This is my tenth season in wildland fire. You'd think by now that I would have it figured out, surviving this mini-world with its own rules, but I am still learning. For my fire and non fire friends, I'd like to share with you some of the survival techniques I have adopted.
Fire Camp Survival Guidelines
1. In a wildland fire setting, the more smiley and friendly you are, the farther it will get you. Being cute helps, but isn't entirely necessary. I have heard that this approach works well all hours of the day, but because of personal handicaps, I can only vouch for the hours of the day beginning at about 9 AM.
2. Personal hygiene is a highly subjective and easily justified area of compromise in the wild land fire world. The necessity and frequency of showering, with or without shower unit availability, is hotly debated and widely considered to be of a personal nature, except when you share a crew rig with one or more other people. At this point, it must be decided as a collective whether bathing is a requirement, an option, or strictly forbidden. Thank heavens most Hotshot crews are moving away from the idea that a shower is a sign of weakness, but we still have some paradigms to overthrow. I, personally am of the every-other-day school of thought, any more would seem indulgent, any less, assuming you have showers at you disposal, would just be unnecessarily gross. In the event that showers are not available, dry shampoo does serve a purpose other than decorating the inside of Paris Hilton's overnight bag. Also hats. Hats are good.*
3. Getting dressed. This continues to be one of the Great Challenges of life in fire. For those of you who sleep in tents occasionally for "fun", it is readily apparent that standing to dress can be problematic for any adult of an ordinary size, unless your tent is the Taj Mahal of outdoor lodging, which I would frankly be too embarrassed to unfurl at a fire camp. The Taj Mahals are here, and widely mocked by hotshots who still insist that people who are not weak sleep sans-tent on any not-flame-engulfed piece of ground. But a reasonable tent of the 1-3 man variety still leaves room to be desired (literally) when one goes to get dressed in the dark, cold, early mornings. Over the years I have learned to dress myself in a laying position. This is pretty easy, except for the Bra, which as we saw in recent stories, becomes a day long issue at times. The other danger in this lying down approach to dressing, is the risk of catching something in the Velcro of your nomex pants without noticing. This could be something innocent, like a sock, or one of the many hats that are placed strategically around the tent for quick retrieval. More often than not, the thing stuck to your Velcro will be a pair of dirty underwear. Dirty underwear on a fire are different than regular dirty underwear at home. Whether this is because of the generally understood rule of 4 (inside, outside, front and back, gets you four days of "clean" underwear out of one pair), or because squatting to pee in the ash results in a gray/black dusty effect regardless of the color they started as, dirty fire undies are just embarrassing. Especially when you wear them to the morning briefing in the Velcro of your Nomex pockets. So always check your Velcro. Also zippers. Zippers on Nomex pants are notorious for refusing to go up, stay up, or close without catching the yellow tail of your Nomex shirt. The standard fire fighter finger sweep of the zipper fly is at least an hourly occurrence, and can be pulled of deftly, as if one was just reaching casually for one's pocket - but making sure the zipper pull is exactly where it is supposed to be for maximum modesty. Again, no one wants to see fire undies. Especially if they're on outside or backwards days. I have arrived at briefing with almost every article of clothing on inside out and/or backwards at least once, luckily never all at once. On nights when I am really tired, I usually don't bother to take anything except my pants off to sleep, knowing that an equally tired 5 AM will make dressing a disaster. Nomex clothing on a fire can be exchanged for standard issue stuff at supply, rather than washing it, but if you buy the fancy designer Nomex, it's up to you to keep it clean. My new favorite hobby is visiting supply to see if anyone accidentally turned in some name brand Nomex, and have completely overcome both my pride and my fear of poison oak in digging through the bin of turned in dirties - dumpster diving ala Wildland Fire. This tactic won me 8 old school Nomex shirts last year, the vintage, smooth ones that are WAY more comfortable. This year I stumbled across a pair of Kevlar pants in almost my exact size! $200, y'all. My partner, Lee, was both impressed and envious, so we went back the next day, just to see, and I scavenged another pair, in almost his exact size! We were a little giddy with our good luck and vowed to check supply morning and night for the duration of the assignment.
