[This article originally appeared as the “Two of Our Own” feature in the Fall 2021 Issue of Two More Chains.]
By Travis Dotson, Analyst, and Nick Bohnstedt, Field Operations Specialist (Acting), Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
We’d like you to meet two women from the fire service living a life filled with joy, struggle, loss, adventure, and tough decisions—just like many of us.
Brandi Dee and Karin Kaaen walk us through some of their lived experience and offer insights about work, life outside of work, and that elusive thing called balance.
Travis – Can you give us some background on yourselves?
Karin – I started with the U.S. Forest Service right out of college in 1997. Got indoctrinated on a District hand crew. From there, I went to the hotshots for a couple years then moved up to McCall to jump out of airplanes. I did that for about eight seasons, detailed to rappel one year and then moved on to engines.
Fire is a big part of my life, I really enjoyed it. But it’s also kind of a single person’s life and I always knew I wanted to have a family. I decided I didn’t really want to “climb the ladder”. I really just enjoyed the ground-pounding stuff.
I started looking into having a family, met Brandi, and we ended up with two boys—one who passed away at two weeks old. And now we have Tucker who is five and just started kindergarten. It’s been an adventure. I love every minute of it and I’m glad for both the fire and the family experiences.
Brandi – I started in wildland fire in 2009 and that’s where I met Karin. I only spent four years in wildland, I was on a hand crew out of McCall for three years and then my last year was on the Boise Hotshots. I transitioned out of wildland fire into the private sector working for ski resorts and then got into structure fire/EMS with the Donnelly Fire Department in Donnelly, Idaho. I now work for Boise Fire Department, going on a little over two years.
Travis – Karin do you remember that you were my “jump partner” on my first fire jump?
Karin – I totally do! When Brandi told me that you were doing this interview I said, “Oh, yeah. I was his first JP for his first fire jump. I got to throw a t-shirt at him when he landed.”
Travis – Do you remember where we were in the jump order?
Karin – We were the last two. We were like 17 and 18 or something. It was awful. We were sick as dogs.
Travis – We circled quite a bit. It was terrible.
Karin – I believe we flew several fires that day and we dropped a few here and there. I think Bob Charlie actually has a photo from the back of the plane and everybody was turned looking out the window at the streamers and I’m in the extreme front of the plane and I just had my head back with my eyes closed. I was like, “Whatever. When it’s my turn I’ll figure it out.”
Travis – I thought it was because you were super salty. Like, “Whatever. I’m not impressed by this sh*t anymore.”
Karin – No, I was so airsick! I was kind of like, “I’ve got to keep it together. If I’m going to be Travis’ JP on his first fire jump, I can’t puke and stay in the plane. I got to keep it together.” So yeah, I totally remember that. That was a good jump.
Travis – Sorry for the little detour there, couldn’t resist.
Back to the point here. Both individually and as a couple, you two have made changes around work to try and find life balance and I think we’re all kind of looking for the secret sauce or magic formula. What was calculated and what wasn’t?
Karin – I actually did have a plan because I mean, I was turning 37 and as a woman, knowing I wanted to have a family, I was like, “I want to be a mom. So I need to move into a position where I am more stable, more at home.” But at the same time, I didn’t want to quit fire completely cold turkey. And I did make that calculated choice to go to the fire warehouse in McCall because I knew I would still hear about fires, hear what was going on, kind of know where people were and sort of still have my hands in it—but be able to go home at night.
That was the first summer Brandi and I did start discussing family because I was like, “Get set, it’s kind of a deal-breaker for me. It’s ‘Go Time’. Are you in or are you out?” So there was definitely a plan and the job at the fire warehouse was my transition.
I was 40 when I had Isaac. It took us two and a half years to have a successful pregnancy with him. Then after we lost him, we were definitely still in mourning. But at the same time, I was like, “I’m 40. I kind of got to get back on the horse here if this is ever going to happen and I still want to raise a living child. So we need to do this, even if we’re not ready.”
Surprisingly, the very first try, we got Tucker. So it was kind of a shock. The warehouse had some good points. I was allowed to pick him up from daycare. He was literally two blocks over the hill during fire season. And so those nights that we were extended and were working late, I could go grab him from daycare and push him around the warehouse in a shopping cart while I filled orders.
