firefighting

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California making jam

The Good (in the Bad and the Ugly)

How are you?

If your current state is anything like most of the people I know, your honest answer is probably something along the lines of “good, mixed with some bad and some ugly”.

I hope this isn’t true for you, but for me, it seems every person I know has been touched by the tougher realities of life as of late. From health to happiness, a lot of basic standards of living for those I love have been put to the test lately and it seems we have found ourselves in a sort of communal hardship.

The fires that broke out early last week in both Northern and Southern California have truly brought that hardship to the forefront. Our skies have been smokey enough to obscure the sun. We’ve been relegated to the indoors, to our own locales, to hunker down and hermit our ways through this. And in those times, when the sky shines its ominous, apocalyptic orange light, it’s easy to feel alone.

But we aren’t.

In all this bad and ugly, we can still find the good.

Today, I found myself wanting just that: good. Just wanting a moment of reprieve. I found myself hoping to write to you about something uplifting, to take a break from the heartache and feelings of doom around us.

I tried.

I took myself on a walk, despite the smoky skies to get myself into my writing rhythm. Since the beginning of this blog, each post has been born while walking. Like a dog circling to find the perfect spot to lay down, I too circle around the ideas circling me and this little dance always sorts itself in my strides. Once I return home, the ideas have settled and I too can settle into my perfect spot.

So, today, I took myself on a walk to sort out what I should say. However, unlike my normal walks, I spent the time trying to dream up other things to write about instead of acknowledging what was actually happening. I tried to block out what was there, ready to be said. I wanted to write something happy but my mind had already made her mind up.

And so, we made a compromise: yes, we could acknowledge the bad and the ugly and we also would lump on a little good.

Because the good is always there.

So, since I think we’ve sufficiently acknowledged the bad and the ugly, here’s a little good. Even they are a little silly, a little surface, here are some things, happenings, and reminders that have brought me joy this week. I hope they bring some to you too. Here we go, happiness train, okay? All aboard!

This look on our friend’s dog Atari’s face as he finally gets to get into The Chief’s lap:

 

 

 

 

Feeling absolutely loved by a kiddo you’ve known their whole life when she makes your coming to her house a calendar event (in hot pink, no less):

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Friends

 

 

Seeing a little hint of blue for the first time in days:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Fires

 

Spending a night with life-long girlfriends that ranged from feeling very satisfyingly adult (we had an olive tray, you guys) to very satisfyingly juvenile (pop music sing along), to very happy and very sad. We ran the gamut and it was beyond healing to be around you loves (fun times/sad times not pictured as we were too busy eating olives, crying, laughing and singing. Oh how I love women).

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Pt. Reyes National Seashore

 

Coming up with the best band name ever, and then having it immediately embodied in whiteboard drawing form by our young eavesdroppers:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Fart Cactus

 

Remembering full blue skies and full, deep breaths:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California

 

Cactus ears from your sister-in-law. ‘Nuff said:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Cactus

 

Nature, in all her glory:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Olive Ranch

 

These ridiculous and adorable slippers my brother gave me:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Kitty Slippers

 

Learning to make jam for the first time:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California making jam

 

Laughing at the awkwardness of this toilet brand name (First Impression):

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Toilet

 

Laughing too hard to be able to take the photo:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Alaskan Women color

 

Those kind eyes.

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Hiking

 

 

I had to acknowledge the hard, the bad, the ugly today because it’s what’s real for me and so many others right now and I’ve always tried to be real with you. As for you, I hope you are in the good but if not, I hope this brought a little sparkle to your day. Let’s try to spread it around. There is always good to be found.

 

Wishing safety and so much love to you and yours,

 

From Alaska by way of California.

P.S. Want to help? California and Californians would so appreciate your support. Please donate if you can. There are so many wonderful organizations out there but one quick way is to text “Red Cross” to the number 9099. When you agree to the transaction, your phone company will add $10.00 extra dollars to your phone bill this month. It’s easy (it took me a total of 10 seconds) and every donation, no matter the amount is important. Thank you.

