When the Hills Call: Family and Wildland Firefighting

You don’t have to be an IC 3 to realize how trying wildland firefighting is on maintaining a balanced lifestyle. We work when there is work to be done, and collect ourselves when it’s all over. As the Winter turns to Spring, and then Spring into overtime, we start getting that itch. It starts around February. You’re driving on some inconsequential errand, to dinner with your partner or to Home Depot, to pick up your son, or to the river to go fishing and think about other things besides fire, besides whatever. And then you see up in the hills a small pale of smoke from some backwoods swamper burn, a pile of leaves consumed into the sky, or a hobo’s trash can fire. Maybe you wake up one morning and smell your neighbors wood stove, the inversion forcing it down upon you, whispering “hey, you, wildland firefighter, remember me, I am the smell of what beckons you back each season, I am your bread, your butter, and your identity.”

It is this Springtime voice that draws us into our respective crew, into the hills, away from the life we’ve been living. That routine you made up is no longer possible. Remember how you awoke to the smell of coffee brewing? Well it’s time you brewed it yourself, because you’re up earlier, getting dialed, or your not even home and some private contractor or inmate crew is dishing you up ten pounds of food and the coffee is located in a big tent near the milk salad and all the other grab-snacks. Those days spent playing in the backyard with your kid or taking him to the park for the afternoon are over. Playing Scrabble with your fiancé once he’s in bed, under dim lighting by candles, talking about easy things is over too. If you’re fortunate enough to live with your partner while working, you at least get the time in bed together and maybe dinner. Much else is asking a hell of a lot. You get home, eat, shower, pop some tylenol and struggle through the waking moments until you can fall asleep.

If it’s not obvious, relationships struggle in this environment. Lots of divorces, lots of drinking, lots of negative stuff can result from living the life of a wildland firefighter. The concept of balance is almost unfathomable, and you see it reflected in the hungover glaze on your coworkers faces, or hear it in the panicked voice of your crew-mate trying to subdue a girlfriend over the phone, hundreds of miles away, saying “I’m sorry babe, I’m sorry, we got extended” etc. This is a huge contributing factor for the short term stays we see among employees, and the short term marriages and relationships. It’s tough. Try and convince someone you can see yourself in a long term relationship with them, and then tell them “oh yeah, and by the way, from May through October, I’ll rack up between 600-1000 hours of overtime which means I may get a day off every two or three weeks. Or I may not. I won’t want to do anything on those days off either. I’ll ask you for a massage, Ibuprofen, and food. I will be gone for work before you’re awake and I’ll probably get home when you’re ready for bed. Tell the kid I will do my best to see him but I can’t promise anything.

If your partner is anything but 100% committed and in love with you, forget it. They will catch wind of how insane you (and wildland firefighting) are. You’ll come home and find a stranger has replaced them, the person you thought you knew is now cold and distant. And this insanity of it all isn’t just during fire season. In order to feel good about showing up to work in the Spring, we have to workout incessantly all winter too. We have these case studies, John Maclean books, and leadership projects covering the countertops and book cases. There is something happening two states away that we feel will better ourselves for the job – a conference or an S class or fatality site. So you’re just gonna be gone for a week sporadically, sleeping in your car, showering occasionally, not getting paid for it, just to better yourself for the job. Meanwhile she’s at home, taking care of the day-to-day operations. You think the relationship needs to be strong to endure this madness? You think your relationship could survive this?

But it’s not just about family and work. You’ve got those hobbies too. Silly things you’ve been doing for years and years when there isn’t anything going on. Fire season see’s very few hobbies in practice amid work and family. Come winter, it’s family and hobbies and work still, if you’re dedicated and constantly seeking improvement.

If your family hasn’t abandoned you it’s probably because you’ve learned to do your best with regards to keeping them informed, prioritizing your time, and constantly trying to show them love. In order to survive this environment with people outside of fire that don’t abandon you, there has to be some serious love and quality time happening in between. If work has to come home, then so be it, but including them and asking for their opinion and advice can be crucial to getting the family team involved with the overall picture. I learn from my partner and son constantly, I allow them the space to impact me and the decisions I make – both at home and at work – because I know it’s part of how I make this life a success: I can’t be a great leader of people if I don’t understand the needs and hopes of the people closest to me. This leadership thing takes it’s integrity from how to manage and maintain the relationships that matter. It starts at home.

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