The Cost of Fire

As we rapidly head into fire season, I thought that maybe I’d write a bit about getting burnt out in fire, and the things we’re missing out on as a group.  Last year, for some reason I still haven’t figured out, I started the season lacking the enthusiasm I’d had before.  We started getting fires on our district in May, and I for one wasn’t ready mentally.  I was prepared in terms of being able to do the job, but my heart wasn’t into it.  After 12 years of mostly enjoying my job, I wasn’t having fun anymore.  I struggled my way through the season, and while I eventually reached equilibrium, it felt like treading water in the ocean during a hurricane rather than an invigorating dip in a calm mountain lake after a long day on the trail.  The question I’ve been mulling over for the past few months is simple:  Why?  I don’t have any broad-brush answers, but I think I have narrowed it down to a few factors, at least for me.

I started fighting fire the summer I graduated from high school. It seemed like a great way to make some extra money before I headed out to college, and that’s as far as I thought about it.  After my first year in college, I decided to change from a Technical Writing and Communications major to Forestry, thinking that I could eventually work my way into a GIS/mapping, hydrologist or forester position with the Forest Service.  I kept working in fire for a few summers – it was a good way to earn some money – and at the time I wasn’t too concerned about long-term career options.  My turning point came in 2004, during an incredibly rainy summer on the Seeley Lake RD of the Lolo NF.  Since we had very little fire activity, I got tasked to help one of the forest Silviculturists lay out and mark commercial thinning and fuel reduction units around Seeley.  I had a great time and learned a lot.  In fact, I learned too much. I believed things that really weren’t true.  The old forester I worked with was, in hindsight, bitter, and over the course of a few conversations he convinced me that I had no chance of getting a forester job with the Forest Service because I was a white male.  His words, not mine.  I now realize that wasn’t true, but at the time I didn’t know any better, and my idea of pursuing a forestry career was fairly crushed.

That same summer another thing happened that set my path in stone:  I got my first helicopter ride to and from a fire, and I was hooked.  I worked hard to get on a helitack crew the next summer, and since then I’ve worked in fire and aviation with little thought for other career options.  I’ve also spent a lot time in my post-college winters either working in or around fire, or putting on or attending training.  Even while I was in college I was constantly thinking about fire in the winter, either academically, taking fire ecology classes, or professionally, working at the training center 20-30 hours a week as a work-study employee.

All this is to say that since I started fire at the age of 18, I haven’t really taken any breaks.  I’ve given up every summer for 14 years to pursue my career, and I’ve chased every winter opportunity I could as well.  I’ve moved every few years to move up in the organization, and to grow as an individual.  I’ve lived a bipolar life, with my summers usually being spent in different places, with different people and different schedules than my winters.  Because of this, I’ve missed out on a lot of things, family time, relationships, friendships, and the like.  I’ve lived the past 14 years feeling like I’m unsettled, unable to reconcile these two parts of my life, the work and the personal.  That, I think, finally caught up with me last year, and I’m still trying to figure out how to bring it all together.

But enough about me… it’s time for some more general observations.

Life is short.  We all know this.  It’s too short, I think, to let work dominate our lives to the degree we do.  Fire is unique in that the culture demands we sacrifice our personal lives to the job for much of our careers, and I think that it’s taking a large toll on our workforce.  Every year I see the results around me, especially as I age.  I see my coworkers get married, and then divorced.  A running joke in the fire community is that the divorce rate among firefighters is over 100%, if you count those who have been through multiple marriages.  It’s also said that there’s two types of firefighters, those who have been divorced, and those who will be. Okay, so those are just some funny stereotypes that we laugh at, but we are a culture that uses humor to deal with the harsh reality of our jobs, and there is more truth to the jokes than there should be.  There are some who manage to have successful, happy, healthy relationships, and I envy them.  But they are in the minority I think, and we don’t fully appreciate the costs that are demanded of them in finding that balance.

There are many people like me, in our mid 30s and single, unable to create lasting relationships because of the demands of the job.  It’s difficult to get a relationship past the initial phases when you’re basically unavailable for weeks at a time during the summer.  I personally have moved around to move up, and moving every few years is also a death knell for most young relationships.  It’s a choice I’ve made consciously, to not put down roots until I get settled in the job I want, and it’s a choice that more and more people my age (the “millennials”) are making.  I’ve missed out on a lot of things in life because of fire, and while I’ve been given the opportunity to experience some amazing things because of my job, it’s not been without cost.

On the other side of the spectrum are those who put family first, settle down, and then face difficulty in moving up in the organization because they don’t want to move.  It’s tough to be a GS-5 working 6-8 months a year and make ends meet for a family, and I see good firefighters quit every year in order to find work that will provide more for their family.  It’s common in western Montana for people to hit their mid-30s, start a family, and quit fire, either to pursue a completely different career or just move into a non-fire position in the agency.  I’ve seen many great firefighters, great leaders, and great people leave the Forest Service because they want to see their kids in the summer, they want to be there for their families, and honestly, who can blame them?  It’s something that I don’t think that the fire community has fully realized – we’re experiencing a form of brain-drain as some of our best and brightest make the conscious decision to leave fire, not because they’re being stolen away by higher-paying employers, but because the job demands too much of them and their families.

