[This article originally appeared as the “One of Our Own” feature in the 2021 Spring Issue of Two More Chains.]
For this ten-year anniversary issue of Two More Chains, we thought it would be beneficial to get the perspective and insights from a wildland firefighter who’s been in the wildland fire service business for about the same amount of time that Two More Chains has existed.
We heard impressive accolades about Anna Graves, an Assistant Engine Module Leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Many folks directed us to Anna for this Spring Issue’s “One of Our Own” interview. As you’ll see in the following enlightening conversation with Anna, we’re extremely grateful for this head’s-up about her!
Chris Fry, the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center’s Assistant Director (Acting), recently got on a call to interview Anna. They explored a gamut of interesting and insightful topics: from the art of staying present, to overcoming the “Us and Them” syndrome, to great advice for new wildland firefighters, as well as some profound advice for our “salty” older firefighters.
Anna graduated from the University of Montana in December of 2008 with a BA in Forest Resource Management. During her college summers she worked on an engine crew for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
In June of 2009 Anna was hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildland Service to work at its Inland Northwest Refuge Complex in northeastern Washington and northern Idaho. Her duty station is the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge in Cheney, Washington.
“I was hired at Turnbull as a permanent GS-5 on the Regional Prescribed Fire Crew,” Anna informs. “I’ve been an assistant on the heavy engine since 2012. Since working at Turnbull, I’ve become an ICT4, ENGB, FAL2, TFLD, and RXB2.
“Hopefully, soon, I’ll be working on ICT3 and DIVS with hopes of doing RXB1 in the future.”
Anna continues, “I love to hunt and fish. I have a small farm in Otis Orchards, Washington where we raise goats, sheep and chickens.”
By Chris Fry, Assistant Director (Acting), Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
Chris: What does the term “Two More Chains” mean to you?
Anna: That was always the joke. Out on the line someone would ask: “How much farther do we have to go?”. And somebody would always reply: “Two More Chains”.
But for me it’s that everlasting grind of fire season. You start off with spring burning and then you’re either in the Southeast or at home. Then you burn until you either get rained-out or you’re checking your burns every day until your seasonals come on.
During that time of the year, it’s a grind when it’s rainy and then it’s a grind when it’s hot and it’s dry. Then you do fire season, which is just like the permanent grind. Then you get to the end of fire season, in which most of the time now, we don’t even get a break—it’s just straight into prescribed fire season in the fall, which is another grind.
You might get a shot of weather and go straight into piles. We have hundreds and hundreds of acres of piles. Then before you know it, you’re timed-out and you have 90 hours of “Use or Lose” and your seasonal staff is timed out and going on furlough.
So, for me, “Two More Chains” is more like just the permanent grind of the job.
Chris: What about “work/life balance”? With the permanent grind and our fire seasons getting longer, and then on top of that putting in your prescribed fire season and fuels treatment season, not just burning but cutting and piling and all that. What do you do to balance your work with your actual life? What are the things that keep you grounded?
Anna: So, it’s kind of funny, because at home here, sometimes it feels like it’s just another form of work. But I find for me, it’s most important to stay in the present.
Right now, I have nine Boer goats and six babies that were born in March. Sitting outside with a bunch of crazy baby goats jumping all over you, that’s the kind of stuff that keeps me grounded.
It’s the same thing as taking a brand-new firefighter out on a rockin’ and rollin’ IA and he turns around and has this huge smile on his face and tells you how awesome that was. That’s like the same warm, fuzzy feeling that makes it all worth doing. But yeah, staying present.
Chris: Staying present—that’s really good advice. I appreciate that. Not a lot of people know how to do that. It’s an art.
So with new firefighters, have you noticed a cultural change in the fire service over the past 10 years of your career?
Anna: For me, the biggest change has been the interagency coordination. I started with DNR my first three seasons. So it was always DNR responding to our state fires.
Back then we knew that there were Feds in the area, which is the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Turnbull Wildlife Refuge, where I work now. But I never met any of the people who worked at Turnbull. I didn’t even really know that they had fire trucks at Turnbull when I worked for DNR.
It was always that “Us and Them” culture.
And then my first year at Turnbull, we started doing the interagency/closest resource Dispatch, which forced us to go to DNR fires—which has been really good. It’s not so much of the “Us and Them” culture now. It’s more like we’re all one big team. We just work for different agencies.
We’ve also invited our local cooperators to do prescribed fire with us. This has been really helpful for overcoming that traditional “Us and Them” syndrome. Just sharing our common knowledge. That way they know how we operate and we’re all familiar faces on IAs. I think that’s always helpful.
It did take a few years for everybody to kind of get used to the different procedures. But I think we’ve done really well at incorporating all of the agencies. We have BLM (Bureau of Land Management) here too. The closest to us is BLM, DNR and also our local fire districts.
We’ve kind of created this really cool culture just to help our neighbors—which has made us all a really good team.
Chris: Yes. That shows the importance of interagency relationships. And I think we’re getting much better at developing these relationships with our cooperators.
Anna: And for Fish and Wildlife, we’re so tiny as far as our fire staff. Most of our burn plans require a minimum of 12 people. Permanent fire staff for our complex is eight, plus three collateral-duty Red Carded Refuge staff. So even if everyone was available, we would still be short people. Without interagency cooperation, we wouldn’t be able to even meet our minimum staffing requirement for a burn. So that’s a huge factor for us, relying on our partners to show up.
Chris: What advice would you give for those new to firefighting? Those people just coming up? What advice would you give them to continue their career in wildland firefighting?