It was a good job to have a tiny person with me and still kind of had my ears in the fire scene. But then it was like, “Okay, we got seasonal work here.” And there was always the shoulder period on either side of fall and spring where I actually worked as an in-home caretaker for four or five hours a day during the winter and I had to leave our son with a friend.
Brandi was working three jobs trying to make a go of it for us. And my jobs weren’t paying a lot. It was kind of a struggle because there were definitely times where I told her, “You’re never home. You’re missing your kid growing up. You’re missing these milestones.”
She was obviously doing what she needed to do to keep us afloat and my job wasn’t paying enough of the bills. It was hard. I thought, “Okay, I need something that’s more stable even if it isn’t glamorous or exciting.” Then, out of the blue, I ended up applying for a job doing housekeeping for a timeshare in town because they offered full benefits. And it was year-round. I took it.
I was surprised at how difficult this job was. While it was very physical, it gave me a sense of productivity which I really needed. And having benefits, it was nice to know that I could still have the medical, the dental, and retirement stuff, even though I was doing just a basic labor job—which I am still doing.
It goes well with motherhood because I am now able to drop Tucker at school, pick him up from school, and hang out with him more. I just have time. It’s been a humbling experience moving from jumping out of planes, being in the woods and getting paid to camp, to cleaning for a living. I mean, it’s just a job. It’s stress free. I get to come home and hang with my family. That’s awesome.
Travis – That humbling is hard. Everything shifts. Early on, the coolness factor of fire rates pretty high. And then for some of us, everything kind of reorients and you go, “All right, my priorities have shifted.” But there’s still that piece of identity that’s a struggle.
Karin – It’s really interesting to hear you say that because Brandi has heard me a lot of times struggle with that. I’m like, “What’s wrong with me?” I’ve been out of fire for over a decade and there’s still this part of me that misses it. I miss how fun it was and I miss certain fires. I mean, we all have great stories.
But at the same time, this is my new life and it’s just as great and—in many ways—better! I had absolutely no idea how much I would love this kid. He is hilarious and disgusting, but you never realize you could feel that much love for another human being—even though you may love your spouse or you may love your parents or whatever.
As a parent, you literally would give your life for this little person. And to me, there’s no contest. I would much rather be his mom than go back into fire and have that cool factor where people look at you and go, “You jump out of airplanes for living?” And now, I’m just like, “Yeah. Well, that was in the past. It was fun. But it’s in the past.”
Brandi – I think that shows right now with how Karin’s talking about “Yeah, I used to do that.” But I think she forgets that yeah, she DID that. And she is still a badass for having done that. But I know that she struggled with identity. Transitioning to a job that’s not necessarily looked upon as the most desirable or awesome or whatever.
Karin – I tell people what I do now and they’re like, “Oh…Okay.”
Brandi – “Oh, you clean? …Cool.” It just doesn’t have the same clout as being a smokejumper and I know that she struggled with that.
Karin – And there’s times when I think, I was getting praised for doing this awesome job when, in reality, it’s dragging my knuckles in dirt and ash and crawling on my hands and knees cold trailing. Nobody sees that part; they just think fire work is so awesome. But housekeeping is kind of the same in a way. To a certain extent, you’re just doing grunt labor.
Travis – For sure. Sometimes it’s infuriating to me the glamor that gets attached to fire jobs. We start to believe it and we start to think we are special.
Brandi, what’s your experience been with balancing work and the rest of life?
Brandi – Work/life balance has always been a struggle for me.
Karin – I totally nagged her.
Brandi – We have had many discussions about me never being home. One thing that is super important to me is security. Always knowing where the next paycheck is coming from, where our meals are coming from, making sure our house is paid for and not having to ever worry about that.
Growing up, it wasn’t always a guarantee for my family as far as how are we going to pay for our groceries, that kind of thing. When I entered the workforce, I decided that I’m just going to work more to make sure that I’m never without. That has always played into my job decisions. Even though some of them are more fun jobs, I still made sure I worked enough to make ends meet and then some.
