Lost or Found: Get Your Bearings

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Our job as wildland firefighters takes us to cool places.  Nearly every book I’ve read that was written by a previous firefighter, whether a badass smokejumper or a hotshot superintendent, refers back to this basic sentiment. Usually it’s expressed like this: “We get to see a lot of places most people don’t have the privilege to.”  It’s true.  Most people do not pioneer through our National Forests.  There is the exception of hikers, mushroom pickers, elk hunters, bird watchers, huckleberry pickers and so on.  Many of us wildland folks are those people when off the clock, but we are employed as something else – we are paid to be smoke-chasers.

To be a smoke chaser is simple, right?  You see or smell a smoke, follow your line of sight or smell, and get there. But there is a difference between chasing a smoke and finding a smoke, and there’s a difference between making it back to your truck and having to radio for someone to honk a truck horn while you grope your way back like a moron.

Recently our crew had a couple of incidents which rattled the higher-ups confidence in some of the seasonal’s ability to walk more than a couple hundred yards from the road without getting lost. But this isn’t surprising (as hard as that may be to grasp for members of older generations, who seem to have unanimously learned a skill, yet failed to unanimously pass that skill forward). I say this because it’s hard to imagine many people my parents age or older who would not be able to use a compass and map. Whether your parents taught you how to use a map or a compass isn’t the issue.

A large majority of our job demands us to be in the environment less molested by the telltale markings of civilization. The molestation I refer to includes paved roads, street signs, house numbers etc. But in the forest a Douglas Fir looks like a Douglas Fir, and the trees aren’t numbered, and pretty soon you’re the guy walking around like “Dude, where’s my car? Where’s your car, dude?”

In our line of work, there is always this motivational talk going around. Stuff about making a career in Wildland and moving into leadership roles. Because the reality is most wildland firefighters only stay in a few years. But for those of us in it to the end, for the long haul, a map and compass – a GPS, landmark identification, and so on – are the cornerstones of what we do. If you are trying to move into leadership roles and you don’t have a firm grasp on navigation, perhaps you need to rethink your path. You need to sit down one night, and you need to ask yourself why your doing what you are doing. “Why do I want to spend every summer until I’m 57 out wandering in the woods, breaking my knees, inhaling smoke, pulling 30-hour shifts, underpaid and away from my wife for weeks at a time? Why?”. Part of it must be the environment, it’s remoteness and “WILDNESS”. One way we assert control or make an effort towards taming the unfamiliar ground into a realm where we can exercise motion is by GETTING OUR BEARINGS. Without our bearings, we aren’t of use for anything other than the tools we hold. So go practice. Get a compass, get a map, get a GPS and go use them.  Read about them.  Hone the skill, and don’t get lost!

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