P.P.S. Thank you, a million times over for those with boots on the ground. Firefighters, volunteers, citizens. You all are amazing and we so appreciate you.

Beneath the Borealis The Chief and the Scribe Take a Drive Alaskan Firefighters

The Chief and the Scribe Take a Drive

In my 31 years, I’ve found quite a few ways to bring home the bacon. I started young, as soon as I could, and worked in everything from babysitting to planting (and cutting down) Christmas trees. At the time, I figured the Christmas tree stint was just a blip in time of tight work pants, tough boots, long hours and a perpetual state of dirtiness. It may have just been a hyper-seasonal job I had randomly fallen into but I loved every minute of it, from the mingling smell of pine and dirt and gasoline to the sound and feel of the chainsaw to the meditative state I felt falling into bed dead tired. Yet, when Santa’s sleigh had sled on past and the mistletoe had wilted, the work was done.

And so, I moved on to another job.

Yet, as I retired my boots and settled for slightly less functional footwear, I missed the physicality and the gratification from seeing the work I had done for the day.

Enter: Alaska

 

 

Beneath the Borealis The Chief and the Scribe Take a Drive Wilderness Glacier

Pups n’ pals.

 

 

After switching careers most easily expressed via footwear: running shoes (gym), high heels (radio station), Danskos (server) back to running shoes (owning a gym), I found myself in Alaska without a career, donning hiking boots.

Back to function.

And looking for work.

My first two years, I juggled working in restaurants and nanny-ing. Last year, I added online consulting to the mix with the goal that this year, I’d solely work online and by the grace of goodness, it happened: I was working full-ish time, year-round, in the wilds of Alaska, and everywhere else we found ourselves. Ecuador? Still worked. California? Worked. Winter in Alaska? Working. It was and has been amazing and I still send a “thank you” up skyward on the daily. Yet, like all amazing things, it has to have downs for you to appreciate the ups. This month was slightly less stellar. My hours scaled back and suddenly, I found myself with a little more downtime than I was comfortable with.

Enter: Fire.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis The Chief and the Scribe Take a Drive Alaskan Fire Department

Our newest addition on the left. Who knew fire had such fashionable colors?

 

 

And just as my amazing job hit a less amazing valley amongst the peaks, the sun came out, both literally and figuratively and the fire engine was hired to patrol.

Well, guess who was on it?

 

 

Beneath the Borealis The Chief and the Scribe Take a Drive Women Firefighters

Riding high breaking in the new gear (photo credit: AT).

 

 

Right when my regular work dried up, the engine needed a replacement person.

That person was me.

The luck was sublime.

For the first time ever, The Chief and I worked together for the State patrolling The Road. In two days we worked 22 hours and drove countless miles. We “took weather” together, called into Dispatch, checked on reports of smoke, worked on vehicles and informed the public of the Burn Ban. It was beautiful to step into The Chief’s world in a way I’d never seen it. It gave me a new level of respect for the person he is for our community and how hardworking he is for our family.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis The Chief and the Scribe Take a Drive Volunteer Firefighters

Big Red.

 

 

Between fire and construction, The Chief has been working for 30 days straight. Construction is a 9 hour day and fire is 11. He’s had little more than a few hours awake at home, the rest reserved for sleep. And all of this I knew before we worked together but without the experience, that knowledge lacked context. After two long days with him, I was tired. Driving about in an engine sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. Seeing a day in the life of patrol face to face shed some serious light on the intricacies of the job and they add up quickly. The physicality of the job, even without working a fire line, coupled with the weight of responsibility and the trust of the town and the State add a layer I’ve never quite felt in a job.

I loved it.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis The Chief and the Scribe Take a Drive Alaskan Firefighters

Red lipstick courtesy of the 4th of July parade, not a workday.

