Monday, May 9, 2011

The End of An Era: Wildfire

If you’re not going to read the whole thing, at least read the last 5 paragraphs, but you’ll be missing out, you idiot.

The last summer i had was back in 2002. I had just graduated high school and i’m not sure what i was doing for work. Maybe nothing, but maybe something. I really don’t remember. I really don’t remember. I’m sure it was fun. Anyway. . . since the summer of 2003, i have been fighting wildland fires, mostly with the Bureau of Land Management. I spent my first 3 years on an engine, based out of idaho falls. While this was awesome and a great learning experience, the seasons weren’t that busy, so i found myself quite often bored out of my skull.

In 2006 and 2007, i applied to Snake River IHC and was hired. I was so nervous and with good reason. They were some of the most difficult summers i’ve ever had. In 2006, we finished the season with about 1100 hours of overtime, on top of the 40 hours a week, and in 2007 (a slightly slower year), we finished with just under 1000. The work was tiring and endless. The hikes were brutal, and the fires ripped. I worked with some of the best men and woman (not a typo, only one woman. . . sara) in the business. The overhead knew what they were doing and i trusted them with my life as did most everyone else.

As the summer of ’07 drew on, my attitude changed. By the end of the season, i was ready to be finished (along with everyone else) and the overhead knew it. I felt like i was finished with fire. Luckily, i was asked not to come back (not because i was lazy but because they knew i didn’t want to be there anymore, and they were right).

The next summer, i swore off fire. I wasn’t doing it. The hiring deadline passed for the BLM and i breathed a sigh of relief. I was out. . . . except that i put in an application for a student spot (could quit early for school instead of quitting in oct/nov) on the Caribou Targhee Helitack crew, just to see if i could get it and i received a call asking if i wanted to work with them. My excitement returned. Working on a helitack crew was a break that i needed. We still worked hard, but it’s different kind of work. It was a rappel ship, so we trained weekly by rappelling out of a helicopter. Normally, i look down on people who enjoy rappelling, but for the first time, i was actually enjoying it.

I guess the biggest difference is that it is a more independent crew, meaning, you’re not working with 20 dudes all the time. Most of the time you were working in smaller groups, which isn’t necessarily better, just different. One memory that stands out is the time a really great friend of mine, bryan wheat and i took an entire division to ourselves. We were down in a drainage putting in line and we heard over the radio that they weren’t sending any people down in the drainage because it was too dangerous (they didn’t know we were down there). I radioed up that we were down there and it was fine, but that we could use some more resources. After a while, they sent us some more and we punched line down the rest of the hill and tied it in to a ridge late that night. We were psyched. Unfortunately, due to consistent 30mph gusts (not crappy line, but probably crappy line), our line blew out that night. We chased it the next day and caught it with the help of some tanker drops and the fine bucket work from our helicopter pilot. Ha! so awesome. . . Anyway, like every summer before, it ended.

By the time the next fire season rolled around, i had graduated college with a degree in mass communication and had completely forgotten how hard being a hotshot was. In the summer of 2009, I moved down to salt lake city and started working on Bonneville IHC. I once again, found myself in the thick of it, working alongside great people. Even though we didn’t get as many overtime hours, We still spent hour upon hour hiking around, dropping trees and cutting hotline. I was in heaven. On top of that, the overhead was different from Snake River. It felt like they actually cared about the crew. We bonded like anyone would in that situation and became great friends. It was like working with a giant family. Yes, there were squabbles, but like any family, they pass and at the end of the season, we could look back at the good times and the bad times and laugh.

In 2010, I was back on Bonneville, ready to kill it. The season started out slow, which left all of us feeling antsy. As a hotshot, the hardest thing about a fire season is not getting fires. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to see other crews getting sent to fires and you’re just waiting. It’s hard because on one hand, you don’t want people’s homes to burn, but on the other hand, fire is what you live for. It’s like a drug. Standing next to a running crown fire is the most awe inspiring thing i’ve ever seen. The energy that it puts off is incredible.

Anyway. . . .to the relief of everyone, we finally started getting work. Like the year before, i was on a saw team. My swamper (saw partner, i just wanted to use lingo), Chris Hoerter was awesome. We worked hard, but still had a good time. We found out at the beginning of the season that chris was a dad. Something he failed to tell us over the winter. One of the scariest memories of last summer was almost watching him die. To this day, he has no idea how close he was to being smashed like a pancake, but the expression on everyone’s faces and my reaction is probably as close as he’ll know.

We were cutting hotline (right next to the fire) i think in idaho, i’m not sure. Anyway, we had entered an aspen patch, which creeped me the eff out because they’re sketchy trees, but thought we could make it through without incident. We had just finished and were getting ready to head to the next section when i heard the saw boss yelling. I looked up just in time to see a huge flaming tree smashing through the canopy above us. I yelled. Chris and i just started running. We ran for our lives. Literally. RAN FOR OUR LIVES. I looked over and Chris was about 10 feet to my left with the tree right above his head. At the last millisecond, he tripped and fell to his right. The tree landed right where he was. I ran over thinking his kid was now fatherless, he got up. Everyone was screaming and i hugged the crap out of him (not literally).

Don’t get me wrong. Things like that have happened before. Actually, numerous times, but never that close. It was kind of a wake up call. At this point, I feel legally obligated to say that what happened was an accident and we did our best to mitigate the dangers, but things just happen in that environment that you have no control over. Anyway, the season ended with two people quitting. One kid quit because of the incident above, the other (i forgot his name otherwise i’d call him out) quit because he was a wiener. P.S. Kobe Bryant is a rapist (inside joke, but seriously, he is).

This winter, i made the hardest decision i’ve ever had to make. I decided to not fight fires. It’s been my life for almost a decade. It has allowed me to be where i am today. I’ve loved it, and i’ve hated it, but i decided that I’m ready to enter a new stage of my life and I’m ready for different adventures. Different challenges. I will never forget the memories that are sandblasted into the back of my skull, nor will i ever forget the friends that i made. Today, many hotshot crews around the nation started their training. I would like to give a shout out to all my friends who continue to pursue “the dream” and wish them a safe season. I miss you guys.

p.s. i cried a little.

Here are some photos from the past.


Courtney said...

Maybe you could go as a photographer this year?? Seriously, those are awesome shots! Imagine what you could do if you weren't trying to put those fires out while you were shooting them! DO IT.

Kira C. said...

Sweet pictures. You should team up with Austin Catlin and have him sell some at his store.

G~man said...

Y'all be safe out there no matter what you do. Sad to see you leave.

Ya know...there are better pictures of you rappelling out there...try " chickenwings"...

Anonymous said...

Very nice pics
And excellent 'blog'

Francois Tremblay

Anonymous said...

hmmm... that's funny, despite being a strong worker on another hotshot crew I wasn't asked to return to snake river either haha... randy, kenny, andy....bunch of bitches lol

Matthew said...

hahahahah!!!! that sounds about right.

MindySue said...

Hey. Did you delete my comment?!?

Matthew said...

i don't think so. what did you say?

Lara said...

You are a total badass. I wish I would've known this circa 1999. My crush on you would've been bigger. :)