Thursday, August 20, 2015

Things About The End Of The World

The Sky Is Falling, you guys.

In 11 years of wildland fire experience, I don't remember a time when the underlying tremors throughout the troops felt like this. Even huge fires that last for months, conflagrations like the Carleton Complex last year - after a few days of hell... a sense of "we got this" would settle in and order would prevail.

In this, it hasn't happened yet. Wave after wave of bad weather, tragedy, homes by the scores lost across the state, and in the fire world, a cry for help. We are underfunded, understaffed, overwhelmed.   Just when things start to settle out and forces start to get in place, a new barrage of fire starts and turns and runs take over and the lifesaving choice is only to pull back and regroup, assuming there are any resources to do it.

Richard Wheeler. Tom Zbyszewski. Andrew Zajac. Know the names. Young men all. Strong, vibrant, alive. And now they are gone. Dying one of the most horrific deaths imaginable in a fight to stop the wall of flame sweeping through the communities of Twisp and Winthrop.

The whole town of Tonasket is under evacuation right now.

Countless head of cattle, creatures of all kinds have lost the race with the flame front.

This is a terrible summer.

There cannot be enough prayers, enough hearts open to help, enough understanding minds to skate to the puck and get ahead of the tragedy. Be ready, be vigilant, be smart. Like we are taught in fire training: Look up, look down, look all around. There is need and possibility and risk everywhere.

Life goes on all over the country, people cross-fitting and school shopping and painting nails as if the world wasn't ending. And it's not, really. But drowning in the thick smoke that is three counties wide, it's hard to remember.

Next time you buy a latte, like me, think of the ones that are eating rehydrated beef stroganoff out of an MRE bag at the top of Mt. Leona on the Stickpin fire. The ones who haven't showered for 11 days. The ones who haven't had a toilet to sit on all summer. Next time you get pissed about the heat outside your bedroom window or the smokey tinge on your pillowcase, think about they guys and girls digging out hollows in the pine needles and dirt to sleep for a couple hours, the ones with a mean case of jock itch and blisters that would make your crabby grandpa cry. It's a real fight out there and it isn't about a few trees. It's about your Aunt Ellen's house. And the ranch that's been in the family, supporting the family for three generations. It's about entire hay fields, life savings, family memories lost forever.

And think about Tom, and Andrew and Richard. Their families. Their crews.

This fire season is far from over. Hold them up. Because the sky IS falling. Help us catch it.


http://www.wffoundation.org



Sunday, August 16, 2015

Things About Heroes

The best part about working on a fire is when the smell of crackle-burning wood settles into camp and permeates all of the clothes that you've packed, and your whole bedroll smells like a woodstove. It's an inescapable aroma, and while we always joke that it smells like money, to me it smells more like fierce power and unharnessed freedom.

We're pretty silly for thinking that we can fight fire... more like we just herd it a little and encourage it the direction that we hope it will go. If it was a real fight then no doubt we would lose. Like a tiny child swinging windmill fists at a raging giant. Maybe it's the mercy of the giant that sways it away from it's course of destruction, or maybe the little splashes of water we throw on the inferno are just enough to discourage it from it's rampage. Little splashes  in the form of thousands of gallons of pond-sludge, murky brown and smelling like the life that it left behind, fueled by millions of dollars of air-power and the best that the small child of humanity has to throw at it.



But hour after hour, day after day, the misshapen boots trudge up the hills and down the slopes, stumbling through rock screes and slipping on retardant dumps, ash and oil and pitch and soot-filled snot staining the pants in a few key shades of green. Road-line yellow shirts, blackened by smoke soaked sweat, conformed to the bent bodies and frayed pack straps clinging to the fire-soldiers like they were all one continuous piece of being. Mile after mile, winding trails, scrambling up cliff sides, digging in heels and toes and pulaskis and rhinos and leaving the tell-tale trace of salvation that will be gone with the next spring's growing green.

A chicken scratch line in the dirt tells the angry, impetuous beast of fire that He Shall Not Pass. Like an imaginary wall of nothing that the inferno cannot consume, with his will crushed but his appetite far from staved, he turns and moves on, and the troops with him, to meet him at the next pass and cut him off once more, tell him where he Cannot Go, and hope that he gives up so there's time to scratch underneath their sock and wolf down a bite of anything.

