In 2000, they did the wildland firefighting pack test like this: put on a vest with nicely distributed weights inside, equaling exactly 45 pounds. Walk, on level, paved ground, along a course marked with cones, about a mile long. If you don’t pass out, and return up to 45 minutes later, you’ve got the job. A lot of people I know could pass this test.
I took it in April of that year, after having worked as a journalist in three California cities, including my then home of Bakersfield. I was 27, feeling restless at my job, hitting the gym or the trail each day of the week. Exercise, for me, had become about more than maintaining health. I sensed that my body, pushed through punishing cardio-kickboxing routines or bombing down a hill on a mountain bike, had something to teach me. With each new physical activity, I became aware of movement as a vocation. I expressed part of myself when I did it, a part that, when I was inactive, went underground. If I was so “good” at working out, I wondered, might there be a way to do more with it?
I had met a woman five years earlier – a tall, wiry thing named Celine, with a deep tan and a high voice. We rode with a mutual friend up a steady grade of paved mountain road on our bikes. At the top, in the 10 a.m. desert heat, Celine had barely broken a sweat. This memory came to me on a day off from work, almost like a vision. Celine was a wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service and a rafting guide on the Kern River. What a life, I had thought with admiration. This time, when she came to mind, I supposed that life could be mine, if I wanted it. For reasons not completely clear to me, I knew that I did.
I visited the local wildland fire agencies and asked for information and applications. I enrolled in a course at Bakersfield College, taught by employees of the Bakersfield Bureau of Land Management. When the BLM hired me for that season, I quit my job at the newspaper. It was all unfamiliar and exploratory, yet felt a hundred-percent right. Charged with the excitement of new possibilities.
* * *
The actual pack a wildland firefighter often wears is a bulbous, black canvas appendage, weighed down with sloshing quart-sized water bottles, fuel and oil sigs, rolls of flagging and masking tape, first aid kit, sweater, fire line handbook, emergency snacks, and portable fire shelter in the form of a small foil tent encased in a rectangular plastic package. I wore a pack like this regularly toward the end of the fire season when I switched from engine to hotshot crew. No matter how much I adjusted that pack around my narrow shoulders and hips, it never fit just right. I learned to anticipate its movements, to let it swing with me as I did my work, to accept its gravitational pull that was always too much in any given direction.
The layers of clothing proved problematic as well – thick fire pants, T-shirt worn under a long-sleeved, fire-resistant yellow Nomex shirt, boots with two layers of socks, even in the heat, to cut down on blisters, and a helmet whose strap needed to be tightened just so or it slid to the side in an irritating, jaunty angle. The whole ensemble made me feel as if I was dressed up for Halloween. In this costume, I had to move quickly and effectively, manipulate hand tools, lift hoses and haul them over my shoulder, and keep my footing on steep terrain. It was harder than it looked in the pictures I had seen in class at the college.
Our initial training occurred in the searing fields east of town, where I had ridden my mountain bike in the evenings after work – thousands of acres of public land, bordered by roads, the Kern River, or the outlying neighborhoods of the city. All season, crews parked their vehicles next to the Kern County Sheriff’s shooting range and walked up that first steep path, for training hikes occurring several times a week. The hills beyond it had nicknames like “heartbreak” and “ballbuster.”
That beginners’ day, we didn’t hike. Instead, we practiced lighting the whisper-dry grass with incendiary devices such as fusees and drip torches, and making hose lays uphill. We cut the grass with our hand tools, creating fuel breaks and saying “tied in” when we had connected our section of the line to a previous one. We sharpened tools. We unbound our portable fire shelters and got into them, bracing the edges with our elbows and feet, fans blowing on us to simulate wind in severe fire behavior.
