On the Line

Birthdays are often the time of year I escape to a mountain top or an alpine lake solo to reflect on the past year and my upcoming goals. 

This year, I'll be working at a fire station. 

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I'm a wildland firefighter now. 

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How I ended up here, short version: 

Even after landing dream gigs, I couldn't help but feel unfulfilled at work. The hours I was putting in every week didn't seem to justify the amount of personal sacrifice I was making. And inevitably I'd burn out and my performance suffered. After the last attempt, which ended in May of 2016, I decided to take a year and a half and do some intense introspection. The hope was that I'd eventually find the *perfect* marketing gig, one that allowed me a healthy work/life balance and that let me work remotely so I could spend time in the mountains I've come to call home. 

Per usual, life doesn't work out exactly like we plan, no matter how meticulously we prepare. In that year and a half, I was broke. I suffered an unexpectedly deep cycle of depression. Mak needed surgery, and I was living the stressful life of not only having to account and care for myself but also for another creature. I worked long hours, I slept little, and eventually, I began to chisel out what I truly valued in a career. 

Coming from a family of educators, researchers, and now an accomplished doctor (congrats, brother!), service is something deeply ingrained in my genetics. The things we do must bring value to the greater population. While my marketing skills could technically accomplish that, it wasn't in the capacity that made me feel like I was making any tangible difference. I also function best in small teams, solving immediate problems, and thrive on creativity, physical challenges, and mental stimulation. This narrowed the field to military. 

In late September, I went to visit a friend at a fire station in Park City to pick up a pack for Mak. His crew was dispatched to a flipped car and I tagged along. Sitting in the rig, watching my friend calmly take control of the situation and help the family move on to their next critical steps felt like a puzzle piece clicking into place. This. This is EXACTLY what I needed to be doing. Service oriented, physically demanding, small team, competitive environment, and immediate gratification when problems are solved. Suddenly, I knew I HAD to become a firefighter, all other options ceased to exist.

Several interviews and tearful phone calls with my family later, I signed up for my first EMT course and was sitting in class six days later. The leap was terrifying but I was committed to making it work. Over the next few months, I obsessively studied and prepared for exams. It was the busiest season for work but I scheduled several ride alongs with various departments on my rare days off so I could get an idea of what daily life was like at the stations, the types of personalities the department hired, and where I would fit into that dynamic. I took extra classes after work and carved out time to train intensely for the physical tests. Throughout the process, I was surprised to see how almost effortless the work felt now that I had a purpose and was passionate about the end goal. 

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After the heartbreak of getting passed over by Park City Fire Department faded (I was deemed ineligible after missing the physical test by 15 seconds), I began to seriously consider wildland firefighting. Originally, this line of work didn't appeal to me. It was hot, back breaking work far away from cell service and any form of work/life balance. It looked dangerous and excessively rugged, full of rowdy men and boys eager to prove something. In other words, it seemed too extreme for me. 

Yet, as everything went up in flames in California, I began to consider it. When both sides of my family were evacuated in the Tubbs and Thomas fires, the sense of duty and service crept back. It hurt watching friends and family deal with the aftermath of the fires, struggling to return to work and any sense of normalcy. I hated feeling helpless. So I applied. 

When I got a call with an offer, I put it all on the line. Well, it was a semi-offer but it was something. I quit my well-paying job, sent Mak to live with his dad in California, packed up and moved an hour west to be closer to the station. I started the season as an alternate, meaning I would be an on-call employee once the season started in June. No fires, no calls. So it could be weeks before I got any calls or paid work. If there was a fire, I had to report to the station and be ready to roll in under two hours. Hanging my future on such a tentative offer was a huge risk, one that terrified me, but it was the only shot I had at any type of fire experience this summer. Plus, the likelihood of being able to hold down a regular job that paid bills while also allowing me the flexibility to leave whenever I was called to a fire seemed nonexistent. I had to secure a full time spot or I'd be forced to find another job.

After a very stressful month of trying to prove myself worthy of a full time spot, I was eventually given the last spot on the crew. After work that day, I sobbed in my car,  relief washing over me. All of the sacrifices and risk taking had paid off, I was going to be a firefighter. Little did I know that the hardest part had yet to begin.

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Today:

I often get asked, "what's it like being a wildland firefighter?" 

I struggle to find the words to adequately sum up my experience thus far.

I'm now halfway through my first season as a wildland firefighter.  It's unglamourous, painful, frustrating, thankless, and backbreaking. Getting my ass kicked day in and day out has been quite a humbling experience.