So, when it was time to be more family oriented, it took quite a few years. A big turning point for me was when our son Isaac passed away. At the time, I worked a lot. And I specifically remember, I was working for one of the ski resorts up here and was managing the lift operations. I worked several days straight and ended up taking some time off when our son passed away.
And while we’re in mourning, one of my bosses came and told me that he thought it was time for me to come back to work and basically “get over it.” And I remember just feeling this weight of, “What the hell am I doing? Why do I put so much emphasis on working my butt off for a thankless job?” I realized that my work/life balance was way out of whack.
I never quite got over it. I ended up quitting that ski resort and working at a hospital as a purchasing assistant. That seemed to help with my work/life balance. But another problem I have is I don’t say “No” very well. I had gotten my EMT license when I worked for the Forest Service so I used that and became affiliated with Donnelly Fire Department. I spent time working there every once in a while. But then I also worked for a friend who has a roofing company and ended up just spending a lot of my time working instead of being with the family. I just worked a lot to try and make sure we had everything we needed because that’s important to me.
It wasn’t until I got a job with Boise Fire Department that I could make some serious changes because I actually started making enough money. Going to work for Boise Fire was a really good decision. It was somewhat organic, somewhat calculated.
Karin – It was a win/win.
Brandi – Yeah, it was a win/win—once I got through academy. Academy was five months of being away from the family for five out of seven days. Once I got through that, my schedule changed. And having the geographical difference between Donnelly and Boise [a two-hour drive] I think really helps me not over-commit to work and still maintain this home life that I have. So that’s been kind of a blessing in disguise.
Karin – Yeah, it’s funny because there were plenty of times when I said, “We never get to go anywhere. You never have time off.” And now she’s the one that’s like, “Can you ask for these days off?” Because we’re going to go to Washington DC and we’re going to go here and we’re going to do this or that . . . And I’m like, “Crap. All of a sudden, you have more vacation time than I ever did.” But it’s awesome. She definitely gets to hang out with the boy more.
Travis – That’s always been a thing I have heard about—the glory of the structure fire schedule. Is the grass really greener over there? It sounds like, in some ways, it is.
Karin – Yes and no. Talk about sleep.
Brandi – So the schedule itself varies depending on what department you work for. The Boise Fire Department has a 48 hour on/96 off. This means I go to work for two days and then I come home for four. Which, right off the bat, you’re like, “That sounds awesome!” Which it is. I won’t discount that. But if you think about it, it does mean that I work about 60 hours a week—so it’s not just two days. It’s 48 hours and then four days off and then the seventh day of the week you’re working. What station I’m at drives how good of sleep I get. Some stations are busier than others. When I get stationed downtown, I’ll be running a few calls during the night.
I come home my first day and I pretty much write it off to catch up on sleep. I came home recently and I was trying to play with Tucker and be present and he kept being like, “Mama, you’re falling asleep.” I’m like, “Sorry, buddy. I’m sorry.” It is a great schedule, but it’s not always as “cake” as it initially presents itself.
Travis – Yeah, there’s always going to be that tension, right? It turns out it’s just super hard to parent and partner and have a career—period.
Brandi – Yeah. And I’ll be honest, people ask me about my commute to Boise and if it’s a hard thing or not. I’m fairly thankful for it because it does give me time to decompress or even get ready for a shift. Transitioning back and forth between family and work mode can be hard.
And being in the fire and EMS field, we see some things that are just not what everybody sees every day. And there’s nights that I wish I could come home so I could give my family a hug. So it’s not all glory. There’s things that you’re just disturbed by and you see the other side of humanity. The not-so-pleasant things that exist make you appreciate what you have a little more.
Travis – On that, are you able to make any sort of comparisons to wildland in terms of support for that type of stuff?
Brandi – One similar thing is the bond and camaraderie that crew life promotes. In structure fire, we call it the “brotherhood”. This term obviously doesn’t lend to “political correctness” of including females, but historically, this has been a male-dominated profession. Personally, it doesn’t bother me because I just feel like “one of the guys”. The important part is the intent of the term—that we are family and we’re there for each other.
Karin – And I feel similar about wildland as well. I mean, it is a weird dynamic being a female in a male-dominated profession. You don’t always feel included even if you’re doing the work. It took me a long time to figure out I can’t just call up one of my buddies and say, “Hey, let’s go get a beer.” Because they might be married and have kids or a girlfriend and their partners might be like, “What the hell. You’re going for a beer with this chick? No, that’s not okay.”