I hung back, watched cautiously, then pounced zealously at opportunities to prove myself. I dreaded screwing up. Everywhere, my antennae were up. Who bugged me? Who could I trust? Who could I instantly seek out as a helper? I referred to people in my journal as tall guy and sharp guy and black guy. I was slow on the uptake sometimes, distracted by slang, accents, and ways of speaking. Everyone had a nickname, and although some were obvious, others were not. I can’t for the life of me figure out who ‘Hoss’ is, I scribbled. It turned out to be Steve, the captain of the engine crew for which I would later work for half the summer.
Aside from being psychically jarred, I also struggled to use my body in a way that got the job done. I had arrived full of confidence in my strong lungs and muscles, my love of sweat, my ability to endure – or so I thought. This kind of endurance was different. It was about keeping upright under heavy weights that almost toppled me, ignoring the awkwardness of my clothing and pack, moving in constant heat and subsequent clammy sweat, surrendering the privilege of peeing or eating on one’s own schedule. The adage was to work smarter, not harder, but my body didn’t yet know what this meant. I hacked fiercely at the earth and was told to “take less;” I scaled back and heard, “take more.” One had to position the tool so as to scrape the maximum amount of fuel away using the minimum amount of energy, a skill that took me the entire season to learn. I bristled at the pulling and twisting and turning of things, the angles of the earth, the steepness and the slide, the toes crashing and heaving this way and that in my boots. The occasional words of nice job, looks good! were like gulps of water from our canteens. The lunch hour came and went, and everyone kept working. Time didn’t matter, except as it related to the wind’s speed and direction at a given hour, or the position of the sun. We ate when the job was finished, not when our stomachs told us it was time.
* * *
In the next few weeks, I began adjusting to the home that had been assigned to me: the Midway engine crew, housed in a brand new BLM station about 15 miles east of the Bakersfield office. It was on a lonely stretch of road that shot through farmlands as far as the eye could see, leading eventually to the oilfields and rolling hills where we responded to fires. We’re midway between where we came from and where we want to be, Captain Steve summarized.
At lunchtime, we grabbed Taco Bell and big bottles of soda from the gas station about a block away – the only building for miles besides our own. We all sat around a table and ate. Our crew of about ten did everything together – unlike how it was at the newspaper, where I had mostly roved the city and returned to write. We were a diverse bunch – multi-racial, with four women, and men who didn’t mind having us there. I liked my fellow crewmembers and they liked me. Still, the social environment was often equally – sometimes even more – bewildering than the physical demands of the job.
I had unconsciously adopted the goal of going through the entire season without being teased. This was as absurd as being a lifeguard and hoping not to get wet. People were always making fun of me for something. Often, it was for the parts of my personality that I most wanted to hide – my earnestness, my naiveté, my desire to be liked by all, my lack of working-class street smarts. One day, as I parked the light engine on our way back from a fire, a group of Kern County guys gathered outside of their station and watched me, taking bets on whether I’d crash into a phone pole and shear off the side mirror.
We spent these early days of the season hiking hills, or running and weightlifting, then practicing drills. We rehearsed mobile attacks, in which the firefighter drags a hose alongside an engine that is being driven. At other times, each of us carried hoses on our backs, having tied them into packs designed to unravel as you walk the terrain. When one pack raveled out, we attached it to another hose unraveled by someone else, and so on. When we weren’t training, there were endless maintenance chores – hoses needed to be washed and dried, rolled up and stored, the metal couplings painted and identified. We weeded the forlorn beds around the station, planted shrubs, mowed the lawn, equipped the station with wastebaskets, toilet paper and cleaning supplies from extensive trips to Wal-Mart or Smart and Final.
I just wanted to keep my head down and work, but I often felt like a small child learning to write. Hose lays confused me; during drills, I forgot one or more of the systematic steps needed to perform a flawless one. Either that, or I needed help operating the stolid pump valves of the engine. My months of working out hadn’t given me mechanical aptitude, the confidence needed to lean against the hose control levers and make them do what you want. They hadn’t instilled a firm grasp of topography or the ability to understand the simulated methods for putting out fires. Pieces of land don’t burn in neat, predictable patches; instead, the fire moves haphazardly and quickly, and one must often make last-minute decisions on how to attack it. Put in an indirect fuel break away from the fire? Or make a direct attack on the flames with the hose? Every situation required an escape route by which to retreat, and a safety zone in which to seek shelter if the fire got away.