 

 

Falling into bed after taking off my boots and work pants and washing off the day’s dirt, I felt that same feeling I’d had at the tree farm: a tired body from a job I took pride in. Despite the shower, I still smelled of the sweet trifecta of pine, dirt, and gasoline and as I rolled over that night, that beautiful scent was doubled by the man I love.

I’m beyond grateful to work from home, it’s a dream I’ve had most of my working life and one I hope to continue, yet in the times of slow, I feel so lucky to have found myself in a place that put me back in boots, back in the dirt and back to falling into bed dead tired.

Cheers to the conventional coupled with the unconventional, to wearing a new type of shoes or to trying someone else’s.

Cheers to getting your hands dirty.

With love,

from Alaska.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis The Chief and the Scribe Take a Drive National Park.jpg

Hot and Dry(as). Stay safe, all.

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - The dip

The California Contrast

Living here, I’m used to being on the opposite end of the spectrum from my old haunts and old ways in California.

 

Running hot water used to feel normal, now it feels like liquid gold.

When taking a walk I used to watch out for other humans, now I keep a watch for bears and I’m surprised if I run into another living soul.

Some days, the entirety of my waking hours are taken up by chores that in my old life never even existed.

Chopping wood.

Pumping gas.

Hauling water.

Just keeping a fire going when it’s 30 below can be a full-time job, akin to, I assume,  midnight feedings (and 2am and 5am and…).

It’s a place where for days I forget how different my old life and my new life are, for weeks I forget that it used to be strange to me to haul every bit of water I use by hand. Strange to even know how much water this aquababy has used. And then, when the last bucket runs dry and it’s 8pm and I’m tired and hungry and the last thing I want to do is to suit up to spend 30 minutes walking 40lb. buckets up and down our Ramp of Doom until we are re-supplied, then, I remember.

When it’s 40 degrees here at night in the Summer and 80 at night in California, I remember.

When it’s slush is the Spring without a flower to be found and lush as can be in California, I remember.

I remember my old life and I feel grateful for the contrast because the difference is what makes me grateful.

The contrast was always one I appreciated, until recently.

This last week, the town in which I was born went up in flames. In this frantic Fall of natural disasters, it seemed that there couldn’t possibly be more devastation to come. But, come it did.

Fire after fire tore through even the most industrial of locations and raged in wind-driven fervor through the counties where I spent my first 28 years. My Mom was close to being evacuated and had to sleep in shifts (alternating with her neighbors) in order to make sure she would hear the notice to get out. People I know and love had to run for their lives. People I love lost everything.

And here I sit, in a place where fire is constantly on my mind, a place where I’ve joined the fire department to ensure I know how to help. A place where we all worry about fire, we all watch for smoke and suddenly, it has struck in the place I least expected it and I am nowhere near it to help.

I never expected it.

The contrast.

And so it continued. In the week of the worst fires my area in California has ever seen, in a week where I could barely breathe because of the panic I felt, the first snow of the season fell.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - First Snowfall

The Ramp of Doom Returns…Happy Falling!

 

 

Fire and Ice.

As I walk outside I breathe the fresh air of an area relatively untouched.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - Panorama

 

 

As my friends and family in California go outside, they don masks to protect their sweet lungs from the deep, heavy smoke.

As I look out my window I see a flurry of fat snowflakes.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - First Snowfall Walk

And a Fly-By Neighbor Pup

 

 

As they look out the window they see the falling of ash.

As I build a fire to stay warm, they fight one to stay alive.

 

The contrast has never felt stronger or stranger and being so far away has never made me feel so out of control. But, with two tickets already purchased months ago, I wait.

 

 

 

 

In two weeks, we leave for California. The tidying here has already begun (and failed some too, foiled by the 6 inches of snowfall) and the three-day process of leaving will be here before we know it. And although it will be heartbreaking to witness such devastation, I am eager to get to my first home and become part of the amazing relief efforts that started on the dawn of day 1.

