By Anna Machowicz
Eleven days. To the average American, it doesn’t seem like much time; most of our vacations are longer. To our five-person Conservation Corps crew, spending this much time on the job away from home seemed impossible… until we were called onto our first wildfire. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon when we were all shaken out of our sunshine stupor and clamored into our Corps truck to head up north, where we were expecting a roaring blaze that just couldn’t be controlled without our help.
This is what we found:
No fire. Seventy-nine acres of black. We spent the next few hours mopping up leftover hot spots and checked into a hotel. It seemed like there was a pretty good chance we would go home the next day, which we were all anxious to do. Ten more days and three fires later, they finally released us.
Eleven days felt like a lifetime to us. We got some really awesome experiences and a nice paycheck out of the deal, so it wasn’t all work and no play; but just imagine sharing hotel rooms, meals and down time with the same five people for this long. It was challenging and I started to notice some of the same challenges among the full-time firefighters we were working alongside every day. I don’t want to classify them as lonely – that doesn’t seem like the right word. In my search for synonyms I came across incommunicado: ‘not able, wanting or allowed to communicate with other people’. I realize this still makes them sound like sad little hermits, but they were exactly the opposite. Each person we worked with jumped at the chance to talk to new people.
Wildland firefighters work long and unpredictable hours, often with little variation in staff members. They spend a lot of time waiting for fires in their trucks, in their offices and by themselves. Once you got them talking, it was hard to get them to quit. Like naturals, we raved at their stories, laughed at their jokes and asked them all about themselves. As a pretty solitary person myself, I couldn’t believe how happy it made them to just sit and talk with strangers.
I have to admit, being a firefighter for eleven days was awesome
(and totally badass)…
…but what I really learned was that wearing the uniform doesn’t make you a firefighter. It is not a profession for the weak; it takes brains, strength, adaptability and pure guts to become one.