Because Fire in the Heart has been out for a year and a half, I sometimes reflect on what I could have written and what I did write. These sometimes diverge. If I wrote it today, it would be a different book (remember, there’s a huge lag in when you finish writing and when it is published…sometimes years.) I was thinking about all the reasons I left fire, and most are still true. But there’s one big iceberg most people don’t mention, and it’s the big divide between us and them.
In the old days, everyone who was capable “did fire”, whether you were categorized as full-time firefighters, or if you were a resource specialist, “militia”. It was just expected. After I left full-time fire, I stayed in the game. I went on fires nearly every week in some cases, for long stretches. It was appreciated, and my skills were recognized. I had crew bosses begging me to go out.
Then it changed. After the fires of 2000, a great “fire hire” began. You were supposed to hire enough full-time fire people to build a certain number of chains of fireline in a certain period, regardless of whether you lived in a rain forest or not (this resulted in the southeast Alaska crews getting a high amount of training most of the year, or being gone on assignments most of the year since nothing was going on in that soggy world). This is when the attitude toward “militia” began to change. We were no longer needed as much, and so were not respected the same or could keep up our qualifications. Our managers balked at sending us out; since the fire budget gobbled up more than 50% of our overall appropriation, when people retired we inherited their duties (a job I had once had five people doing it). We didn’t get the same exercise time, yet were expected to keep up. The gap widened. In helitack, where I used to be always able to go out, the national crews took over, bringing enough people so that call when needed people weren’t needed. When I was first on a call when needed line crew, we were right in there with the hotshots and everyone else, building hot line. Soon, we saw ourselves relegated to mopup only–and worse, that became the opinon of us from firefighters. That was all we could do, they thought.
Recently I had someone say disparagingly that I had been “militia” most of my fire career. This makes me sad. People say you have choices, and yes, I could have stayed in full time fire. Why didn’t I? I saw the writing on the wall. Though I loved fire, I saw it as a dead end, beating my body up for a GS 5 wage, in a state I didn’t particularly like. When I was offered a promotion where I could work in wilderness, but was assured I could still “do fire”, I jumped at it. And for years I was able to balance both. I traveled all over as a squad boss, engine boss, helitack, and incident commander. I had found the perfect life, I thought.
Fast forward. Times are different now. There’s no place for us militia. Well, maybe there is somewhere, but not that I’ve found. It’s sad. It leaves me with a bitter taste. I know we need a professional firefighting force, but there’s ways even that could be improved. I think things were better when we all worked toward a common goal. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I just need to accept that things change.