4. Eating. Everybody knows that we eat great on fires. 4000 calories a day, all you can eat salad bar, and lots of snacks. The dark side of fire-food is the mystery meat sandwiches for lunch, pastrami that is rainbow colored, mixed veggies for dinner that are a suspiciously high concentration of watery Lima beans, and really bad coffee. I will leave coffee it's own space and address the rest. Dinner is usually great. There's almost always something edible for dinner, if nothing else, the salad bar is often a safe fallback. I usually eat the meat that is the main course and salad. I've learned to skip the bread, and often the starch sides and cooked vegetables. I've even managed to avoid most deserts. Except for the strawberry shortcake last night. And milk. I drink a lot of milk at if camp. It's just tradition. After ten years in fire, I have finally come to the realization that I don't like fire lunches. I still get them so I can take the two granola bars, dried fruit and grandma's cookies home to the kids (or Husband), and eat the fritos, but I find little that I can really digest. As I mentioned, if you can identify the stack of meat in your sandwich, it will undoubtedly be translucent, at best, and usually technicolor. Survival techniques for this fire problem vary. Usually a run to the closest store for chips and bean dip do it for me, maybe stealing yogurt and cold cereal from the breakfast bar, some people I know save part of the giant portion of meat from dinner the night before. Any fire overhead personnel worth his mettle will be packing a Jetboil. The Jetboil is the line firefighter's mealtime salvation. In addition to making your own coffee (next section), e Jetboil is amazing for soups, frying salvageable parts of fire lunches (I.e. burritos, thin sliced ham, etc), and just giving you something to do if you are sitting on the line all day waiting for someone to have an emergency. Last year when it was late season and it was cold and I had a little bit of camp crud, i got some of the Bear Creeek soup mix and some crackers. I had the best little cheddar and brocolli picknick on my tailgate. Always pack snacks. Always. Unless you are me, and forget to, and whine for days.
5. Coffee is the single most important part of fire camp survival. Most food units make their giant vats of coffee with a coffee concentrate as opposed to grounds. It's pretty disgusting, unless you scald all of your taste buds off early into the fire because it's also much hotter that humanly reasonable. Our medical unit, and many of the other fringe overhead organizations, bring a coffee maker and "real" coffee to camp with them. Sometimes the secret leaks out and you find yourself waiting in line for the third pot because the entire overhead roster has come for a cup. My biggest issue personally is finding acceptable cream sources. I've often had to resort to powdered creamer, which I honestly prefer to the sickly-sweet, coffee mate flavored creamers which are available in great abundance and basically just a compound of poisons and sugar. This fire has almost real half and half, of the tiny cup, non-refrigerated variety, and since the coffee tastes bad, I've been adding a packet of honey. Later we will discuss honey. But it makes my coffee taste almost like a carmel latte. The ideal set up, especially for a line medic, is a Jetboil and a French press, or the available combination thereof. I'd prefer to have them separately, because ultimately, after seasons of unwashed use, the French Press is a robust and well seasoned shrine to good coffee, and I don't really want my broccoli cheese soup tasting like java. On my last assignment, I took a pint of heavy whipping cream, my coffee additive of hedonistic choice. The paper carton didn't hold up well in the cooler of ice though, so I am rethinking my approach. Probably a Rubbermaid bottle from home? A good buddy of mine packs Starbucks Via with her Jetboil, no press needed. I'm not in love with Via, or Starbucks in general, but it's better than coffee syrup coffee, by a long shot. **
6. Sleeping. One word: Benadryl. Until I get my own camper with a memory foam mattress, no configuration of stolen gray foam mats from supply, thermarests, sleeping bags and quilts from home can fend off the inevitable back spasm after several days of tossing and turning. This morning I woke up with a bruise in my left gluteal muscle, presumably from a flashlight or pair of socks or something that was easily mistaken for part of the "bed".The best approach to sleeping in fire camp involves identifying and avoiding floodlights, smoking areas, cell phone reception pockets, and poison oak, taking a Benadryl and not remembering the night at all. NyQuil is another camp favorite, but may be harder to talk the resident EMT into handing out, depending on how benevolent they're feeling. An EMT who has fixed a lot of BooBoos in a day is usually feeling pretty high on their protocol administration, and is likely more pliable than a bored camp EMT who hasn't had a chance to flex their medical knowledge for the day and is dying to tell you why they can't give you NyQuil. So always look for the dirtiest medic in the unit. Which will very likely be me.
7. Socialization is another key factor in this microcosm. Learning where it is important to make friends will get you a long way. Some of the most important people to buddy up to included communications (you'll never have to beg for batteries), medical (dibs on the rare Green Gold Bond?), And supply (vintage Nomex and unlimited duct tape and glow sticks). Food is also a good place to have friends, you can get a preview of meals which can determine a detour through town for a quick stop. It never hurts to have the Incident Commander and a few assorted operational bigwigs on your side, in case of unruly bosses, ordering up friends and/spouses or snagging primo spots on the line. "we need medic Weston for this float assignment on the Rogue River." "I'd like Medic Weston to fly the fire with me for some strategic medical planning." Friends in high places, y'all. See guideline 1.
I'm always looking for new tricks and interesting fire-coping mechanisms. Feedback welcome!
*I am in search of a reasonably cool and not-itchy Denver Broncos beanie.
**Dutch Bros should come out with an instant coffee, y'all.