We’ve just finished a burnout on the Klondike Fire in southern Oregon—dragging drip torches all day, deep in the brush along a road, navigating poison oak and yellow jacket ground nests. As soon as we wrap it, tying it into another crew’s burnout from earlier, we’re told to “RTO,” or reverse tool order—in other words, turn around and get out. Winds had been favorable all night, but at the last minute switched across the road, our containment line, meaning embers and smoke were now being pushed where they shouldn’t be by a strong, unrelenting wind.
We rushed to get out of the smoke, which stung our eyes and throats and lungs with no relief, the smoke so thick now that we could only follow the leather boots in front of us, unable to see anything through the tears streaming out of our eyes. We cough and wipe the snot from our noses. Every orifice disagrees with the situation we’ve found ourselves in. Embers fall on our necks and shirts, others sneak into the gap between our eyes and glasses. Our rush becomes a jog as the pullout where our buggies are parked comes into distant view, the smoke finally easing up.
It’s nearly midnight and we’ve been working since 8 am, awake since 5.
This night was pretty fun until it wasn’t, and then it straight up sucked. Not only did our line not hold—requiring three more days of work to contain it on the other side of the road—but many of us agreed that it was probably the worst smoke exposure of the summer. Smoke exposure is the worst part of our job, and its effects don’t go away once you reach fresh air. Your eyes will dry and the snot will stop, but you’ll still wake up feeling like you got black-out drunk and smoked a pack of Marlboros the night before. Your voice will be raspy. Your lungs won’t feel quite right. Your throat will be sore. You’ll have a headache.
That all said, this was probably one of the most memorable nights of the summer—probably because it sucked so bad. Most of firefighting sucks to some degree, but breathing smoke and nights that never seem to end rank right up there with the worst of it. The real question is why the hell we continue to do it.
For all its sucking, firefighting—hotshotting, specifically—is the best thing I’ve done, even if I can’t fully explain why. The friends and places and fire and excitement are all pretty good reasons, to be sure. But I’ve also felt frustration and thirst and failure and exhaustion deeper than ever before. As one of the guys on my crew said in late August, this is exhaustion so deep that you can feel it in your cells, all the way down to your mitochondria. And the failure—oh the failure. For the entire first month of this fire season, I was convinced I was a bad hotshot. I wrote about it in the back of the buggy while we drove to fires. I can’t do anything right, I wrote. I’m not liked, I’m not strong, I’m not supposed to be here. This is not for me.
Five months later I can say with near certainty that I was wrong. I picked a little place out for myself on the crew and felt, finally, like I belonged. I got stronger, strength from digging line and dragging a drip torch, from hiking with gear and the added weight of water and fuel. I embraced life pared down to the essentials—water, food, work and a sleeping pad on the ground. And, most importantly, I figured out the person I am when shit sucks. This is a hard reckoning at first—the person you thought you were versus the one that comes out when it’s all leveled by hard work and hunger and exhaustion and not showering and having no cell phone service. That person, as it turns out, was the most ‘me’ I’ve ever been.
I can’t pretend that I’m qualified to offer life advice because honestly I have no idea what I’m doing. But one thing I do know—because of May and smoke and days that felt like they’d never end but did—is this: Everything worth doing will suck sometimes. Do it anyways.