital. But masculine traits do not translate to MACHO, I AM MAN, GRUNT GRUNT. Masculine and feminine traits have nothing to do with gender, and I think that gets confused and is not understood in the fire culture as a whole.
Our human qualities can be categorized as feminine or masculine, yin or yang. And they can also be attributed to the three Ayurvedic doshas/energies we all possess.
Below are a few images to help explain those categorizations, how we all hold those energies, and recognizing an imbalance.
The last 3 are segments of the transcript from the Higher Self podcast, where Sahara Rose talks about taking away the association of gender from our personality traits and recognizing them as the constitutes of Vata, Pitta, and Kapha (the Ayurvedic doshas).
So I wanted to have a more thorough explanation of our personality traits and masculine & feminine qualities… it has been quite a challenge to remember where I read or heard a lot of the information that’s stored up in my noggin about the topic. The infographics are not as comprehensive as I originally wanted them all to be, but I still believe it is pertinent to view our qualities as neutral or associated to energies. There are links in the Additional Information section at the end for more info on this Ayurvedic talk about doshas.
Back to fire! By understanding imbalances in our energies, you might be able to recognize some qualities and behavior that you have witnessed or taken part in yourself. As you saw in the first image: foolish risk-taking, bravado, fear, anger… those are unbalanced qualities. These are the things that can impact the results of operational decisions, the vibe and communication within a crew, as well as personal safety. And no-one likes to deal with arrogant assholes, right?
Macho culture is learned/ingrained, subconsciously following example because “that’s how it’s always been done.” An example: if someone saw another crew member completing assignments in FFT1* training, and their temperament becomes angry when they are in a stressful situation with limited information or hold themselves in a higher and machismo way - that will be learned as the way to act and ok when they follow suit in completing their own task book.
FFT1 = Firefighter Type 1
And I know for many folks completing their FFT1 task book, this may be one of the first times in a position of leadership like that. So yea, shit might get fucked up, it’ll be stressful and nerve-wracking, and there’s a lot to learn. But from that example, we can learn that: we should be understanding of others (people are learning), we can respond and not react (not just run with whatever thoughts are flowing through your mind), and that things like more leadership classes could be incorporated to ensure a healthy understanding of what leadership is (leader vs powerful position, and more than the L classes that are already in place).
No one is perfect, and with this job it can be hard to have patience day in and day out. That should not translate to excusing poor leadership or any other inefficient action due to learned behavior as the routine. One of my goals as I move forward in this line of work is to be aware of how I am communicating. To lead by example, hopefully to be perceived as a patient, diligent, strong, knowledgable, and empathetic leader and crew member. This will not be achieved though if I am not aware of myself and understanding of others.
Understanding & Self-Awareness:
People have bad days. We are all in our heads, thoughts whirling around, dealing with our own problems and analyzing the external world we interact with. A lot of men in this field might not admit it around their peers, but we all have battles whether we realize it or not. We all have “feelings”, and stir around “crazy and irrational” things. What I’ve realized these past few summers though is that a lot of guys and gals are really good at not letting others’ emotions affect them and/or hiding it very well. Or at least, they react & respond in a way that may be different from others.
For example, me. I’m not one to get angry back or start an argument when someone is unleashing their emotions into what should be a neutral conversation of direction, assignment, or feedback. And especially when I was in emotional turmoil last summer? Whew, I could not take any criticism, whether it was constructive or destructive! I got angry, but when I get mad.. I cry quietly to myself. Retreat inward.. Not productive behavior.
The point of that story was that I was in the midst of a long, internal battle, and I ended up REACTING rather than RESPONDING to situations - like taking in feedback of my work. I let my softhearted nature be the Achilles’ heel, rather than a strong quality to contribute to the team. To summarize a bit of those reactions… The feedback would be a trigger, and it hurt my ego - like I was failing, I wasn’t good at my job, and I felt like I was wrong more often than not (which wasn’t true!) And further more, I see a lot of this in people I’ve worked with or observed while on assignment.
Example: Division is a piss ant that nobody likes. This makes Crew Boss angry. Crew Boss informs Lead on new assignment in a nasty tone because Division made Crew Boss angry. Lead gathers crew to pass along assignment. Crew Member asks a pertinent question, Lead gets snappy and barks out a response. Crew Members get mad because Lead seems to be mad at them.
Someone gets pissed off because of someone else’s actions, and it just rolls on down the line, making everyone else stressed out, angry, all the feels.
At first I wondered, “Is this a natural tendency of men?”
Well no, I was taking part in the same behavior. So, is it:
The personalties of people attracted to this field of work?
I’d stand by the assumption that we all have similar views of our own success’, failures, pride, etc.
Or is it simply learned, and no one realizes they are spreading the bad juju around themselves by not taking a second to let the emotion pass and then continue about their day?