The firefighters and emergency response have been tirelessly working around the clock, taking mere cat-naps to make it through and the outpouring of love and help offered up by the community has been amazing. People have collected blankets, food, found others housing, taken in families, rescued animals, distributed face masks, offered pampering in a time of panic via massage and haircuts and counseling. While it’s been absolutely awful to read story after story of loss, it’s been uplifting to see the love that spills over this pain. I’ve seen countless pictures of a poster that’s been put up all over the county that reads:

The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.

It will be good to be a part of that love.

Stay safe all.

 

California, I’m coming home.

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - Morning Glory

The morning glory blooms in the face of Winter.

 

 

NOTE:

Dear reader,

If you would like to help relief efforts in California the Redwood Credit Union is a wonderful local branch collecting funds for neighboring counties in the Bay Area. I’ve been told it’s the best place to donate to and 100% of the funds go to relief efforts.

Anything and everything helps. Thank you.

https://www.redwoodcu.org/northbayfirerelief

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - RCU Donate

 

 

 

The Pack Test

“So, I’m talking to a real firefighter?”

Well, sort of.

Two weeks ago I became a real Wildland Emergency Firefighter.

Well, sort of.

You see, the positive things about living off the grid, out of a city without a municipal handshake of sorts are plentiful. You can build how you build, live how you live and matters are most often handled within the community.

The negative things about living off the grid don’t necessarily have to be negatives at all but they do have to be dealt with.

For example: We live in rural Alaska. Prior to moving here, I didn’t realize how great of a threat fire is to this land (though it seems a bit obvious now) and how different fighting fire in Alaska is to fighting fire down South. And so the questions arise: In this massive area that we call home, full of ready and willing fuels, how shall we deal with fire?

Because we will be the first boots on the ground.

Without a local fire department just naturally occurring as easily as a local library or hospital seemed to (which I know is untrue, a lot of work goes into that infrastructure but it does often go unseen) when I lived on the grid it comes down to organizing together to create a first line of knowledge and defense.

This is how I became part of the Volunteer Fire Department.

Not in 100 years (because really, a million? I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t think of it in that long) would I have thought I would be a firefighter. Though I grew up running with some of the local Volunteer Firefighters and hanging out in the firehouse and learning a few tricks of the trade, for the most part, my understanding of firefighting boiled down to the level of dalmatians and fire poles (neither of which we have here. Dang!).

But when I moved here accidentally and fell in love with the Fire Chief of the town, I inadvertently became a part of the VFD (Volunteer Fire Department). I helped to organize fundraisers and sold swag at events, I spread the word about fire meetings every Wednesday and helped The Chief wherever else I could.

But attend a meeting?

No, gracias.

The thing was, when I arrived, the meetings sounded more like a boys club than a training session. And that’s not necessarily because that’s what in fact they were. I conjured up an idea before laying foot on the VFD soil and decided in that conjuring that I was plenty happy to support from the sidelines. Yay Chief!

However, last Spring The Chief suggested I join the team.

“Of all the people in The Valley, you’re the most likely to be in the truck with me when I have to respond to a fire. It would make sense if you knew how to help.”

 

 

 

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Well, me and Cinda would be the most likely riders in the truck. Time for training, Jones!

 

 

Dang, very true and fair enough.

And so I joined my first meeting and spent the Summer learning about hose lays and how to draft water to fill the tanks and how to get water onto a fire. But it all felt very far away and somewhat unreal.

Until two events happened:

The first (read about it here) was when a controlled burn was started right down the road from us, yet was left unattended and we awoke to worried phone calls that were in fact very valid. A few hours later we had the fire out and all was well but the very real potential of our valley going up in smoke because of a small fire turning big hit home that day.

The second (read about it here) was when a burn started about 17 miles away and seemed to grow and grow over night from consistent winds. Just as the fire truly started to get people shaking in their XtraTuffs, the Department of Forestry sent in water planes and then as if the planes had simultaneously been putting out fire and doing a rain dance, the rains came and they didn’t stop for a month. However, had they not come and the winds not stopped blowing, the fire jumping the river to our little hamlet was a very real possibility.

