Woman forest firefighter tells it like it is

Forest firefighter Mary Pauline Lowry writes eloquently about what it's like to be a firefighter, and why those that take on this dangerous work love their job. I found it particularly interesting how she hit it right on the nail: we don't do this work thinking we will die on the fireline, but certainly know it's a possibility.

When I fought fires, the Elden Fire threatened homes, burning right up to the edges of neighborhoods. I cruised the fireline with my tanker crew, with strict orders NOT to get involved with structure fires. That made sense - we weren't trained to.

My supervisor in Kenai, Alaska demanded we carry Scott Air Packs in case we were asked to help with a structure fire.  We were forced to have one on our truck, but refused to use them. We knew we were not qualified.

And here it is, 30+ years later, and the dilemma is still there. Why? Until wildfire fire crews are trained to fight structure fires, they have no business being involved. Even putting them in a situation where it may become inevitable is wrong. Fire officials need to take a long, hard look at firefighting strategies. I agree with Ms. Lowry. Something is wrong.

Why I loved my job

People ask me why I loved such a dangerous profession. Some have accused me of being an "adrenalin junkie" or being just plain crazy. They ask why I risked my life. Why would I want to work so hard for so little pay. Why did I put up with the discrimination.

Recently I found a book by Philip Connors called Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout. Although not a firefighter, Philip captures the essence of one in such a lovely, poetic way, I'm jealous.

Simply put, he describes firefighting this way:

"That wildfire could be fun was a fact known mainly by those who fought it. You slept outdoors. You felt a kinship with your crew members, brothers and sisters in a tough line of work. You hiked, parachuted, and rode helicopters over beautiful forests; you drove scenic roads, told dirty jokes under the stars, did your work in the wild."

Yup, that's why I did it. That's why I loved my job.

Yarnell Hill tragedy explored in magazine article

Popular Mechanics recently published an in-depth article, trying to piece together what happened on that sad day where 19 men lost their lives. While no one will ever know exactly why the crew left their safe zone, this article discusses the possibility that they were trying to save a home.

If this is true, no one but the crew is to blame, since they took a risk that proved fatal. It's been said firefighters get caught up in the moment, getting a little bit braver each time they are exposed to danger and nothing happens. No amount training will change this.

Changing Fire Suppression

It goes without saying that wildfires have had a lot of press lately, especially with the catastrophic loss of so many firefighters last year. Many might be asking "So why are these fires getting so out of hand, and why are they so big compared to 20 years ago?"

The management of fire used to be all about putting them all out. Now that researchers know fire is important, if not essential, for a healthy forest ecosystem, total fire suppression is not a priority. However, backing off of 100-plus years of snuffing them all out is a very dangerous and risky task.  Combining the western drought with the build-up of forest understory plants creates massive blazes that produce higher heat and destroy the seed source for the next generation of trees.

FireScape, a group of scientists and land management personnel, look for answers to managing the unique attributes of Arizona's Sky Islands, including the Santa Rita Mountains.  There is much to be learned about the role of fire and how it affects these pockets of forest amidst the desert, and hopefully managing fire will progress to the point that we don't have to lose everything in order to bring back a healthy forest for future generations to enjoy.