Next year will be the first that I haven’t had an “arduous” rating on my firefighter red card since 1986. Back then, the test you had to pass was a one and a half mile run. Depending on your elevation, you had to complete it in eleven minutes and change, a time that I found easy to beat. Once I was the only one completing the test, and my supervisor hung his belt on a tree lining the dirt road. I had to grab the belt and run back with it to prove I hadn’t turned around short. Another time, my friend Roger pushed me to a nine minute finish time, a fast pace for me as I entered my thirties. He refused to let me drop back, saying, “we got ‘er!” as we approached the pickup truck that marked the finish. Later, Roger would die in a firestorm, deciding he couldn’t outrun the flames and deciding to take his chances in his fire shelter. Over the nearly twenty-five years since then, I have often thought that if he couldn’t make it, I wouldn’t have been able to run either.
But that’s not why I am giving it up. I fought fire for years after South Canyon, making sure nobody died on my watch. Instead, it has been a gradual letting go. Most of the time now I am content to work at the helibase as an ABRO (aircraft base radio operator), far from the flames. Scratch that, though: I am not really content. A small sliver of me still wants to be out there on the line, pulaski in hand. That’s the part I wrestle. Because it’s time to give it up.
I have other things I like to do now with my summers. My job is far removed from fire, and I like to leave it behind on Friday. Overtime is less important than hiking in the mountains with my dog, spending the night at an alpine lake. I write books. I swim in ice cold water in a wetsuit. None of these things are better than fighting fire. They’re just different.
I never thought I’d be one of those people, toeing the line for the pack test with a 25 pound vest. Or worse, not doing it at all. That seems to signal old age, or softness. For so long my identity was wrapped up in being a firefighter. I loved how strong I felt, how empowered. Even though being one of few women on crews in the late eighties wasn’t easy, I worked my way up as far as I wanted to, sometimes on the fireline twelve months out of the year. And even though the lure of a year-round recreation job drew me away, I was fortunate that most of my supervisors let me visit the line now and then.
The best years were dramatically different–the winter-dry Florida swamp and the great beating heart of Alaska’s interior. I have so many memories that will never be taken away, and I am glad I got to live it. There will always be a small sliver that misses it and wonders why I gave it up. But it’s time. Time to let the younger women have it. And I don’t see this as a weakness, or a concession to age. Just like running marathons, which I did once and loved beyond reason, this is something I am letting go to make room for other things. Like clearing out a closet, like thinking about the men I once loved, but not needing to contact them. Fire was there for me once, and it was beautiful. I won’t forget, and I have no regrets.