Both of these events made me glad I had learned what I had learned per The Chief’s suggestion but that was as far as that would go.

Right?

Apparently not.

This year there was a new infusion of suggestion. Why not get your Red Card?

Me?

A Red Card?

A Red Card is an actual red card, hence its nickname which is actually called an Incident Qualification Card. It signifies that its holder is has been trained and tested both physically and mentally and has passed said tests to qualify as a Wildland Firefighter.

Me?

The Chief, again coming in with the air of reason, suggested I consider it because of our unique situation. Since the VFD is in fact a VFD with huge emphasis on the V (Volunteer) it can be difficult to incentivize people to acquire the certifications needed to keep the VFD earning funds. Our community has to be able to earn a living and counting on Fire as employment is a gamble.

It goes like this:

The fire truck is hired by the DOF (Department of Forestry) to run patrols.

The truck makes money on these patrols and thus, this is how the VFD makes money.

Other than fundraisers, this is the VFD’s only income.

AND…

The VFD truck is only hired up if there is High fire danger.

AND…

The truck can only be driven by someone with the correct qualifications .

AND…

The Chief is the only person in The Valley as of now who has the qualifications and is available.

AND…

It can only be driven if he has a Red Card-ed person in the truck with him.

AND…

No one in The Valley with a Red Card would be available this Summer leaving the truck unable to make money, the VFD unable to make money and The Chief unable to patrol.

Quite the pickle, eh?

Thankfully (although not for the funds of the VFD which are used to procure firefighting necessities like trucks and hoses and pumps and gear) it has been a mild weathered year with rains throughout most of June and July.

 

 

 

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The upside of a rainy Summer? Double rainbows, of course. Oh, Alaska, you are a beauty.

 

 

 

Yet after only one day of sun, the roads dry out and the threat of fire starts to return.

So, it was suggested that current members of the VFD, if willing and able, get our Red Cards.

Willing?

Yes.

Able?

…Gulp.

 

The classroom portion gave me pause because of the time commitment (40 hours of schooling plus testing to pass) but I knew that if I could find a way to carve out time for play then I certainly could find a way to carve out 40 nooks and crannies of hours for the good of the community.

No, the classes gave me pause for time but what scared me was the physical testing.

Though not at first.

In fact, I hadn’t even worried about it until two nights before while working at The Restaurant.

“So, you’re taking the Pack Test tomorrow?”

“Yep!”

“What’s the Pack Test set-up again?” (the physical test)

“Oh I think 3 miles in 45 minutes with a 45lb. pack.”

“Oh!”

“Oh?”

And then I started putting it into perspective. I had walked to work earlier that day and I had left a few minutes later than planned so I had been hustling. Lou was with me and was, as usual, leading the pack but I was at a close clip behind her. The only things slowing me down were the terrain (bumpy, rocky, driius filled) and my super-heavy backpack.

It weighed maybe 20 pounds.

And it took me over an hour to get there.

 

 

 

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Stopping to take pictures of cloud formations like this beauty may have slowed me down a bit, but not by much.

 

 

Uh oh. This was not adding up. 2+2 was not equaling 4.

The walk the next day was shorter but only by half a mile and the pack was over two times as heavy and the walk to work that day had been my first exercise since strep throat had taken me down the week before.

…Gulp.

So, the night before the test I stayed home (strapped to my couch by copious amounts of online work to do that kept me in) despite a wedding party and a band playing that night, made a good meal and went to bed…a little worried.

The next morning I woke up early, ready to get my head in the game. The Pack Test would be first at 9am followed by a Field Day of learning and testing our skills. The Chief left an hour before me to meet up with our friend W who was leading the Field Day and to set up the course we would test on. I met The Chief there an hour later with little butterflies fluttering about in my tummy.

