This is the time of year historically that one can expect to begin seeing stories in the newspapers and on the nightly news of wildfires burning in the mountains and foothills of the western US. But in fact we have been watching huge destructive fires burning the unusually dry landscape all over the country for several months now. It is hard to argue that global warming has not contributed to an increase in both size and intensity of these fires in recent years, especially in areas like the Pacific Northwest. Just recently in Glacier National Park the remote Sperry Chalet burned to the ground and firefighters are making a concerted effort to insure that the historic Lake McDonald Lodge doesn’t meet the same fate. We spent two wonderful nights in the Lodge and hiked to the Granite Park Chalet (Sperry’s sister)last summer. There are also large fires burning on both sides of the Columbia river gorge in Washington and Oregon not far from where my husband fought fires more than 40 years ago on a “Hot Shot”crew for the Forest Service. His career as a firefighter began as a part-time summer job his senior year of college and lasted nearly 40 years by the time he retired from the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
I don’t know many who would argue that firefighting is anything less than a physically demanding, mentally challenging and dangerous job. While lots of kids dream of becoming a firefighter when they grow up, most will end up in other lines of work. For those that do, it can be a constant battle to balance the demands of work with the competing demands of family and relationships. Firefighters, especially those that battle wildland fires, can be away from home for weeks or months at a time. Even city firefighters often work 24 hour shifts several times a month. All can be called to report on very short notice. This means that they often miss birthdays, holidays, kids games or other special family/social occasions. There is also the incumbant stress of the occupation to consider. These demands can certainly strain personal relationships, often to the breaking point. While most recent studies point to a similar life expectancy for firefighters (if they are not killed or disabled on the job), they are often left with life- altering injuries or illnesses like skin cancer from sun exposure or lung problems from excessive exposure to smoke.
So why do they do it. What is it about firefighting that draws them to the profession. While I can’t speak for all firefighters, I can tell you some of the reasons that my husband joined the ranks and ended up making it a career. Don went to college to study forestry because he wanted a job that would keep him outdoors and away from a sedentary job behind a desk. The part-time summer job as a Hot Shot began as an interesting way to make some money to help pay for college. After graduation he took a full-time job at a small timber mill in Utah, but the excitement of firefighting pulled him back. He worked a couple of seasons with the Forest Service before applying to the LA County Fire Department (Forestry Division) in part to land a better paying, year round job with benefits and in part to placate his first wife’s desire to return to Southern California. Although they were able to move back to where they grew up, it also resulted in him spending more time away from home. That marriage did not survive.
Still there were other positive aspects to his firefighting career beyond pay and benefits. He got the outdoor physical job that he was looking for and was heartened to be making a difference. A positive contribution. And then there is the adrenalin rush. When that bell goes off or the phone call comes in and wakes a firefighter from a sound sleep they immediately become energized. And on the fire line itself they are attuned to the smallest clues about the fire’s behavior. Experience has taught them to always be on alert and training has prepared them to maintain that vigilance for long periods of time. Firefighting isn’t an easy job but at the same time it is rewarding to know that what you do makes a positive difference in the lives of others. Whatever their own personal reasons, I am happy that there are men and women willing to take on this difficult task in support of the rest of us.