Being away from friends and family is lonely, even when the separation is simply the misalignment of schedules. After relying on their support in the months leading up to this, I now find myself too busy or too exhausted to call family back home or make dates to see friends in Utah. Being separated from Mak has also been tough, having become dependent on his companionship and unconditional acceptance. I often feel like an island surrounded by a roaring sea of frustrations and insecurities brought on by this challenging new career.

Navigating this new culture has been tough. I've never felt like a minority in any capacity before and the inherent "otherness" of being older, a rookie, and a female has been uncomfortable to say the least. As a minority, I find myself carrying the weight of knowing I'm not only paving a way for myself but for all those following in my footsteps. I'm not only setting my own standard, I'm trying to uphold and surpass the standard and preconceptions set by the few who have come before me. The pressure, while partially self-induced, can be overwhelming almost to the point of crippling my progress. Who wants to fuck up when each mistake feels exponentially more devastating since the consequences could impact people like me down the line?

I also constantly find myself shut out socially, often unintentionally but sometimes maliciously. I keep forcing myself to attempt to connect, even when I'd much rather say, "fuck it" and keep to myself. As a rookie, it's my job to follow orders, which is not a trait that comes naturally to me. Having been a sports team captain, mentor, and manager in every endeavor I've undertaken, following instructions and putting unconditional trust in my leadership has been a difficult transition. Being a recipient of the obligatory hazing hasn't been easy either, especially since I'm almost a decade older than most of my crew and don't care much for pissing contests these days. Full immersion in a new work culture while still learning your place can trigger ancient insecurities you didn't realized still lurked in the depths of your self. Thankfully, I have leaders who are willing to guide me through this social jungle but even then, there's only so much they can do to help. Ultimately, I have to fight for a place at the table on my own. 

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While the emotional toll of being the resident misfit is heavy, the physical demands are even harder. No matter how hard I push myself in our daily workouts, I'm still forced to put in extra work during my off days if I have any hope of catching up to the rest of my crew's physical abilities. All of this work and I'm barely able to keep within eyesight of them. It's mentally devastating, constantly pushing myself this hard when I know I will probably never catch up. The goal feels unreachable, the effort seems futile. Yet I still force myself to work harder than the day before, something I thought impossible. Crew camaraderie aside, they do get frustrated watching me continually come in last for everything. They express their disappointment in me externally, while internally, my frustrations rage harder than theirs. I have never come in last place for anything and this was not the environment where I cared to gain experience in being the weakest link. Yet here I am, tasting defeat over and over again. More often than not, I cry on hikes as the rage and frustration becomes overwhelming and needs a physical release. "FUCK" has become an inner mantra, one that gets angrier with every vertical foot I fight for as I climb up the peak.

And oh, the frustrations are so fucking real. Mixed with perfectionism, this bold new career is a recipe for misery. Sometimes, I forget that I chose this path; this job is exactly what I wanted.

Indeed, I was warned that there would be times when I would question what I was doing, as if I had accidentally stumbled into the biggest mistake of my life. I didn't believe it at the time yet now, I find myself more often than not questioning my choices, doubting my abilities. Wondering if I'm cut out for this work at all or if I've somehow made a horrible miscalculation.

But in those dark times, when I’m feeling almost every negative emotion at once and self doubt is roaring in my ears, a small voice reminds me that this is what it feels like to grow. It doesn’t make it feel any better or make the losses any less humiliating but it gives the pain a purpose. This hope is what I cling to when I’m failing. This promise of growth is what pulls me back onto my feet and pushes me back out for more.

The truth is, I needed this.

No matter how heartbreaking this job can be, how emotionally tough it gets, I need it. I needed to leave my comfort zone far behind me and step out into rugged new terrain. This humiliation and frustration is fueling me to become stronger spiritually and to train with a vengeance. The harsh environment has laid my soul bare, forcing me to reflect and work on weaknesses I hadn't realized existed and to address those I've willfully chosen to ignore. I'm learning to value consistent improvement over perfection. I may never be the first up the mountain with a chainsaw on my shoulder but I can sure as hell beat my last time. I'm still overly critical of myself but I'm beginning to forgive myself a little more. I may never be good enough for others or meet their standards but I can still hold myself accountable to a high standard and continue to train with integrity. I'm becoming a better leader by becoming a better follower; there is still so much I don't know and so much to learn. Humility goes a long way. Even after vomiting, there is still more to give in a workout. In fact, there is almost always more to give, emotionally or physically. The breaking point isn't the end, it's just the beginning of growth. Through the pain, humiliation, and emotional discomfort, I'm finding joy in what I do every day. Slowly but surely, I’m becoming a better firefighter and a more resilient me.

 

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