I believe the latter is the major factor in this cyclical emotional state, and now it seems like the norm. Whatever it may be though, I have goals for myself to not be apart of the behavior I don’t like. To keep developing my own awareness, and be conscious of permeating my own problems onto other people. Understanding that everyone is going through their own battles, struggling with their own ego. And to not take shit personally all the time - more on this later. #majorkey
Boundaries, Family Dynamics & Love:
The people you work with feel like family whether you like them or not. You can’t pick your family, right?? *haha*
You go to hell and back together. Laugh together. Eat spike camp food together. Drive to assignments together. PT together. EVERYTHING you do is with your crew. And because of the closeness, I realized at some point that it is hard to set boundaries. I like to share, have deep convo’s, and essentially I low-key want to be everyone’s friend if I see good vibes in them. It’s hard to be a co-worker, friend, therapist, and leader all at the same time though. Aka, my empathetic nature leads to overwhelming exhaustion if not watched carefully. Since we don’t see anyone else ever, and phone service can be crappy, what remains is your crew family to talk and vent with and be the social creatures we are.
I’m sure y’all understand the concept of work family, because we all have jobs. But damn, your crew family is something completely different. Some of the friendships made during the season carry on into the off-season, and that’s a beautiful thing. Other times, they don’t. Especially if you travel out-of-state for your seasonal job, it can be hard to maintain that contact.
You may have seen headlines about suicide rates in the world of wildland firefighting. It’s sad to read, and to hear about. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, wildland firefighters are people, too. And suicide tends to be a taboo subject in this small-town world, and we need to make mental health a normal thing to talk about, to care about it.
Here’s an excerpt from an article in Wildfire Today, written by Bill Gabbert:
Assuming for a moment that there are 17,000 wildland firefighters in the United States, approximately 0.3 percent of them took their own lives in 2015 and 2016 — a shocking percentage.
Most firefighters in general, and in particular, wildland firefighters, have a macho, can-do attitude, regardless of their gender. Just give them an objective, and they will figure out how to get it done, with little or no outside help. This can carry over into their personal lives and mental state. When the fire season is over their environment may shift from being part of a close brotherhood working with their buddies for long hours toward a common goal, to something completely different. The reduction in adrenaline and accomplishment of important tasks is more difficult for some to adjust to than others. Suicide rates can rise during the wildland fire off-season.
I hadn’t read the above article prior to writing the bulk of the “masculine & feminine” section, but this shows that misconceptions about mental health and our human nature can be harmful. We have intimate crew families, as well as the “big small-town” community of wildland firefighting to help each other out. Yet the same qualities that lead us to success in the field hinder our ability to be human and express our needs in the off-season.
And here’s an except from an issue of Two More Chains, a quarterly publication from the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.
Shawna [Legarza] continues, “As wildland firefighters, we’ve always been people who like the hard assignments. But, you know, over time these tough assignments, these things that we see and do in our careers, can start to wear you down. What I think we can do moving forward is have more awareness about the fact that it’s OK to ask for help if you think you need help.”
More about Shawna Legarza in Additional Information at the end.
I think this job tests our strength not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. I don’t have the magical spell to normalize the discussion of mental health, or to make people look inward and try to understand how they’re wired. But I’m hoping that leading by example and not letting the topic be dismissed with jokes is the first step. And that it’ll seem easier and more natural to reach out to each other when we aren’t feeling our best. We pick each other up while we work, and we should do the same when we’re back at home.
Switching gears a bit to something I’m working on…
Appreciating (and making) time with myself.
This off-season, Matt and I have had a lot of time to spend with each other, which is amazing since he is a hotshot during the summer so our time together while employed is few and far between. But the love-bug that bit me when we met was an unfamiliar experience for me. I don’t know if it’s a Virgo thing, or a combination of other characteristics, but I’m either out - or ALL IN. That goes for love, too. To sum up the feels, I realized that last season I wasn’t fully appreciating our time apart; for us to grow and gain experiences, and then come together in the fall to learn from each other. So through the off-season, I have been learning to appreciate the joyous days we spend together, as well as appreciating the time I make for myself. Not that I never loved time with myself prior to now; this new chapter in my life required me to take a step back and understand that I needed to adapt the boundaries in my romantic relationship and work relationships. To allow for space. Space to just be. And that those relationships are going to ebb and flow throughout the year, and in different ways - back to that unique work/life balance I mentioned earlier. I need stay accountable and show myself some self-love (and not just be preaching it all the time). ;)
That also includes finding a balance with work relationships. When the summer comes to an end, it can be refreshing to have the change of pace; yet a bit drastic when you think about all the people you were talking to and laughing with every day… and suddenly don’t. Like in the excerpt from Wildfire Today, you go from a close-knit environment to something completely different. Some relationships will stay strong with frequent communication through the winter. With others come guidance or commenting on social media posts periodically. And you may not speak with someone again until your first day back in greens for the year, asking about each other’s off-seasons and how things have been. So I believe it is important to make YOU yourself happy and first priority, and focus on the joys & tribulations of other relationships and material pleasures second. You need to be comfortable with yourself. That makes the transition a little less of a disastrous tsunami, and more like the natural rhythm of high and low tides.
