What Makes You Matter?

By Travis Dotson, Analyst

Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

[This article originally appeared as “Ground Truths” in the 2017 Fall Issue of Two More Chains.]

For this piece, I set out to do my garden variety axe grinding session. It’s usually pretty easy for me to put a quick edge on my axe de jour and proceed to swing with unveiled malice in the general direction of the unsuspecting target: tradition, ignorance, hypocrisy, well-intentioned managers and IMTs . . . I’ve lashed out at them all. 

 For this particular word slinging session, I had planned to swing at those buried in the firefighter persona—those whose identity has grown roots around their belt buckle. 

I loaded up to spit venom and fury at the rather regular phenomenon of intentionally entangling what we do with who we are—wrapping identity around our personalized version of “wildland firefighter.” 

Got a crew logo tattoo? Check your work email on the weekend? Spend time at the station on your precious two days off? Struggling with forced retirement? I planned to smash you with senseless sarcasm and aimless animosity. I set out to attack the over-attached because it’s an easy target and it’s socially acceptable to do so. It’s also a windmill I personally know the inner workings of. 

Is this target related to identity? Yes . . . and. There is always and. Identity and belonging. Belonging and worthiness. Worthiness and community. All of that and more. Always more. No clean lines. Everything is connected.  

Our Addiction is Understandable 

I set out to attack. But I couldn’t. All because of that and. Those tattoos and weekend emails are but a symptom. 

What if we momentarily viewed wildland fire and all that comes with it as a drug? 

Comradery, adrenalin, travel, excitement, belonging, meaning, service, self-worth, money, health insurance, security . . . These are all “good” things. When asked what keeps us coming back, these are the reasons we cite. The “addiction” is understandable. 

We blend all these good things together into a soothing concoction that can keep us high for decades. Some of us have a very healthy relationship with this drug. Kind of like those freaks who have only ONE cup of coffee each morning. Plenty of people put in a season or two on the fireline and walk away without hesitation. Some folks get hooked for a while and then move on to healthier lives or other drugs.  

Some of us are completely strung out. 

I know, this is a rough comparison and it might make a few folks roll their eyes or shake their heads. It might even make a few folks mad. Nobody wants to listen to their dealer preach about the dangers of addiction. If you don’t like what I’m saying you’re probably just more sophisticated than me. You’re likely in possession of a much higher intellect and capable of understanding fire culture in a more nuanced fashion. Or, you could be a straight-up junkie. 

Obviously, we all sit somewhere on the complex spectrum of awareness related to how much we need or don’t need this work to satisfy certain aspects of our persona. Not all of us are conscious of the level to which this vocation feeds our self-worth. Some of us just like getting paid to ride four-wheelers and cut down trees.  

But to a lot of us, it’s more than that. How much more?  

Is your relationship with fire “healthy”? Be careful of the temptation to count yourself in the “healthy” category. Nobody wants to be an addict, abuser, or victim—and we are very capable of lying to ourselves. 

Making Us Feel Like We Matter 

On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with wrapping one’s identify around fire. It’s actually pretty hard not to get what you do tangled-up with who you are, especially if it involves the intensity and bonding that’s so abundant on the fire ground. Shared hardship is high value stuff. It will leave a mark on your heart. All that good stuff makes us feel like we matter.  

Let me remind you that when I talk about addiction here, I’m not talking about the actual performance of the job. We don’t suffer withdrawal symptoms from pulling hose or chopping roots. I’m talking about the indescribable magic we pretend not to notice in each other’s eyes. I’m talking about the stuff we try so hard to verbalize at 3 am while hovering around the coals of the chaos, whether that chaos was a burn show gone bad or the season-ending crew party (pretty much the same thing). 

I’m talking about the dirt bag intimacy that can never be verbalized in clear text because our language is limited to action-filled anecdotes of previous communal suffer-sessions. This is how we say: “You matter to me; I matter to you.” 