Regardless of the official line about being family-friendly, and allowing people to take time off for family events, it’s a harsh truth that our culture places a large emphasis on working every day and every hour that you possibly can.  On my crew, where about half of the people have families, there is enormous peer pressure to work every single hour you can, even if it’s just to get the overtime, and not because you’re actually needed for work.  Yet if you ask any of the supervisors, they’ll tell you we’re a family-oriented crew, and that you can take time off any time you want.  The Forest FMO and his Deputy get on the daily conference calls during fire season and remind us to take time off if we need to, and to make sure our crews are rested and ready.  As the calls go on, my supervisor makes smart remarks about how we’re not tired, and we all exchange glances that say “sure we aren’t tired… it’s mid-September and we’ve been working 12 and 14-hour days since June.”  Of course we’re tired, but we also want to be part of the team, and everyone likes the money, especially in February when we’ve been laid off for a few months.

The duality is amusing, and frustrating.  Part of it is because overtime has become such a large part of how most firefighters earn their living, and plan their finances.  At the lower GS levels, it’s common for roughly half of your income for a season to come from overtime.  Even at my level, every 100 hours of overtime is the equivalent of a month’s base salary, and during the peak of fire season we can work 50 or 60 hours of overtime each week.  There is enormous incentive to work as much as you can while you’re actually employed.  I typically put in about eleven and a half months worth of hours in just under nine months of actual employment.

We are missing out on a lot of life, and I for one think it’s not worth it.  I don’t have any solution, as it’s an immensely personal thing.  My current supervisor, who is divorced with grown children, is quite happy working every hour and every day that he can.  He practically lives for it.  I can’t do that, and neither can many others I know.  I know that I’ve given up a lot of personal experiences for the job, and when I look back on it, I see that while fire will be the same every season, year after year, there’s a lot of things in my personal life that I’ll only get to experience once.

We tend to treat fire and fire season as if it’s an emergency, that we should be there for every single fire and every single call.  My opinion is that treating it like an emergency is a mistake.  If we treat it like an emergency we will constantly be running people into the ground, to the brink of exhaustion.  Fires will burn every year, regardless of what we do or don’t do. While I’m being paid to do a job, I think it’s reasonable to say I don’t need to work every day off in order to be successful.  Even city firefighters and EMS personnel get regular, scheduled time off to spend with family.  I think that as managers and leaders, it’s our job to schedule our crews so that if someone wants to take their days off, or schedule time off to attend a t-ball game, they don’t feel like they are leaving the crew shorthanded.  It’s different for some crews, and I understand that.  Hotshot crews, for example, simply can’t afford the flexibility to let people come and go as they wish, but that’s something you understand going in.

The question then is how to balance work and play, work and family?  I don’t have an answer.  I know that as budgets decline, fire seasons get longer, and fires get bigger, it will only become more challenging to balance our work and personal lives.  It’s going to be a slow process to change the culture to allow for more family time, and it’s going to be a challenge to keep it from swinging too far the other way.  I’m not advocating for it to be a strongly scheduled job, where people go home at 5:30 pm regardless of what’s going on, or don’t travel for two-week assignments.  I do think that there’s a lot of room for situational discretion here, and that we’re smart people who can figure this out.

I think that overtime is part of the problem.  I love overtime paychecks as much as the next guy, but I strongly believe that we compromise safety and personal well-being when it becomes such a large part of how we earn our living.  Personally I’d like to see a salaried approach where we get paid based on qualifications and experience, and get paid the same whether we work overtime or not.  I’d also like for us to be able to work 12 months a year, and be treated as normal, full-time employees.  Many of us have other talents that we could put to use in the off-season – helping with training, writing NEPA documents, doing snow surveys, and much more. The trouble would be finding that balance between being overpaid and underworked, and underpaid and overworked.  There’s obviously room for abuse in that system as well, but there would be some definite gains in safety, I think, if our income wasn’t so heavily based on the number of hours we work.  I personally would take more days off when I needed the break, rather than going in to work hoping for a slow day.

I’m going to try and spend more time nurturing my personal relationships, and I’m going to try and find more time for the people in my life.  Life is short, and I’ve missed out on a lot of it so far.  I’d rather not continue the trend, and I’m going to do my best to balance work and my personal life, meeting my professional obligations while making sure I don’t miss out on what’s really important.  It’s just twigs and berries out there, at least where I live and work, and there should be a way I can find a happy balance.

Until next time…

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About Justin Vernon

Fire and Aviation Specialist (aka jack of all trades) for the US Forest Service, based in Boise, Idaho. I'm also an amateur photographer, wanna-be writer, tech aficionado, and a classic introvert who values quiet time as much as I do the mountains and people of the Pacific Northwest. All opinions voiced are mine alone and do not represent those of the US Forest Service.
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