And there’s just a whole different dynamic and I try to recognize that side of it and not feel left out. And it takes both sides. I don’t exactly reach out often to my past bros and say, “Hey, do you want to go do something?” It’s a two-way street. The whole female in a male-dominated profession is also a whole other ball of wax.
Brandi – For sure. To build on that initial question. There is a support structure because there is a family at work and I think that is similar in wildland. I have been out of touch with wildland for a bit, so I don’t know what kind of employee assistance programs exist nowadays. But my department has a peer support team. You can basically look at a list and say, “Oh yeah, I kind of connect with this person”—and give them a call if you feel you’re struggling at all. Or they have a list of approved clinical workers that you can go see if need be. These efforts are extremely supportive of mental health and dealing with the trauma associated with what we see in our profession.
Travis – There is a difference. I feel the view within wildland is that we’re a little behind in that area and we’re trying to catch up with support services. I like that list of peers. Because one of the things that I look for now, when I want to talk to somebody about some of the things I’m struggling with is, are they a parent? With my own 8-year-old daughter, my identity as a parent is a big part of how I now see the world.
Brandi – It’s funny that you say being a parent because that has truly shifted my perspective. I definitely have a lot more anxiety now thinking about the “What Ifs”.
Karin – She hates it when I go home to visit my family with Tucker and we’re taking a four-hour road trip and she’s just freaking out: “Call me when you get there.”
Brandi – Yeah. I can hardly handle when my family goes anywhere without me because I’ve seen the other side where bad things happen and there’s no rhyme or reason to it. I tell myself that my fears aren’t based in any reality. And then when this happens to somebody that I know, it’s just like: “It can happen. It does happen. What’s to say it won’t happen to my family?” It’s a terrible feeling. I hate it.
Travis – I can relate. I didn’t realize that parenting was going to involve me pulling my heart out of my chest and putting it on a platter every day and just being like, “All right. Go ahead and smash it with any number of things.”
Karin – Vulnerability.
Brandi – It’s overwhelming.
And even when we lost our first son, I remember having a conversation with Karin about trying again and I told her, “I don’t know if I’m ready. I don’t know if I can do this again.” Just because I knew the loss. Our first son, I don’t think we mentioned this, he had a congenital abnormality which gave him less than a five percent chance of survival to one year. I recall specifically telling Karin, “I don’t know if I can jump in and do this.”
Karin – That is something about my personality. The way I see it, when a disaster happens, it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen again on that same day or in that same way or with the same specifications. I remember when the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed and I had this woman come into the warehouse who was running supplies out to the line and she was an absolute mess because she was sure the fire was going to overrun her.
After Isaac I thought, “Well, the chances of having another child with Trisomy 13 are 1 in 20,000 and I already won that lottery.” It was more about regret. I don’t want to live with the regret of not trying again because I was focused on “this could happen again” or “this happened and I can’t deal with it.” It was more of just: “I’ve got to keep moving forward”.
Travis – Fear of regret can be a powerful driver.
Do you both have role models for work/life balance?
Karin – Good question. It’s actually very relevant and parallel to our current situation. My dad was also a wildland firefighter and a smokejumper and he transitioned into structure fire and did that for 25 years. My mother was a school teacher for 30 some years. The great part was my dad could schedule huge chunks of vacation time and my mom had summers off and we would go backpacking. Most of my summer vacations as a kid were spent in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness because that was an inexpensive way for our family of five to travel and experience the woods and have very close family time.
I just love that and Brandi and I have been implementing that. Obviously, I’m not a school teacher. But Brandi took Tucker out on several hikes this summer, just her and him because she could. She had that time and the weather was great and I would love to be able to schedule more time off as well. So, I would say that my parents were great role models for work/life balance because they both had chunks of time off to spend with family. I feel I had a very lucky childhood in that respect.
Brandi – My parents worked a lot. So I didn’t experience these big backpacking excursions that Karin went on.
Karin – Most people don’t.