They sleep under stars that are swirled in clouds and smoke, curled up in the combined smell of themselves and the fire-beast, wearing the sweat and ashes that they have earned like the arms of a hard-won lover. If dreams come in the child-like sleep coma, they are wild and ferocious, like the animal that they have chased all day. Every thing that these fire-soldiers do is fierce. Their work is fierce, their sleep is fierce, their love is fierce and their hate is fierce. They stand in the face of a 30 foot wall of burning trees with a whoop and a laugh, knowing the thrill of taming the beast that most of us would be terrified to encounter.



This Quixotic army fights the endless enemy that will continue devouring long after they are dead in their graves. The fire captivates and enthralls them, beckoning them to continue the dance through forests and towns and prairies and tundras, knowing well enough that the monster can't be killed, but might be contained with the right choreography. It is an eternal adventure, curtailed only by aging bodies and grown-up pressures of life. The stories of flame chasing live beyond the end of a shift or the hanging up of a saw. They are legend, like the men and women who live them.



Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Things About Fire Camp: the "How To Make a Fool of Yourself" Edition

I've learned a few things on this fire assignment. Like, for instance, the importance of maintaining composure in the face of The Ultimate Arachnid Violation, or how to best wear side dishes as an accessory. I even had a swift lesson in the effect of slope degree on streams of pee. It's been informative, and in addition to bringing home a decent paycheck, I'd like to think I've also invested in personal growth and development in the areas of humility and avoidance of human contact. 

In the interest of stymying ego growth, I've employed tactics that stretch creatively beyond the garden variety fire camp faux pas. No dirty underwear stuck to Nomex Velcro or toilet paper on the boots at briefing. Not even an old toothpaste stain on my shirt. Nope, I've been exploring outside the old standbys. 

Today there was a spider on me. 

A huge. Brown. Fuzzy. Spider. 

It was very difficult for me. Every lesson in self control for my WHOLE LIFE went flashing before my eyes. 

No big deal. I just flicked him off of my nomex. Onto my belt. Then under my shirt. And into my pocket. 

I didn't panic. I didn't cry. Very much. The very cool, very badass Task Force Leader that I've spent a week with didn't even laugh at me. Very much. I didn't even kill the spider. Or pass out. I tried to disguise the extra-high-pitched tone of my voice and my super sweaty palms. I'm not sure he bought it since he gave me a kind of amused Knowing Look. But I was very brave. Considering. 

I will never sleep again. 

Which is probably for the best, since three nights ago I was sleeping fitfully in my rig, as always, trying to find a way to accommodate a forever aching shoulder, and something possessed me at about one AM to wake up and unplug my phone where it was charging next to me. I have no idea why, but it seemed necessary at that exact moment. 

Apparently it seemed necessary at that exact moment for the semi-truck parked perpendicular to me to fire up his diesel engine and shine his bright headlights into my car as well. In my delirium, all I could think was that in unplugging my phone I had somehow triggered the activation of the truck so I quickly and apologetically plugged my phone back in. It didn't work and the truck kept running. For.Ev.Er. So uncool. I'm just glad the weird communications  guy in the tiny green tent that keeps getting closer to my rig wasn't looking in my windows to witness my totally illogical reflex. That I know of. 

I can't understand what his attraction to me could be after the other evening when I wore a decent sized bit of tater-tot casserole around on my shirt for hours. I mean, some food is sexy, but tater-tot casserole on your left boob is a stretch. Explain to me How I could not notice a solid ounce of casserole on my chest, but I can still feel the "massive" spider weighing less than a microgram, crawling All. Over. My. Body. 

In the hours since the Spider Incident, I have quelled recurrent panic attacks by imaging him a friendly, curious little fellow who wants to be a firefighter. Either he's the same spider I saw crawling up the Safety Officer's leg earlier, or there's an entire army of the bulbous brown monsters in this dust bowl where I sit. For my own sanity I have to believe he is a hardy and determined individual. Only one. I'm totally writing a children's book. Nevermind that the illustrations will give me night terrors. 

