Nick and I starting the fire season job of my dreams, this last week, has fortunately interrupted my attention to The News, and replaced it with attention to actual things about my actual life — like how hard it is to poop, the first couple days, eating fire camp food on an interrupted schedule. So that’s nice. It’s almost impossible to explain why this job is right now so preferable to other fire jobs because the whole industry (supporting people who fight fires) looks like one thing on the surface — and largely is that thing, practically speaking — but unfolds into dramatically different aspects on the “I wake up and here’s my day” level. I’ve blogged a little about being a fuel tender, which I very much enjoyed except for filling gazillions of “safety cans” with ostensibly removable, but not really removable, screens which accomplish nothing except splashing your entire face and body with gasoline.
This current job is a first in terms of being partnered with someone for the whole season — the strongest, handsomest man on earth, coincidentally — and in the last few days we’ve both had to learn all the ins and outs of this new operation, which is a mobile shower unit. Like most things wildland-fire-contractor related, it’s absolutely brilliant. (It can’t have been a private contractor that invented those enraging jerry cans. Smells like government.) I mean, this is a competitive and very lucrative industry; and unlike the CHAZ, you actually do have to function autonomously, and without hiccup, in even very remote environments; roll out on a moment’s notice, travel however far to get there, find places where Google Maps doesn’t get service, and then get it all set up no matter how long your day has been thus far.
So, like most contractors, we’re just, like, praying for this fire to be the Final Boss of all fires, simply because it was so much work getting here and getting going. I’d hate to be de-mobed tomorrow, no offense to the stuff getting burned up around here.
This is what I meant when I said it all looks like one thing on the surface, but unfolds much differently up close.
One thing I want to say, in order to make a point here in a second, is that hardly anyone can actually function in this environment. I’ve helped a lot of people get connected, only to watch them balk at the reality of it. Specifically, there’s a lot of work for CDL drivers like myself, and lots more for just regular ass people without any skill set besides fogging a mirror. There’s no wrong way to get on this carousel, because once you’re on — and you can produce just a little bit of hustle — you’re on. Like, what I did is I just Forrest Gumped myself onto a fire, with some company, somehow, and then started networking from there. Three fires later I had already gotten on with a much better company, for much better pay, and then I rode that horse pretty fucking hard all the way up until I met my guy, Nick, who balked at the built-in seasonal long distance relationship-ness of it all — which is a totally legitimate concern — got myself a semi-real job, then COVID-19 global house arrest, and long story short I was like “fuck it, I’m going back to fire and you’re coming with me”. Turns out Nick functions beautifully in this environment, which is wonderful because this is my fourth season out and I’ve definitely had some moments, in the past few days getting set up, where I was like: uh oh. Am I too old for this shit?
I think everyone has those moments, or I hope. I remember slinging fuel or water and talking to a lot of burned out agency guys, or contractors, and they were like on their 12th season or something, waking up in the dark and cold, or the dark and hot, or the dark and smoke, whatever, having these really long fucking days, fixing coffee out of an ammo can on their tailgate after sleeping on rocks all night, and just like: so sick of this shit. And here I was, perky as could be with my fuel nozzle or my 2” water hose, like: omg can you believe it? Can you believe we’re out here? Can you believe what they’re paying us? Omg look at us! I was exhausting, I’m sure. I remember their sleep rumpled faces just leveled at me, with the truck still running, like “what even is this”.
Anyway, that’s been me, now, a couple moments at least. We had two 16-hour days getting out here and getting set up, complete with mandatory mechanical breakdown at the hottest possible place, plus a whole new learning curve. I’ve always said: I love new experiences the second time.
Back to what I said, though, about most people not being able to function in this environment — I don’t mean that heroically or even masochistically. It’s an entire industry that may or may not be needed every year, and fickle at every level even if it is. Even if any given company does get work, that work goes to first-dibs employees, so the whole thing is like a pecking order of metal shavings oriented to the world’s most randomly appearing and disappearing, moving-target magnet. Basic work-related questions like when, where, for how long, and under what conditions?, are just firm question marks. It’s worth it when it is worth it — I made $52k in 6 months, in 2018 — but how do you arrange a lifestyle with another source of income where you can randomly abandon it for unknown periods of time in order to trophy hunt this bigger financial game, given the vagaries of the sport?
So that’s all problematic, and I haven’t even begun to discuss the issues of sleeping on the ground every night, amid whatever combination of temperatures, inclement weather, insects, etc. I mean, that’s enough of a deal breaker for most people right there. Then you’ve got really long work days on top of it, but here’s the ultimate, ultimate hard-to-swallow pill: when and if everything goes right, it’s very boring. Boring as in, chasing the shade in your lawn chair all day every day, with possibly very little else to do, BUT you might need to do a whole lot else at any moment, with no warning, so it’s not actually like relaxing at home, or real camping, where no one can fuck with you.