Brandi – Vacations. We didn’t do that because we didn’t have the money or the time. A lot of times my brother and I would be left to our own devices with our very protective, aggressive border collie, who was our babysitter. I had a different childhood. And really, I think getting integrated into Karin’s family has really changed my perspective on spending time together. I never used to care about working on holidays or my birthday or whatever. And now I’m like, “Man, I want to be present on these special occasions.” Because it’s important to me that my kid gets a really good family experience on those days. So yeah, it’s a total shift for me. It’s huge.
Travis – And it’s cool to have those shifts. It goes back to identity. I remember when I showed up at McCall and it was all about fire for me. I was like, “Well, I have to do smokejumping because it’s such a fire thing.” And then I did it and the other jumpers were asking me, “Hey, what are you into?” And my answer was, “I’m really into fire.” And they said, “How boring is that?”
I felt so excluded and I thought, “I better get some hobbies or something”—that was a big shift for me. And parenting was another big change in perspective. All of a sudden, I’m looking around for people that are doing it in a way that I respect and want to emulate.
That’s awesome Karin that you were able to look back at your family and say, “Yeah, these are the things that I value.” That’s what we need in fire. That’s why we want to highlight both of you. We are saying: “Look, there’s people that are doing it. They have these values and they’re doing the hard work to show up—and it’s not easy.”
Karin – Absolutely. There is no such thing as a perfect life. But I do think that communication is the main thing. Which, by the way, is something that I learned in fire. It’s amazing how problematic lack of communication is, even in something as simple as housekeeping. It’s frustrating. And fire was so good about communication. I feel marriages and relationships and parenting are also about communication. So, I had that background and I feel like that was helpful for me. I know it helps me in my family life.
Brandi – I kind of want to touch on something you’re talking about there, Travis. There’s people that are so into fire that they live, work, and breathe fire. And then there’s people who are kind of somewhat more balanced. And then there’s the folks that are in it for the paycheck. And what I’ve been seeing and learning about is these people that totally give their life to fire and then they retire, and they struggle. They have no idea what to do because they spent 30 years focusing on their career. And, unfortunately, a lot of people lose their marriages and their families during the time focused on career and I think that’s really sh*tty, honestly.
I definitely make sure that while I’m at work, I focus on being the nerd that I am and try to learn everything about my trade and practice and be good at my job. But I want to make sure that when I come home, I’m fully focused on my family and that I’m present and that I don’t regret not spending the time that I had with them.
No day is guaranteed. I had a conversation with a good friend who also works for Boise Fire. We were talking about responding to the call to come back into work. Sometimes they are short personnel and they’ll send out a text that says: “We need six people to fill positions today.” And I’ll sit there and battle over whether or not I should go in. It pains me to not call in and save the day.
And here’s what this friend said to me: “Next week, your work won’t remember that you called in or didn’t call in. But your family will.” That resonated with me. I now think about it every time that text comes through.
Karin – Damn.
Brandi – So that perspective really does help me filter, helps me not over-commit myself to my job and to spend more time with my family. Because, in the long run, they’re the ones who are going to remember the sacrifices you made for work or for them.
Travis – That is intense. It’s also a very useful lesson everyone should take note of.
Nick – Last question, gang. Teaching rookies to grid for spots or potty training a toddler. Which is easier?
Karin – I firmly believe it’s about personalities. Because frankly, Tucker was crazy easy to potty train. He really potty trained himself. I wasn’t ready; he was ready. He was only two years old and was like, “I don’t like the feeling of poop in my pants, so I’m going to tell you when I have to go.” And that was pretty much it. But as far as teaching rookies, I don’t think there’s a book on how to teach rookies to grid. But there is a book on teaching a kid to go potty. So I am definitely going with potty training.
Brandi – Maybe that’s the next issue of Two More Chains! You guys can write out exactly how to teach your rookie to grid for spots!
Travis – We’re not touching that topic with a 10-foot pole. Way too controversial.
Brandi – It’s so funny you asked this question. I remember being so irritated when you’re on the outside of a wheel and so many people didn’t understand the concept that if you take one step on the inside it equates to way more on the outside. And then you have the individual perspectives and personalities.
Karin – Individual personalities, one versus 20. I don’t know.
Brandi – Yeah, I’m going to say it’s easier to train one toddler.