I fortunately have not lost someone close to me to suicide, nor have I experienced feelings of suicide; so I am no expert and hope I am not misinterpreting information on the subject. But from what I’ve observed and read, I believe it is important to talk about how you’re feeling during the off-season, at a time when you don’t have that camaraderie the majority of us in this line of work crave and treasure. Because being comfortable by ourselves can be a hard thing to do; we are social creatures after all. We need to find comfort within ourselves. Nourish ourselves. Love ourselves. And we need to love each other. Help each other. The fire community is an amazing network of people, and I think we should all continue to show up for one another, maybe even more so than we already do. Even if you’re afraid to reach out to someone - do it anyway.
Shit & Giving a Fuck:
The old saying goes that no matter where you go, there you are. Well, the same is true for adversity and failure. No matter where you go, there’s a five-hundred-pound load of shit waiting for you. And that’s perfectly fine. The point is to find the shit you enjoy dealing with.
- Mark Manson, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”
On the last off-forest assignment of the season, one of my crew members had recently downloaded The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck audiobook, and we started to listen to it at the end of a shift. I was hooked, and delved into the kindle version on my phone whenever there was down time. This book was the katalyst to thinking about my own mental health with some clarity, in a new light; it was essentially closing out the what the f*ck time in my life. Because it was the EGO fucking shit up and making my life seem like hell. In reality, life was pretty fantastic minus a few piles of shit! This snowballed into a stream of experiences and people and things and thoughts that led me to the views on my Self and mental health I hold today.
The quote above is one of my favorite parts from the book. No matter what duty station you work at, what kind of crew you’re on… There is always going to be the smell of shit, and you’ll probably step in it at some point. But what matters is that stepping in shit isn’t a big problem unless you make it one. No matter how you make money, what position you hold, there will always be shit - but it’s up to you to look past it and be grateful for the pristine yet smelly pasture you work in.
And, what shit you are willing to put up with? Are the sacrifices worth while, are boundaries acknowledged, do people respect your values, do you respect the values of the organization you work for? As Manson would probably say: what shit is worth your fucks?
There’s no such thing as not giving a fuck. You must give a fuck about something. It’s part of our biology to always care about something and therefore to always give a fuck.
The question, then, is What do we give a fuck about? What are we choosing to give a fuck about? And how can we not give a fuck about what ultimately does not matter?
- Mark Manson, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”
A lot of the shit I was fretting about and thought was horrible - in reality, it was me giving too many fucks about the situation. Which left me drained most of the time. Earlier I mentioned that many people seem really good at not letting others’ emotions affect them; people have told me and I’ve learned through experience… you just need thick skin for this job. There’s a lot of shit begging for energy and attention, but you have to be able to discern what deserves your fucks. Picking battles, thinking about what really matters in the grand scheme of things. I thought I had a good handle on looking at the big picture and what holds value at the end of the day, but being a wildland firefighter magnifies this capability (or lack of) - and I am thankful for that. I’m a stronger person because of this job; physically, mentally, and emotionally. I can step back and decide what I should take personally or not internalize. I have more confidence in my ability to perform tasks, lead, and communicate with others. I’m more outspoken in my beliefs and boundaries, professionally and personally. Don’t get me wrong, I still make mistakes and struggle to keep communicating. But those are skills I will keep developing and working on every day as I continue a career with fire and living this crazy wonderful life on planet earth.
As you can see, this piece flowed a bit differently than my previous blog posts about fire. And I am BEYOND excited to head into my third season. Helitack will be a big change from the fuels crew life I’m familiar with, but I am grateful for this opportunity to be the best firefighter (ahem, Forestry Technician) and best version of myself I can be as I take on new challenges and adventures.
I’ll close out with this:
I believe that being honest with ourselves and others is a vital step towards a greater good. I believe self-development can improve the field I work in. And I hope that this piece serves as a guide to understanding yourself, the human species, and my perspective in wildland firefighting.
Intro to Ayurveda: The Three Doshas | Yoga Journal
Highest Self Podcast 086: Why Feminine Doesn’t Mean Weak and Masculine Doesn’t Mean Strong | Sahara Rose
Suicide rate among wildland firefighters is “astronomical” | Wildfire Today
Suicide in the Wildland Fire Service | Two More Chains
Shawna Legarza worked her way through college as a wildland firefighter, and decided to keep pursuing her summer job and eventually became the Superintendent of the San Juan IHC (interagency hotshot crew). Shawna lost her husband to suicide, who was also a wildland firefighter. I highly suggest reading her take on mental health in the Two More Chains issue, and she also has a book titled No Grass if you want to learn more about her story.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck | Mark Manson