Anna: It would be to learn as much as you can and then to find people that you really admire and have conversations with them. That’s something that I’ve done in my career. It can sometimes be difficult to find those people. But for me, to do so has been huge. Finding people who I admired and trusted their opinion on a given situation or how things went in a given situation.
Those people could then tell me the hard truths about what I needed to work on, or my leadership skills, or whatever. Having that kind of mentor is really important.
My advice to new firefighters would also be to, early in your career, decide what kind of leader you want to be—and work toward that. Take it seriously, but also be sure to have tons of fun. And in the process, make lots of fire friends. Your friends will also tell you those important hard truths.
Chris: Can I dig a little deeper into your advice about finding a mentor? How did you go about finding one? Was it more of an organic process? Or did you seek somebody out that you really admired who you wanted to gain more knowledge from?
Anna: A lot of it was watching how other people did things, how other people led. And then, from that, starting a friendship or relationship. I’m normally not someone that trusts super easily. So, when I do, then I know, okay, this person can be trusted. For me, I had a few mentors at DNR that were awesome men, really good ICs, really good leaders, who cared about people. I would pick their brains, have helpful learning dialogue about what they thought about certain situations.
Chris: So if that young firefighter came up to you and said: “Hey, how do I find a mentor?” What specific advice would you give them?
Anna: Watch and wait to see what kind of leadership qualities you like—or that you might have gained from a person. And, after that, approach them.
Chris: That’s, good advice. I’ve had some pretty prolific mentors in my career that have focused me in the right way—and still do. I think that’s a huge part of being successful as a wildland firefighter. I don’t think everybody thinks about that. And sometimes we have mentorship programs in our agencies in which you can formally say: “I’m looking for a mentor.”
I think the process that you use is pretty organic in nature. And I think that’s the best way to find a mentor. So, thank you for that.
Anna: I still call these people sometimes. Like when I need a sounding board. Or when something’s weird or off. There’s a few women from PFTC (the National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center) that I am still in contact with. I’ll ask them certain questions when I need a good sounding board.
Chris: For our readers who might not know about PFTC, could you tell us more about this program?
Anna: It’s basically a school that’s headquartered in Tallahasse, Florida that holds prescribed fire training involving a variety of agencies throughout the Southeast. I attended the women’s module in February of 2020, pre-pandemic.
The first portion of this training is classroom to ensure that everyone has all the basics and knows what to expect. We covered fuels, burn plans and terminology. Then your module goes into the field and burns for about 18 days. It’s all formulated in a training environment from FFT1 to RXB2. It sets the tone for a true peer group. It’s pretty cool. When I went, we burned in various environments, including: private land, U.S. Department of Defense land, and state forest land.
Chris: What initially motivated you to apply to PFTC?
Anna: I had burned in the Southeast three years before I went to PFTC. It’s a kick in the pants. It’s always super fun to go to a new place and burn—I don’t care wherever it is. But the Southeast is awesome. It burns like crazy. Even after it rains. It’s nuts. Different fuel types. Tons of learning experiences. I especially wanted to go to PFTC because of the women’s module. I’d heard lots of good things from other women who went and how it was a really good experience.
What advice would you give to those senior firefighters that you work with? Those who have been doing it for 20 years—those folks sometimes referred to as “salty firefighters”.
Anna: This is going to sound super callous. But, for me, I hope that if I ever get to the point where it’s not fun anymore—somebody will tell me to go do something different. I’ve seen a lot of people in their careers get to a point where their job is a grind. And when they get there—to where it’s not fun anymore—they’re just miserable.
And we all know how misery just spreads.
So, for me, if I ever get to that point, I hope somebody will be honest and tell me: “Hey, this isn’t fun for you anymore. Figure out something else to go do.”
Chris: What’s your favorite place that you’ve seen that you wouldn’t necessarily have ever had the opportunity to experience if you hadn’t gone there on a fire assignment?
Anna: There’s Refuges all over the place, like eastern Oregon’s Sheldon-Hart Antelope Refuge and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. I would have never gone there on my own because they’re out there in the middle of nowhere. But they’re awesome. There’s also several Refuges in the Southeast that are really cool.
The coolest place that I’ve ever gone to on a detail was definitely the Gulf for the oil spill in 2010. I would’ve never gone there, like on a vacation. But one year after the oil spill, I actually went back down there just to see it again, on vacation on my own time.
Chris: What did you do on the oil spill?
Anna: We had several taskforces that were running around catching oiled birds and then taking them to rehab facilities. They just issued us a bunch of net guns and all this equipment that we had to learn how to use. They were basically like: “Here you go”. It was pretty awesome.
Chris: Could you please share a funny or memorable fire story?
Anna: It would be the Miller Complex near Medford, Oregon in 2016. We were on Division Q Night. It was the wind down of fire season. We were the only agency engine on this entire fire. We kind of got picked out of the herd, like: “Oh, you guys actually do prescribed fire, you come with us.”
One night we were burning-out a whole Division and we ran out of all ignition devices. Anything that could light fire, we ran out of. A coworker and I looked at each other and we got that same look in our eyes—you know, like we knew what the other one was thinking. Next, we started lighting pinecones on fire and hucking them down the hill, and then logs, and then anything we could think of to light on fire, to create our backing fire a little better.
It was super fun and super out of the ordinary. A pretty laughable learning experience, for sure. We learned that you can really use just about anything to carry and spread fire.
Chris: That’s the definition of resiliency right there, right? You’ve exhausted everything that you can do and someone comes up with an innovative way of continuing your mission to achieve that goal—not being like, “Oh, we can’t do anything else, we’re done.” That’s a cool story.
I really appreciate you taking the time to tell us your story and to share your various perspectives on both new firefighters and the salty ones, as well as your insights on resiliency and innovation.
Anna: Thank you.