I realized it had been years since I’d put my body through any sort of testing, a revelation that seems strange to me as someone who’s been a personal trainer. But time flies. It’s funny the stories we tell ourselves like “I often run races.” which was once true but not true anymore. And so I tried to channel those days. I even put on my old personal training/10k run watch to be able to check my time against the mile markers.

As soon as we had all filled out our paperwork, it was time to fit our vests. I weighed myself, put on the vest and weighed myself again. Somehow, over night I had forgotten the whole 45 pound aspect and had rounded it up to 50.

Mine is spot on!

Whoops.

The Chief tried to help fit the vest to my body but they were all made for someone much bigger and it wiggled as I walked, back and forth, back and forth like a porcupine’s gait.

We all lined up. We’d have 22 minutes and 30 seconds to make it to the half-way mark (if we were going to cut it that close) but my goal was to make it there with time to spare.

The walk was on flat-ish ground void of vegetation but marred by potholes and rocks and heavy (for us) morning traffic which we tried to avoid as much as possible while keeping as straight a line as we could.

Every second counted.

Cinda and two other VFD pooches (still no dalmatians) lead the charge. As we started the slow incline to the historic town and started making sense of the distance, we all realized that the half-way mark would be at the end of a steep (but short) uphill. The course was supposed to be flat.

Thanks, honey.

Nevertheless, we powered on.

In, 2, 3, 4 Out 2, 3, 4…

I fell into a rhythm of breath I could rely on and talked to my legs.

You can do this.

At the high-five half-way point we started our decline. We were at 21 minutes and 30 seconds. Just one minute ahead of half-time. If we wanted to make it we could not slow down at all.

Keep the pace.

In, 2, 3, 4 Out 2, 3, 4…

And then, at a certain point, I lost it that rhythm. I looked down at my legs with encouragement but also in bewilderment: can’t you go any faster? I felt like a cartoon version of myself with little flippers for legs. I was pushing but they just didn’t want to go any faster and the test declares that running is an automatic fail. The point is to see if you can haul yourself at a quick extended clip out of harm’s way.

I looked ahead of me wishing for long legs. Most of the time I enjoy being pint-sized but sometimes, it really slows me down.

The time was ticking away.

30 minutes.

35 minutes.

40 minutes.

41 minutes.

At 41 minutes I could clearly see our end goal. The Chief and our instructor were standing, ready and waiting to congratulate us.

I again looked down at my flippers which now felt as if they were flipping through mud.

Come on guys! We can do this. We are so close.

You know how when you’re waiting for it to be an appropriate hour to eat ice cream and the minutes just seem to melt by in glue-like fashion? It takes forever. Well, this was the opposite. The seconds were flashing, every time I looked at my watch, one I had looked at for years to encourage myself, to push myself and countless others to go just that much farther out of our comfort zones, it seemed to be betraying me, speeding up time.

42 minutes.

43 minutes.

2 minutes left.

I put my head down and leaned into the weight vest with the last bits of push that I had to make my leggies go faster and…

We made it.

43 minutes and 20 seconds.

A record?

I think not.

A pass?

Why yes, yes I think so!

The Chief and W congratulated all of us as everyone came in under the 45 minute cut-off and The Chief quickly removed the now very wet from sweating vest from my back. I felt like I could fly without it.

Before I realized it, my heart rate was back to normal and I felt great. For an “Arduous” test it hadn’t been all that bad.

Right?

The rest of the day was for the Field Day. We learned everything from how to deploy a Fire Shelter (which is far less sturdy than it sounds, think more like a big baked potato wrapped in foil versus a building) to how to effectively use a Pulaski to deter the spread of fire under and above ground. We worked on different hose lay formations and safety procedures and about those who had perished because they had missed even just one of those checklists or procedures. As the day went along, it felt less like learning about something and more about becoming part of it. This elusive idea of becoming a Wildland Firefighter was becoming more real as each hour went by. We were about to get our Red Cards (pending my completion of online work still). We helped one another remember our training and worked together to divvy out tasks and melded into a team in a way prior training hadn’t forced us to. Even though the day and the test weren’t as long or as grueling as say Boot Camp, that same sense of belonging and camaraderie that comes from completing something together as a team came through.