Although I often sucked at it, it wasn’t hard to fall in love with my new job. At its most mundane, it was intoxicating. When we stopped by the Bakersfield office, I loved tromping past the desk-bound geologists’ cubicles dressed in my boots, crew T-shirt and green pants. It reminded me I was no longer an office worker, a realization that never got old. The dozer operator, an earnest, clean-cut man in his 50s, said to me one afternoon, maybe you’re discovering that you prefer jobs where you have to shower after work. Sounded right to me.
* * *
No matter how cool it was that I was now a wildland firefighter, I quickly learned that the job, like any other, was made up of many mundane, tedious moments, punctuated by peaks of excitement that branded themselves onto my brain and body. My first fire, appropriately, had some of each.
On the morning of May 15, we ran seven miles in the foothills, then returned to the area in the afternoon and worked on drills. I carried two hoses 150 feet up a hill; my arms ached and my stomach burned and sloshed with partially digested food. We were back at the station for about 15 minutes before we got the call. In typical fashion, it came in over the radio’s emergency channel – a deliberate tone of three, longish beeps, then information delivered by a calm-voiced dispatcher. Possible to miss if you weren’t attuned.
Manny, a rookie like me and my closest buddy so far, motioned me over.
There’s a fire in Fellows, he said.
The only other time I had been in a vehicle with the lights and sirens on had been during a police ride along. Then, and even more so now, the experience evoked an emotional response. A lump rose in my throat, a desire to shout out in thanks for the joyful immediacy I felt as we sped along and the traffic parted in front of us. Nothing mattered except for the task at hand; my mind was mercifully scrubbed and ready to be filled. We drove for half an hour, then got canceled from that fire and rerouted to another, in the little oil patch of McKittrick.
What did we see when we got there? A brown field, oil derricks, dirt roads, mountains rising in the distance, blackened earth, flames licking lazily at thick conglomerations of sagebrush and grass. A haphazard network of scorched lands that needed to be doused, soothed, tilled into submission with our earth-mixing tools.
No walls of leaping flames surging toward us. No billows of smoke. Just a mess to clean up. A mess that the oil companies, the public, depended on us and paid us to fix. And in a different way, no less glorious than it had been in my imagination.
Our training kicked into gear. I doused the hot spots with water during our mobile attack; later, we switched to tools, knocking out the heat in the vast field, searching for smoky areas, which kept cropping up. Getting them all was like trying to pick each wildflower in a meadow.
As the excitement died down and the adrenaline faded, the pain set in. Leg muscles throbbed from endless standing and walking; feet ached with the new and unsettling sensation of heat transfer from hot ash, up into heat-resistant Vibram soles, through thick socks, onto skin. Mopping up is an inevitable part of fires, and over the whole season, on both the engine and the hotshot crew, we did it just as much – if not more – than cutting line. It was always the same process: look for the most heat, and when you find it, stir it around, digging beneath the surface for the cool dirt, which is sometimes hidden about a foot deep. While doing so, feel the heat on your face, under your feet. Inhale the ash-ridden billows of steam from the water, if you’re using it. Keep stirring, knocking the heat down a few hundred degrees, little by little. So as not to go crazy or get tunnel vision, scan the entire workspace, look for another bad spot, begin the same process over. Return to the spot you were, only to see that it is cooler, but nowhere near ready to be left alone. These are the hours of wandering thoughts, of tedium, of strange pains and itches and aches, of stinging eyes and the question that always emerges, why are you here?
Why was I?
