We used to say, federal wildland firefighters have four seasons just like normal people… but different. Ours starts with the prescribed burning season in the spring. Moves on to fire season in the summer. Then hunting season in the fall and finally training season in the winter. There used to be some truth to that quick summary. Maybe there still is. But fall for many of us is a weird time, especially if it follows a busy fire season. Many of you didn’t have a tough season this year compared to the past 10 years. Others had their biggest season ever. (Thinking about the southern region.) But regardless of the severity of the fires and how many hours of overtime you worked, this time of year is always a bit of a letdown. Let’s talk about it.
It has been decades since I was driving around on an engine or crew buggy. But my overhead assignments had similarities too. Rather than backbreaking labor, I transitioned to the stress of decision fatigue while working as a DIVS or Operations Chief. The exhaustion is the same. I don’t ever remember coming home from a 3-week assignment saying, “gosh, I feel so much more well rested after this assignment than I used to when I was on a crew.” Physical exhaustion or mental exhaustion, they both wipe us out.
Then suddenly, you’re back to working a 40-hour week. It feels like a vacation. Eight-hour days? What? No more 16-hour days for the rest of the year? It feels like a weight’s been lifted off your shoulders.
But wait, where’re your buddies that you talk to everyday while cutting line or pulling hose? You’re so used to the crazy pace of the work and being involved with your co-workers, that even though it feels nice to be back to a 40-hour work week or even laid off… it doesn’t necessarily feel right or good. It’s disorienting. It’s not “normal”.
One of my podcasts is titled “# 91, How Firefighting Changed Me.” It’s mostly a lighthearted look at how we are changed by the work we do. But we must acknowledge that our work schedule and environment is an “alternative lifestyle”. It really is. Non-fire people can’t fathom what you go through on fire assignments. The way you sleep, the way you eat and the way you live. And because of the intensity of the work, whether it is body numbing hard labor on the fireline, the long hours in the Plans tent or the intensity of decision making under stress as an Ops Chief, everyone on that fire is going home exhausted. And at the end of the season, it’s like a giant letdown.
This time of year, have you ever just stumbled around wondering what life is all about? I have. Have you spent any time thinking about taking a job doing something other than wildland fire? I did. Ever feel let down and depressed? Yea, we all have. Part of the problem is we’re not designed to go from 120mph on the autobahn of fire season to doing 15mph in the school zone in a short couple of weeks. It messes with our heads.
I bet your families and close friends notice the change in you too. The “alternative lifestyle” of being a wildland firefighter isn’t a healthy one. It’s tough, not just physically, but emotionally as well. You’ll workout through the winter so you’re ready for the pack-test in the spring. But what about your head? What are you doing for that part of your fitness?
Over my long career, I can remember the drive home from some memorable campaign fires. You know the kind of fire. It’s lasted all summer and your crew or IMT has rotated through at least twice. It’s a grind. You get switched from day shift to night shift and it’s hot. Sleeping arrangements suck. Night sleeping is supposed to get moved to the nearby air-conditioned school gymnasium but in the meantime, you’re sleeping in the shade of a nearby orchard. It’s not too bad but it’s upwind from the helibase so you have a continual wop wop wop of type 2 ships heading out with cargo and crews.
Maybe you’re on an IMT and you’re getting up at 0430 to check on what happened overnight with the night shift because you may have to adjust the plan, meet with the DIVS at 0500 to be ready for the briefing at 0600. And last night around 1030 or 1100 on the way to your tent, the Resource Unit Leader from Plans came running to find you because the crews that were expected in camp tonight that we needed for the burnout tomorrow had a buggy breakdown. “What do you want to show on tomorrow’s IAP now?” “Shit, let me think about it.” You’ve got 1000 firefighters between day and night shift, a town in the path of the fire, private timber interests who are screaming bloody murder that you’re not putting the fire out and a County Commissioner who’s sure we’re purposely making the fire bigger. Right now, I kind of wish I was pulling hosepacks off the engine and humping them up the hill. Yea, no stress here. But it really does affect us. The stress of the physical or mental weighs on you and me and all our co-workers. It has to. But we don’t talk about it.
My podcast story “#63, Secret Tears (There’s No Crying in Firefighting)” is about the emotional letdowns that I’ve experienced after I leave a large incident and begin my drive home. I never understood where those leaking type tears came from. I wasn’t sad. I had a successful incident. Racked up plenty of OT, but for some reason on the long drive back to my station, for reasons unknown to me I’d begin to tear up. When I posted that podcast, I heard from some of you that you have the same reaction after a long arduous assignment. Is it just exhaustion? Is it the cumulative stress we are under and the release once we leave? One of my friends suggested that maybe it was from being so exhausted, all of life’s sorrows and emotions were able to seep to the surface. I suppose that’s not a bad idea. And don’t we all have feelings of loss, regret and pain that we keep hidden under the surface?
If you’ve been a firefighter for a few years, you may have lost friends or co-workers to accidents on the line. Maybe you lost someone to suicide or a car accident after work while drinking or work-related cancer. I’ve lost friends and co-workers to all of those. It hurts. It’s painful. It makes me sad, and it pisses me off.
We all have reasons to mourn the loss of friends and family, whether they’re work related or not. What I worry about is you younger firefighters coming back from a long season and getting laid off or just cut back on the hours. Now you’re stuck with your private thoughts, anxieties and worries about work, finances and family. Melancholy can be tough if you don’t have a support system. Your husband or wife or girlfriend or boyfriend may be able to help. But they might not understand your “alternative lifestyle”. This may be a time for some camaraderie. I don’t mean going out drinking with the crew. Alcohol just is a replacement for the frenetic pace of fire season. But camaraderie can come in the form of a hunting trip where you can experience the outdoors without smoke other than from your campfire. Maybe it’s going to the ski area with your kids and reconnecting with them. Don’t forget family in this equation. They’re critical to your mental health too.
How ever you find a way to re-center yourself, please do so. And try not to lean too heavily on alcohol. Years ago, a veteran firefighter and IC who worked for me and who I considered a friend shot himself at the end of the season. My boss brought in a counselor to talk to us. He gave the same advice. Don’t use alcohol to deal with the pain and confusion of losing a firefighter friend. Using alcohol and drugs to deal with the pain of loss only leads to more loss. It’s inevitable. So let me pass this advice to you. Talk about your emotions with trusted family or friends. Be honest. Your friends and family need you to be healthy and happy. And be a good friend and lend an ear to your buddies who may be experiencing the same thing as you. Talk about it and come back to work fit, strong and emotionally healthy. Have a good holiday season.
Both Sides of the Fire Line is Bobbie Scopa’s uplifting memoir of bravely facing the heat of fierce challenges, professionally and personally. It’s available now.Order from Amazon Order from Barnes & Noble