By the end of the day, The Chief was beaming. He finally would have help if and when he needed it. The VFD would make money and he wouldn’t be the sole person responsible to make that happen. I could see a weight lifted off of his shoulders and I felt happy to be a small part of that.

That night we went home to recoup and I felt it…

The soreness.

It started creeping in like the cold comes through the cracks in the door at 30 below.

I wasn’t even going to be sore though, remember?

Wrong.

 

 

 

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I felt like this dandelion. I’m pretty sure I looked like it too.

 

 

 

It should definitely be labeled “Arduous”.

3 days later I was still compromised while walking upstairs. Perhaps the walk hadn’t winded me but carrying a pack only 15 pounds shy of half of my weight (thanks to the extra 5 pounds I had forgotten about) had certainly put my muscles to the test and still…

I had passed.

I could rest easy. It was over (minus some remaining coursework) and a renewed sense of possibility lay before me, one that I never had considered in my life: I could now go out on a fire.

Hearing about The Chief’s days on the fireline had always seemed so far removed. Walking for miles and miles with a 50 pound pack of gear and a 40 pound jug of water, sleeping in the open and eating meals out of a pouch? Taxing your body so that he would come back two belt loops slimmer and 5 pounds heavier? It sounded super-human and in truth it still does. But now, I was qualified to offer myself up to that type of work.

And so, when my girlfriend called and asked “So I’m talking to a firefighter?”

I responded in truth: Well, sort of.

There’s a part of me that’s always lurked beneath the non-competitive exterior that is competitive beyond all belief with myself. Could I do it? Could I hack it?

I guess we will have to see.

Until then, I’ll work on the knowledge, work on the practical and maybe take a few more hikes with that 5 pound heavier than it should be 50 pound pack.

And then, well, who knows?

And maybe by next year that extra 5 pounds will only feel like an extra 2.

Here’s hoping (and huffing and puffing to the finish line again).

Surviving the 180s

Three weeks ago I was up to my ears in work.

I would come home late every night and spend a few hours half working, half spending time with The Chief until I retired for a short sleep and awoke to do it all over again.

The Chief, on the other hand was searching for work extra work to supplement the lack of fire work he’d been called for. The fire season was off to a strange start and the jobs he would have normally been assigned hadn’t been sent his way.

The Chief was at home and hustling for work while I was rarely at home and hustling at work.

He kept up the house and I crashed once I got there.

I was exhausted, he was restless.

We were in different places.

 

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Sunrising / Sunrisen

 

It was a complete 180 degree shift from this Winter where he worked every day he could when he wasn’t sick and I was instead at home keeping us running.

It was a complete 180 degree shift from last Summer when we both were working like mad. We kept sane not through the support of a spouse at home providing a clean house or homemade meals but through the craziness of new love. It powered us through the summer madness.

Then, two weeks ago The Chief found more work and another 180 degree shift came. He and one of his best friends started working twelve-hour days for a film crew followed by a construction job. Things started falling into place again. A new rhythm started to establish itself.

 

Then, the storm came.

 

Literally.

I came home one night two weeks ago early for once and spent the evening alone since suddenly The Chief was the one working late. I enjoyed the time to just be in our home and listen to the thunder roll. Thunder and lightning in Alaska is a new thing. Coming from California and spending many Summers in the Midwest, I am used to thunderstorms. I crave them. They are so dramatic, so all-encompassing and then…they’re gone.

Yet, even a mere ten years ago, thunder was a rare occurrence in Alaska. Now it is common. The Lightning Belt has actually traveled North and so with the belt comes a cinching in, a sudden concentration and constant presence of lightning in Alaska.

Amazing, right?