It took me two fire seasons to find an answer. I just knew that the more firefighting affected me, the more I yearned to master its challenges. The travel, the friendships, the knowledge, the gorgeous country, the overtime – all were benefits; the guaranteed bliss of relief that followed pain, the deep highs that accompanied the lows, were a defined joy. But far into my first season, I discovered that to thrive on this job meant that a part of me needed to love being exhausted, chafed, sore, and hungry.
To willingly allow my body to be pummeled, shift after shift, week upon week, month after month, was at odds with how I had learned to exist in the world. As an athletic, outdoors-loving woman, I had been around plenty of fellow tough ladies. Yet these women still understood the need for leisurely pee and water breaks, the existence of “itchies” in all sorts of places, the necessity of stopping to gawk at scenery and of cooking big, elaborate dinners. Now, I was surrounded by men, whose bodies held different centers of gravity than mine, who had played football and gotten into fights. Who had practiced, for many years, the art of not complaining, the art of ignoring whatever sensations invaded in waves. Who didn’t see a roughed-up body as a loss, but as a badge of honor.
As much as I’d scarred my knees from skateboarding, as much as I didn’t mind, or even liked, getting dirty and stinky and sweaty – there was still a part of me that longed to treat myself tenderly, to guard vigilantly against persistent pain and injury. This part felt wounded by the scars, bruised shins, exhaustion, and loneliness of being away on a fire, where even the restful moments must be stoic, taken at intervals, without the release of tears or angry whining, without a friend or lover’s embrace. There was still an instinctive unease that gripped me those several times a day when my body reached its supposed physical limits. But a new part was emerging – the part that, contrary to instinct, found a way not to just grit my teeth through the present agony, but to celebrate it, perhaps even accept its accustomed presence.
I had chosen this. Despite my questioning and discomfort, that fact remained. Over the season, I witnessed the transformation of my body and mind into something I hadn’t always wanted to become, but that spoke to a need inside me to be recognized – maybe mostly by my own self. Yes, I was constantly out of my element. But as a result, I was unique. Clumsy. Badly fitting in. Making mistake after mistake. But always standing at the end of the day.
Seeing myself through that first fire season was an act of faith. It was also a decision whose consequences I saw in my muscles, my scars, the way I walked and stood and drove my car. I had taken on heaviness, a rooted presence I needed to adopt to perform and accomplish tasks. Such a change was electrifying to me. I craved it, but didn’t know exactly what I had wanted. Regardless of how little I understood my motives, it became clear that with my body, I was acting out a drama of highs and lows, deprivation and sorrow, replenishment and healing and hope.
* * *
One of the guys on the crew reminded me once that the shift always ends. He said it during my first big fire away from home, when I was hanging by a thread. The human body is capable of so much, he said – we can throw up fire lines and keep hiking. We can go without eating. They say we use 10 percent of our brains in a lifetime. The same could be said of our bodies. Perhaps there is always more we can squeeze out of each. With attempting to do so comes joy. Preoccupation with myself, with what I was or wasn’t getting in life, got replaced during shifts, and when they finally ended, with simple joy at having survived. My mind, in these moments, became peacefully blank. I began to look forward to this inevitable contentment, the quiet obliteration won at a hard price. Perhaps it’s not much simply to appreciate one’s continued existence. But maybe this was the beginning of gratitude.
When the shift ends, the crew debriefs. This is when you circle up and look into the sooty faces of everyone else, whites of eyes shining, hair plastered to skin. You find comfort in others’ fatigue, the fact that you are not the only one. Your body rests, sodden and heavy, during the ride home or to fire camp. Finally – at least when I got to go home each night and wasn’t at fire camp – came the shower. Wondrous amounts of filth rinsed down the drain, at first surprising me with a jolt of alarm similar to when you see your own blood. I emerged from behind the curtain, toweled off, inspected my bruised shins and tangled, clean-washed hair. I put on deodorant and perfume, female clothes and sandals that allowed the open air to kiss my toes.
If you were to stand close to me, though, you’d still be able to trace the smell of smoke in my hair.