I'm all about finding new and glorious ways to make sure that 300 burly firefighters know with all certainty what a complete dork I am. It's taken me a minute or two to realize that at some point in the last decade working on fires that I have transitioned from the Cute Girl in fire camp to the Frumpy Mom in fire camp. It's a tough pill to swallow when the blue eyed faller in the Stihl ball cap is actually flirting with the red headed engine boss next to me, and doesn't even know I exist. Curses. Of course it takes a few unacknowledged witty comebacks before I realize that he doesn't hear a thing I'm saying because Pippi Longstalking is redoing her braids. #heartbreak

That's ok. I'm older and wiser now, and most of my self esteem doesn't stem from the opinions of bad ass twenty something hot shots and their comrades. I'm not sure where it stems from, or some days if it stems at all, but I'll concede the fight. I'm just happy to be out here, making a fool of myself and a few bucks. 



Author's note: commo guy is actually very nice, and hasn't ever looked in my windows. That I know of. (In case KP ever stumbles across this blog) 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Things About Being Necessary

One of the biggest struggles I have is feeling like an unimportant human being. I am awfully good at using stuff: food, water, air, space, time, money, coffee, beer... I can consume like no other. But when it comes to producing, to being useful, it's a stretch to think of anything that I am Vitally Important for.

I have always had a philosophical problem with the idea held by some people that my worth as a person is warranted by my offspring. As if by raising the next generation of "world changers" or giving birth to the future Dalai Lama I will somehow make up for being born myself. Since I was a small child I have felt an almost desperate sense of Needing to Be Important. I want to be the world changer, the Dalai Lama, myself. Anybody with a uterus can crank out kids, and some of the best people in the history of the world have come from the worst parents, and vice versa, so I have a hard time swallowing the thought that my redemption comes through the Mighty People that I have borne. Motherhood is a high calling, and for most of my life, it remains true that if I am necessary anywhere as a human being, it is in this capacity. Not because I am raising the next president of the United States or the future Miss America, but because I am raising human beings, and like me, and like you, they need love.

I have always yearned to do more, to be more, to be Necessary, on a less biological and instinctive scale. I am necessary to my children because nature dictates it. If I do my job well, at some point I will not longer be necessary to them at all, and then I have succeeded in producing something. Lord willing it will be something good - four something goods - so far it seems like it might work out. But when that project is complete, where is my place in the cosmos? How will I then become necessary again? And to whom? Or do I get parked in the junk yard with the other broken down unnecessaries that haven't found a permanent place for when they're not dead yet?

I want to be Unequivocally Important in this life. I want people hanging on my every written word, and lives radically changed because I am there to make a difference.

Romantically, I am not necessary to anyone. As much as I want to be the last thing Some One thinks about at night and the first thing that Some One reaches for in the morning, I am needed by no one.  I have made the foolish mistake a thousand times over of falling in love with someone, allowing them to become "necessary" to me, when I am nothing but an option to them - if that. No one person needs me at the end of the day to tell their stories to, lean their head on, wrap their arms around. I am no body's best friend, confidant, lover, resting place. And no amount of needing from me makes me necessary to them. It's like an empty sucking vacuum in space. It's survivable, but it sure isn't fun. Which begs the question - what is actually necessary? It feels necessary to be loved by one person above all others, but time has proved the sad truth that it isn't. It feels necessary to be touched, and adored and heard and known, but again, no one I know is dying of singleness. It feels like dying sometimes. Like being buried alive. Romance isn't necessary.

But Love is necessary, and it goes on in spite of the pain, or loneliness, or the feeling of NEEDING that pervades everything. Love isn't the thing that you get from someone else, the touches, the feels - it's the thing that you give. We are all programmed to think that love is something we receive from the outside in, but the reality is that love comes from within us as whole human beings. And for all of the feeling needy, I have a lot of love to give even when it doesn't seem like it's coming in from anywhere.

Love is the thing that makes me necessary. It's the Thing of Vital Importance that I have to give the world. I am not building skyscrapers or raising people from the dead, but I am necessary in the choices that I make out of love every day. I have learned this from the people who have given me love and met my needs, both accidentally and intentionally. The big hug. The hand on the shoulder. The cold beer, or $20 to help out. The phone call out of the blue or random act of kindness. The George Baileys in this life that have given up their big suitcases to take care of a community, and the Father Darlings who have packed their dreams into a drawer to only look at occasionally in exchange for loving a family. The people that have saved my life by just Being There, by telling me I am Worthy, and I am Strong, and I can move ahead. These are the things that I have received and the things that I can give that might make the difference in the day or the month or the year or the life of a total stranger or my best friend. This is necessary.