I’ve said I was quitting firefighting many times before. My friends just roll their eyes when I announce that this is my last season; I am hanging up my boots for good. I’ve fallen off the wagon a dozen times in the past 26 years, lured back again by the adrenaline rush of a smoke column, the camaraderie of my brothers and sisters on the fireline.
But this time I mean it.
It isn’t just the recent pointless deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona, though as I watched streaming video of the memorial procession, I was haunted by other deaths, other firelines that were eerily similar.
All firefighters have stories of lucky breaks and last-minute escapes — when certain tragedy was averted only by a wind shift, quick thinking or plain chance. There was a wonderful monotony in the work itself, seeing just how far I could push my body past exhaustion. I worked 48-hour shifts, coughing into a grimy bandanna pulled tight across mouth and nose, hauling 40-pound containers of drinking water up a mountain, watching the ceaseless motion of moving vegetation out of a slim line that might, or might not, stop the fire.
There were things I missed by fighting fire: Love, marriage, kids, even though I wasn’t sure I wanted that kind of life. I missed out on the vacations that normal people enjoy — swimming in lakes, lying in hammocks.
For a long time, though, it was worth it. I fought fire in what I consider the Golden Age, the time when everyone who worked for the Forest Service or Park Service was expected to pitch in. Law enforcement rangers, naturalists, trail workers all became a motley crew that bonded over nasty Meals Ready to Eat and the equal parts terror and boredom that made up daily life on the fireline. Our crews were considered topnotch, and we worked alongside the firefighting elite of smokejumpers and hotshot crews.
Those days are gone. Progress and a bureaucratic machine no longer welcome ordinary folk, and that makes it a little easier to quit. Maybe I am just clinging to a past that no longer exists and an identity — tough firefighter chick — that served me well in my younger, insecure decades.
But we were a family, and I miss that. Someone always watched your back in a way that doesn’t happen in regular life. There was a dance involved in understanding wind, terrain and how fire moved through it that became second nature; either you had the right stuff to understand it or you didn’t, and I had it, back then.
There was the strange joy and sorrow of watching entire forests explode in a fury of flames 200 feet high, the sound like a big wind, a train or a gigantic living creature. I knew the forests needed fire, saw the sterile deserts that fire exclusion made out of unburned forest.
At the same time, I saw bulldozers tearing through Florida swamp and Southern California chaparral, scarring the landscape for years to come. What I realized most of all is that we could fiddle with a fire for months, but ultimately weather or land barriers were responsible for putting it out.
Like a bad romance I can’t quite relinquish, I have a complicated relationship with firefighting. I don’t like what it has become, but there are times when I still get a glimpse of something pure and close to the bone that reminds me of what it was like being one of the few women on the line in the late 1980s, the responsibility I felt to my firefighting sisters not to give up, not to give in.
I took pride in accomplishing things I never thought I could do — hauling 80 pounds of gear, working all night, spreading out glowing embers like a blanket. Most of my friends from back then have quit, citing bad knees or the pressure of other priorities. Some still carry the torch and miss the call.
My firefighting buddies sit around the office, taking a break from our computers. We talk about the way it was.
“They don’t even have night shift anymore,” Michelle says, perhaps recalling the shadowy figures of her crew in the darkness, the comfort of a blinking headlamp when she felt alone on a mountain. “At least we got to experience it, back then,” Kent says.
He is right, though with all my heart I wish I could go back to those days. The older I get, the more used-to-be statements I have: I used to work outdoors in the woods, not at a computer. I used to build trails. I used to be young, with a map on my passenger seat and endless Western towns to choose from.
I’ve made my peace with all of those things, except for this: I used to be a firefighter. I need to learn to say that, too.
Mary Emerick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Joseph, Oregon.