I’m an occasional firefighter now. I don’t sit on the steps and oil my boots, watching the horizon. I don’t dream of lightning and smoke. I have other dreams now. But for years, fighting fire was so central to my life that there was no end, no beginning, just a circle. I was a firefighter. That was who I was, and how I named myself. There were years when I fought fires in every month of the year.
It’s hard to admit that the show is winding down, but looking back, I realize that all the things I learned in the fire years are things I carry with me today. For example:
1. Life isn’t fair. Get over it. Sometimes I was stuck with criers and complainers and guys who thought I had no business being there. Sometimes I had lousy assignments–dry mopping a smoky burn, no help in sight. These things taught me that there is no such thing as “fair.” You just deal with it and move on.
2. Life is random. I don’t believe things happen for a reason. This comes from trees falling with no sound at a place where I stood moments before. This comes from funerals of good people. Helicopters fall from the sky, some live, some die. All you can do is live the best you know how until your number is called.
3. There’s no room for princesses. On the fireline, you are part of a team. Inability to carry your load puts others in danger. Sniveling and hoping the Prince will come wake you up with a kiss is just a story that we really shouldn’t tell little girls. In life, you are much more attractive when you deal with it, not sit and wait to be rescued.
4. Flexibility is good. Sometimes we would cut a saw line for hours, only to have the overhead team tell us to abandon it and put in a hose line elsewhere. Sometimes we would be on board the helicopter, enroute home, only to be diverted to another fire. The people who couldn’t deal were the ones who dropped out. This taught me to not be a my way or the highway type person. There’s value in adapting.
5. Account for others. When we started a backfire, we walked a parallel line, with our torches, one person on the trail, the next in the cabbage palm, the third deeper in the unit. The trick was not to get ahead of the people beside you or your flanking fire could trap them. It would be easy to walk along in a daydream, intent on the food and Gatorade waiting in the swamp buggy. Fighting fire taught me to look out for other people.
6. Be kind. Fire is the great equalizer. You have hippies, hillbillies, Alaskans and city folk all . They are all united in their love for the firefighting life. Alienate a crewmember and you have to live with them all season, not a comfortable or easy thing. The danger and desperation brought us all together in a way that probably could not have happened elsewhere. You had to learn ways to get along when you really would rather not.
No experience can make you a perfect person, and firefighting isn’t always altruistic and good. There’s plenty of bullies and prima donnas, just like in any other profession. I’m sort of ready to leave it behind, but I won’t forget what the decades of firelines have taught me. Someday as an old lady, the memories will keep me warm. Yes, I really did that, and this is what I learned.