In my lifetime, I’ve done many things. I’ve been a landscaper, usher at a movie theater, dishwasher, waiter, cook, restaurant manager, road construction flagger, machinist, house painter, musician, carpenter, manual laborer, semi-professional gardener, ensign, projectionist, minister, wildlife rehabilitator, guide, janitor, computer technician, computer technical engineer, and website owner, among quite a few other things. Without a doubt, the hardest and definitely the most dangerous job I’ve ever had was fighting forest fire. The men and women who do this vital work get a tip of my hat, my thanks, my gratitude, and my admiration.
As with the military, they lay their lives on the line to battle wildfires. A sudden shift in the wind can easily kill and sometimes does.
Most people have little idea of the conditions forest firefighters contend with, often day to day and for weeks on end. They might be required to use an axe or chainsaw to cut down burning trees as fast as possible. They often use shovels and the like to build fire lines, digging through hard, dry, rocky soil. They often work 10-12 hour shifts, quite often when the air temperature is very high, the humidity is low, and the fire just increases this.They feel lucky if they get 5-6 hours to sleep before doing it all again.
They must think quickly. Often times, situations arise when there is nobody there who is more knowledgeable to give them directions. It is imperative that they be able to think on their own and quickly. If they don’t, they can be dead.
They often survive on very little water and rations for food. If they are working the front lines, they may not even have the time to eat through their shift. In the backcountry, sleeping involves rolling out a disposable paper sleeping bag, crawling into it, and dropping instantly into an exhausted slumber.
Day in, day out, and all night long, they breathe smoke and ash and dust. There are no showers to wash it off and no fresh air to breathe. I fought fire for three days and I’m not exaggerating when I say that it took me over a week afterward before I didn’t smell like I’d been cured and smoked in some smokehouse. It took longer before I could take a deep breath without coughing and before my chest stopped hurting.
The men and women these people work with are instantly far more than friends. If you can’t rely on them, you’re dead. You find yourself totally committed to people you might have previously refused to even talk to. Gender, religion, place of origin and political persuasion have no meaning when you are fighting fire. You sure don’t stop to ask someone who they voted for in the last election, when a tree 30 feet away just burst into flames.
Few people think about what the firefighters go through. They deserve thanks for their effort and devotion and their courage and their strength. I love every single one of them. I appreciate every single one of them. For most people who have never walked the walk, it is all too easy to totally forget about them, except for the few minutes they talk about a fire on the news.
I did it. I’d do it again if I had no choice, but I sure don’t want to. It may sound strange, but being in ‘Nam during the war was easier than fighting forest fire.