By Megan Martinez
Can you work in fire and also take care of your non-work life and self?
I started fighting fire for the federal government in 1998, when I was 19. I spent nine years as a temporary firefighter, and I’ve been permanent since 2010. For a long time there was nothing I wanted to do more than go on fires. I embraced the culture wholeheartedly.
I loved the sense of purpose and the camaraderie, and I was good at being a badass. I tried to work at least as hard, if not harder, than anyone else. I pretended to know things I didn’t, and I tried like hell to hide all weakness. I talked sh*t about people who did any different. I was all-in. Sound familiar?
For many years, my non-work life just wasn’t a priority. I dated fire guys, and then married one. It was okay for a while that sometimes our assignments kept my husband and me from seeing each other for most of the summer. Then it started to seem ridiculous. He got out of fire. I stayed in, and got a job as a Fuels AFMO.
I took the job because I loved working on the proactive side of fire management. I was sure I could keep up the all-in game, at least for another five years. Instead, I found myself in a position where the job seemed never-ending. No one told me this specifically, but I knew I was supposed to run the burn program, manage contracts, write NEPA, and enter data, in addition to supervising, going on local and national fires, and acting as Duty Officer at the drop of a hat. I knew it because I’d never seen anything different.
I also knew I was not allowed to question it, that no one would understand anything less. I was still physically capable, and I don’t have kids, just a wonderful husband and friends, and a house and a garden, and a love for outdoor recreation and travel. I did have a minor but important health issue that needed a predictable schedule to address. I also had been in denial about a staggering family tragedy for well over a decade, and it had resurfaced to weigh heavily on me. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that I would lose everyone’s respect if I spoke up.
Then at my uncle’s funeral, I had a eureka moment: I’m crazy to put work ahead of taking care of myself. Still, I hemmed and hawed. It was hard to give up my persona as a badass chick–I invested so much time and energy into that schtick that I didn’t know who else I was. I finally did it though. I asked for six months off from my PFT job as a Fuels AFMO. This took more courage than anything I’ve ever done on a fire.
Luckily, my supervisor supported me. But when I came back, I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. My supervisor offered that I could focus on fuels duties, but it was perfectly clear to me that you’re either all in or you’re all out. I was no longer willing to be all in.
Spring before last I announced I was leaving and started looking into other careers. My mind was made up, and I loved having a predictable schedule. I enjoyed that outside of fire, there’s a lot less posturing.
What to do instead? I have always described natural resource management as my ideal career. Once I left my fuels job, I had been telling people I would like to work in vegetation management. But there were no local vacancies, so I decided I would leave the Forest Service.
Then something funny happened. I realized that I really care about my job. Public land is amazing. Making a difference is important to me, and what the Forest Service does matters.
What the Forest Service does in fire and fuels management matters because it sometimes protects human life and property. But we’re a land management agency, not a municipal fire department, so that’s not our only job. What we do also matters because it can promote healthy ecosystems, clean air and watersheds, and recreation and rural economies.
Maybe I could stay after all. This is what brought me to the question: “What is my job?” Is it really true that I must be all in or all out? I realized that I had a conundrum faced by many permanent fire personnel fortunate enough to have lives they care about outside of work: If your job could entail endless commitment, how do you know you’re doing enough?
How many fires must you go on? Does your sense of duty and fire retirement imply that you’ll be available for all local fires? How about nationwide fires?
Is it your job to respond to mutual-aid fires in the winter? Is it different if you work in California than if you’re in a quieter region, contentedly playing or working on your off-season life and collecting unemployment?
Is it your job to take care of the land on your home unit or to go wherever the action is hottest?
Is your job different if you have dependents than if you don’t? I have heard more than one person say something like, “He can be Duty Officer—he doesn’t have kids.”
Is it your job to act like a cool guy? What about to teach young firefighters how to act cool?
Is it your job to stand in the heavy smoke until someone tells you to stop, even if you standing there doesn’t buy anything? Is it your job to tie-in the direct line even if a burning snag or widow-maker teeters as you work nearby? Is it your job to tell others to do so? (I’ve done all of these!)
What if your body wears out before you hit your 20 years? What is your job then?
Oh, and then here’s another can of worms: What is the job of the U.S. Forest Service? We have well-intentioned policies that rarely get translated to any ground-pounder. (Is it your job to know policy?) We have the reality that nothing, absolutely nothing we do will prevent fires forever, juxtaposed with a culture still largely stuck in a time when preventing fires forever seemed both possible and desirable.
We tell our firefighters it isn’t their job to engage in high-risk structure protection, and then at times engage in areas with extremely slim margins for safety or retreat. We sometimes fancy ourselves heroes for suppressing fires in areas that have only a minuscule chance of ever threatening infrastructure in forests or rangelands that might benefit from fire. We sometimes expend huge sums—and risk life and health—to take on problems that are better solved by local government, by patience, or by nature.
There’s a lot of good to be said about Forest Service fire management. We engage with something hard and dangerous, that is rapidly changing, politically volatile, and entails personal liability–all in a manner that is often organized and cohesive. It’s well-meaning, too. Although I think the conceptual leadership could be a lot better, I don’t doubt that many of the higher level decision-makers are good people. They have sacrificed a lot to get to where they are (and I know this is true of field-level personnel).
I don’t think any of this is easy, and I don’t have the answers. But I do think it matters; the work matters and our lives outside of work matter. With fire seasons growing longer, and more and more development in the WUI, the job won’t get any easier.
The choice to take care of our incredible natural resources, the public, private infrastructure, and our personnel will have to be deliberate. We’ll have to choose to do things differently. I used to think that change would come from up high, that I just didn’t understand enough to make sense of it, or make a difference. Now I think any meaningful change will come from the field, from module leaders, AFMO’s, and local FMO’s. First we’ll have to try and sort a few things out though.
What is your job?