Like me writing this blog right now — I’ve jumped up sixteen times already just to do some little thing that needed doing, and I’m sure I’ll jump up sixteen more. (Knock one off already, since I typed that sentence.) ANYWAY, it’s a whole weird thing for sure. But I love it. I don’t even have an intellectual mechanism for describing what I love about it, and why — I just have this internal panoramic memory of the most deeply satisfying experiences of my life, where I felt just right in my skin, just right in the world, and guess what — they mostly involve driving trucks off road and activities related to that. So this memory tapestry captures many, many (many x infinity) moments connected to fire season, but also to my time in the North Dakota oil field, and prior to that in the Army National Guard as a motor transport operator in my early 20’s. There are some other connected memories too — it doesn’t necessarily have to involve trucks — and in fact, if I tried to put my finger on what the actual blueprint for these experiences is, I don’t know if I could. It’s something about functioning solo, but in a loosely organized group context; and something about the outdoors or also just unusual environments, like big warehouses at night or really some combination of nature’s beauty and man’s industry, and just feeling myself to have a job that I know how to do, knowing that I’m contributing somehow but I’m also able to be largely with myself in my own mind. I don’t know.
I mean, one cool thing about fire camp is that it’s one of the few social settings that’s by nature a zero alcohol environment. I have no problem with alcohol, but socially speaking, it’s like a very dominant flavor that drowns out all the other ingredients. There’s all kinds of people out here doing all kinds of things, thinking all kinds of ways, but no one’s drinking, and that’s cool.
I love our wonderful teepee tent, made of cream-colored heavy canvas, with froths of white mosquito netting, and I love our little job, now that we’ve gotten here and erected it. Basically cleaning and sanitizing shower stalls so that firefighters and support staff can have a nice bathing experience, despite the other hardships. I love watching the dark, cold morning turn to bright, cool morning, turn to hot afternoon, stretching on and on into warm evening, and then the cool night, and sleeping again. The light on the mountains around us is exquisite, and changing.
Our shower operation is a 53-foot trailer converted into individually plumbed shower stalls, with a huge water tank and two big hot water heaters at the back. The stalls are so nice — private, really hot water, really good pressure, little shelves for all your stuff, and then a fold down bench for sitting or staging. I drove the tractor trailer combo of course, and then Nick drove the chase truck and smaller trailer, which contains the most adorable air-conditioned and/or heated office/quarters, which is where I’m sitting with Buffy and writing this blog. We have big astroturf out, in front of the trailer, and EZ ups with LED’s, and nice chairs, and sinks with mirrors and hot water — I mean, it’s just great.
Ok, so the point I am finally winding up to making: for reasons of existential instability, financial instability, and existential boredom, not many people can do this job, but Nick and I can do the fuck out of this job (and I’m recently validated in this opinion), BUT here are our caveats, and they’re major: we want to have our two little dogs and the entirety of our barbell equipment with us. Can you imagine? Rolling up to an employer, any employer, but particularly these kinds of employers, and being like: here is all our by-definition heavy, bulky shit, PLUS not one but two living beings that are not only helpless but full-blown ding-dongs, and we want to take it all, everywhere, to work in environments specifically hostile to baggage of any sort. It’s almost a deal-breaker. And if I hadn’t worked in fire previously, I’d just write the attempt off before-hand. But when they need good people, they just need good people so bad. I mean, being one person short when fire season really kicks off can mean a difference of maybe half a million dollars, for an independent contractor. It’s a big deal. And we’re just no problem at all, besides that — we’re friendly, strong, hardworking, easy-going, smart, and we learn fast. So getting our foot in the door, long enough to become obviously indispensable, is really the only challenge.
Then, all kinds of magical things happen! I mean, this is our first fire all together, but Buffy has provided emotional support to entire crews, in the past, and notably the Incident Commander personally, on one fire last year. This was funny — every morning I would wake up in the cold dark tent, hustle a totally reluctant and pajama’d Buffy out to pee, tuck her back into the sleeping bag, and then go start my truck and sling my fuel for about three hours. When it all calmed down around 9am, the Incident Commander would always come by in his big pickup, ostensibly to get fuel and make small talk, but then like an eager child he would say, “So…Buffy up yet?” This was just hysterical to me, privately, but I didn’t want to react too much because I didn’t want him to feel self-conscious.
So I’d unzip the tent and produce Buffy, who was always a half-asleep warm little bundle of fleece wrapped baby at this point, and Buffy and the Incident Commander would scamper around and play and snuggle for about 15 minutes. And then he’d hand her back to me, drive off, and resume commanding the incident. Lolllll! It was just amazing.
And there have been endless variations on this theme, in all of Buffy’s fire camps. I just have to keep her alive, relative to birds of prey etc, and now we have two little bugaboos to keep alive, but other than that they’ve already contributed so much to this environment. And of course, people are starting to get interested in lifting, since there’s an entire barbell gym set up behind the trailer — Nick’s passion for barbell is demonstrably contagious.
Anyway, we’re having a great time, and figuring out our sleep schedules, and just getting it all dialed in. We took a bit of a pay cut for this job, versus what we could have made with my former employer if Nick had a CDL and we were willing to get split up and forego the barbell stuff, but that’s kind of a big hit to take.
Okay, it’s beyond time for me to figure out how the invoicing and paperwork for this outfit comes together, and Nick is about to fix a couple things that could work a little better. The little dogs seem content and I’m just quietly thrilled on every level. If we can get our morning routines dialed in, which seems likely, I’ll have lots more to blog about, all season, and hopefully very little of it will be world events 🙂