Life in the fire lane
MONUMENT – Pamela Messal’s life never slows down.In the wintertime, the part-time Summit County resident serves as an intermediate-level EMT with Summit County Ambulance, racing between emergency calls all over the county.During the summer months, she logs long hours on the frontlines of the nation’s biggest and most dangerous fires in her position as a senior firefighter and saw team member on one of Colorado’s two elite hotshot crews.Messal, 31, works in a dirty, hot and smoky environment, eats dehydrated food like an astronaut and typically sweats out two straight weeks of 16-hour shifts on a fire before finally having two days of rest – then does it all over again.
That’s not all. Messal and her fellow crew members hike up to five miles into a fire dressed in full wildland fire gear, lugging a 35-pound pack and, for Messal, a 35-pound chainsaw.She wouldn’t have it any other way.”My first day in fire school I said, ‘This is what I want to do,'” Messal said from her base at Pikes Hotshots in Monument.Messal has traveled to 15 states in her 10-year career as a wildland firefighter, venturing as far north as a remote area of Alaska, but she talks most about the 2002 Missionary Ridge blaze near Durango.
It was there that she experienced the closest thing to feeling terrified while on duty.”The fire activity was so extreme that trees were actually exploding because of the fire intensity,” Messal recalled. “There were just random micro-bursts from the atmosphere.”Aspen trees, which usually don’t burn, were erupting in flames.”It raised the hair on the back of your neck,” she said.
One day, the fire jumped the firefighters’ safety line. Messal and her crew had a safety zone planned out ahead of time, and everyone escaped safely, but the experience left a strong impression.”It was a testament to me that this is why we have these basic rules,” she said. “I knew why before, but I really knew why after that. It shows you that when you are a firefighter you can’t be complacent.”A passion for firefighting
Messal’s love of firefighting began at an early age. She grew up in Estes Park, where she cultivated a love for the outdoors and familiarizing herself with fire equipment, safety procedures and risks as she watched her dad cut down trees.Fire school came more than a decade ago when she was working as a trail crew supervisor in Rocky Mountain National Park.Around the same time, she had begun spending her winters in Summit County as a ski bum.She worked as a lift operator at Copper Mountain and skied every day. Eventually, she happened on a medical first responder course and laid the foundation for her future career.
“I said, ‘Ah medicine and fire tie together,'” she said. “I kind of created my own career around what I really love to do.”Off to fire schoolThroughout fire school, Messal’s goal was to become a hotshot or to be on the helicopter rappelling team so she would be face-to-face with the fire for the initial attack.
She got her wish and her first job in Jackson Hole, where she was harnessed up and lowered out of a hovering helicopter into the fire zone.Sounds death-defying, but for Messal, it just made sense.”It was invigorating,” Messal said. “It was a logical way to get to a very remote fire. I felt safe doing it.”After two seasons in the air, she landed a coveted spot on the Pike Hotshots crew, or “ground pounders” as they’re often called for their extensive legwork fighting fires.
Now, her daily routine includes waking up at camp around 5 a.m., then flying, driving or hiking into the fire lines for a crew briefing and daily assignments.As a member of the saw team, Messal’s primary responsibility is to hike in toward the fire, cut down any hazardous trees in the flames’ path and build fire lines and buffers to hold back the blaze.The day usually doesn’t end until about 9:30 p.m., when it’s back to camp for dinner, which is often military style MRE’s (meals ready to eat), or depending on the fire, hot food may be flown in.The job’s hours alone are demanding, but strenuous work in sweltering heat makes remaining in peak physical shape all the more necessary.
Each year, Messal must pass an endurance test. This year, it consisted of a 10 minute, 35 second, 1.5 mile run and 25 push-ups, six pull-ups and 45 sit-ups, with one minute to complete each task.”Those are standards you want to be above and beyond so you’re not just squeaking by,” she said. “You want to be in top shape.”Exhaustion is a natural side effect of Messal’s career.”August is when it hits me big time,” she said. “I usually get a second wind and that’s the case with most people I’ve talked to.
“Throughout the season, we all get up days and down days.”Messal says her two jobs overlap, so vacation time is pretty rare, but when she does have some free time …”I usually go to Hawaii and run a marathon,” Messal said with a round of laughter. “The marathon is good training for the fire season. It keeps me fit through the winter.”Nicole Formosa can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 229, or at email@example.com.
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