The Sand and Sobranes fires may well turn out to have been our crews’ only taste of off-forest fire assignments this year. With an unusually slow fire season, and firefighters returning to their alternate identities as students, EMTs, and their lives inside cities, our prospects at another assignment are somewhat grim. Having never been to southern California for a fire assignment, I was introduced to many new things, new tactics, protocols, and unusual degrees of “roughing it”. Now back at the grind of 0930-1800 base 8 days, I think back to the past two weeks and reflect.
The Sand Fire to me looked like this: wake up, eat a breakfast of dinner around 1800, dial up trucks, get briefed by supervisor, drive to line around 1915. The first day was a 30-hour shift, and there was a moment in that day, around 3am, when I heard a voice through a cracked window, asking my squad if we got some sleep. We’d already cut for three hours to begin the evening, rehabbed, and sat in our trucks to cat nap. I answered hesitantly “I think so..?” That was good, he said. We were going to be cutting hotline, wheels rolling, ASAP. Is he fucking joking?
The chaparral in Southern California is similar in ways to the manzanita and rhododendron stuff I’ve brush-monkeyed through plenty of times before in Oregon. But it was different too. With the insane drought plaguing the area, it was somewhat disconcerting to see these mean, stubborn bushes actually surviving. As the days became extraordinarily long and unnervingly weird due to physical exhaustion and our disturbed natural clocks, the fuel model for the Sand Fire started to talk to us. We imagined that chaparral as one who would drink tall cans, ride Harley’s, listen to Tupac or Metallica. Every bush seemed to be giving us the middle finger and just the presence of chaparral would insight a sense of violence. We gave chaparral character, a voice. This beast chaparral threw our chains, dulled them, sent swampers to their knees, cramped up third saw, and basically absolved our pride and dignity. But the terrain too had it’s say. The Angeles is steep, the roads narrow, littered with rockfall, windy; every corner you wonder if you’ve hugged the high ground well enough. We were advised “this country kills firefighters”. No, really? The chaparral wore chainsaw chains around their branches to show how many sawyers had been slain.
The nightmare of cutting in SoCal aside, there’s still other matters for our two-week-roll to attend to, including helicopter missions at night, mobile sleepers, cutting big oaks near Big Sur, using a pole saw to make a face cut, dealing with a crew losing their shit, drivers who turn a 3-point into a 15 or 20, the dogma of pot growers on wildfire incidents, and poison oak cocktails. Steroid shots in the butt. Cal fire and hotels every nite. What was more important for me, though, was what I learned running a squad.
People respect proficiency, perfection, competitiveness, integrity, and people respect, well, respect. The things people do not respect are indecisiveness, authority without empathy, insecurities, unwarranted ridicule, bad directions, poor planning, and faltering loyalty.
Stay loyal, be fair, give responsibility, impart, share, joke, tell the truth, and be the best.
Without intentionally acknowledging it to anyone or myself, I realized after a few days that our squad had reached somewhere near the apex of our circumstances. We were cohesive, competitive, laughed more, worked harder, lasted longer; we were DIALED!
I think what I learned is that a leaders job is to pull from himself what is a necessary sacrifice for those who are to follow. There is humility in this because a sacrifice is given to something of a higher order or aim, and that places a leader in a position of subservience. They are voluntarily severing ties to their independence to unfold a social theory of cohesion. It’s like painting a house. You have your crew members before you, or your siding and facia boards, your window frames and your eaves. You know what they are and how you think they should be if you do things right.