This is community. This is tribe. This is belonging. Humans are biologically programmed to thrive using this evolutionary advantage: 

We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding—”tribes.” This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.” 

Tribe – Sebastian Junger 

That’s a dumb thing to throw rocks at.  

Is the Fireline the Only Place You Matter? 

So how to proceed? 

1. Acknowledgement. What so many of us are “addicted” to is not the work or even the “identity.” It’s the connection and community essential to human health. This complicates the inevitable separation, whether it’s the Golden Boot at 57, all that leads to and follows a night in jail, a tree to the head mid-career, the pursuit of a sustainable relationship, the birth of a child, or the complicated weight of fireline trauma. Any of these, or the myriad of other circumstances leading to an unanticipated or unwanted extraction from the fireline, tend to set us outside the precious circle of belonging.  

  • What part do you play in keeping that circle open?  
  • How prepared are you for your inevitable separation? 

2. Diversify. I have heard it’s important not to keep all your eggs in one basket. I think that means don’t keep all of your life savings under the mattress (in case one of your old hotshot buddies stops by on the way to Vegas—we all know that dude). Are all your belonging/worthiness/community eggs in one basket? Is the fireline the only place you matter? 

  • Be intentional about investing in other communities. Some people go to church, some people volunteer, some people chase big animals or big waves with people that value their contribution. What you build may never be as intensely satisfying as the heyday of the crew. But as one wise old hotshot supt is fond of saying: “Something is better than nothing.”  

Get to Know Yourself 

This business of identity, belonging, and community is very serious. It has everything to do with what makes us feel like we matter. Mattering matters. There are many paths to mattering. From your path, you can no doubt see someone traveling a different path. Don’t throw rocks at them.   

We are community, let’s be a supportive one. Let’s not shoot our wounded. If you see someone struggling with an impending separation, whether retirement or the noble pursuit of a saner life schedule, be kind. Acknowledge the enormity of the exit and what goes with it. 

When you see someone going all in, lining up the tattoo appointment or repeated day-off station visits, honor what those actions signify. Maybe make a note to broach the topic of diversifying one’s identity investment in the name of resilience. After all, none of us know when our name will show up on the emergency demob list. 

Take a hard look at your relationship with being a firefighter. How much of your identity have you invested? Get to know yourself, dig in there and find out what makes you tic. What matters to you? What makes you matter? Where else can you contribute and commune? 

To find out you have to dig deep. But that’s not a problem. You have plenty of experience digging. 

Get dirty, Tool-Swingers. 

3 thoughts on “What Makes You Matter?

  1. Another insightful article Travis.
    As a retiree of a 40+ seasons/years wildland fire career I was certainly guilty of putting in a lot of unpaid time. More so in the last 20 years than the first 20, but I don’t regret it. As the Aviation Training Program Manager for the Forest Service and course coordinator at both the geographic and national training centers I felt a duty to provide the best training possible for the folks in the field.
    The first 16 seasons were spent in fighting fire and dispatch in Idaho and Alaska, living in remote locations and spending most of my time with my crew and fellow firefighters, so we were all immersed in the culture 24/7. I had the winters off to go to college, ski and travel.
    The friendships developed throughout the years in fire still sustain me. The folks who had my back throughout those 40 years still have my back. The richness of long term relationships, the depth of love and understanding and the unspoken commitment of support are incalculable.
    Yes, develop outside interests, be there for family and other friends, allow time away from fire, and follow that adventurous spirit. Be aware that tribal mentality has dangerous drawbacks in addition to the positive aspects.
    But, from the long view, I am honored to have played my small part in wildland fire.

  2. I have noticed that this fusion of one’s personal identity with employment has made our particular workforce much easier to exploit as well. Oftentimes, overhead will use this identity piece as leverage to cajole wildland firefighters into performing unpaid work, taking on extra assignments, etc. In my experience, this “addiction” has almost turned into an expectation, and firefighters who do look at our line of employment as “just a job” are often met with sideways glances, if not outright hostility.

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