In a way (for a lightning lover), yes and in another way, no no and no again.

You see, lightning as we all know, strikes.

In less rural areas it might not be such a big deal but in the wilderness? It’s a big deal. This Summer the state has been littered with lightning strikes, so much so that the map shows more red (strike points) almost than green (land) at times. And when lightning strikes, fire is a very real possibility. With most of the state being dense wilderness versus populated areas there often is little to no fire response nearby.

And so, that evening while I sat by myself and enjoyed the roll of thunder, I also felt a sense of worry for what the lightning accompanying the thunder might bring.

But what we worry about rarely comes to fruition and as a worrywort of sorts, time and time again I’ve seen that to be true.

Except for two weeks ago.

I worried that night two weeks ago that lightning would strike and cause a fire.

And cause a fire it did.

 

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This is the first picture I took of the fire as it started to become more and more noticeable.

 

And so, as the Fire Chief of the Volunteer Fire Department, The Chief was set to work by the Department of Forestry.

For days the fire went on with little concern from the outside. It had started in almost exactly the same place as a fire which had started 7 years earlier (the cycle of seven runs strong)  and so it was amongst “Old Burn” (areas that had already been burnt and therefore didn’t provide as much fuel for the fire). It seemed (or was speculated) that it would stay put in the same area, that the land would be re-scorched and then regenerate, and the fire would have served its purpose to help the land renew itself.

Wrong.

The weather this Summer had been unseasonably warm and the earth unseasonably dry and so, the new fire jumped the bounds of the old fire within days as it found new fuel.

 

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The fire starting to pick up fuels, especially due to the consistent wind to the Southeast

 

We spent the evening of a friend’s birthday looking out from the Hill Town down into the valley of the fire, watching huge smoke plumes build into mushroom clouds of smoke and watching flames jump so high into the air that we could see them with the naked eye 17 miles away.

 

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I’m down with a light show, but this was no Led Zeppelin experience. This was real and too close for comfort.

 

 

It was getting closer.

 

 

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The smoke plumes the morning after. The parts that look like clouds above the treeline are in fact smoke and that wind just keeps on blowing in the same direction.

 

Thankfully, we had a river between us and the fire.

Except that the river has a narrow point. A point where the fire could, if it had picked up enough fuel, “jump” the river.

Say what?

I’m no fire pro but I didn’t see fire as being particularly adept at jumping.

But it is.

The Chief told us all a sweet lullaby that night as we watched the beaming orange about fire and how she can get so hot and move so quickly that she can actually uproot huge trees in her path and spit them ahead of herself and high into the air like a catapult launching fire bombs to spread a fire.

Sweet dreams.

If this fire caught enough fuel and the wind kept up in the direction of the narrows, it was only a matter of time before it jumped onto our side of the river. Suddenly, less than 20 miles away no longer seemed like any sort of barrier. It was especially concerning for the isolated Lodge near the river jump point which was just downriver and in the exact direction the consistently blowing winds were going. The Chief was flown out over the fire to provide a better idea of its trajectory and then flew to the Lodge to help them create a plan of attack should the fire come their way.

Two more days of intense smoke-filled skies went by as tensions started to rise. The Chief now was no longer just working again, he was working around the clock. I, on the other hand, ended up with two days off in a row (I was actually still doing work from home for web design but at least I was finally at home except now, I was the one who was alone).

Another 180 degree shift.

 

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Water / Land

 

The heat kept up and tensions grew and grew. The Chief’s phone rang endlessly with concerned residents and Forestry briefs and attack plans. He was on the clock for 12-14 hours daily but couldn’t turn around without being questioned, on the clock or off. A town meeting was held to discuss the upcoming approach for different scenarios and that night an air attack was launched with the goal of preventing the ever-increasing fire from jumping the river.

The air attack (planes which dropped water and then refilled their huge tanks at local lakes) worked tirelessly and by the morning the fire hadn’t jumped the river. And then, just like that…

It started to rain.

Another 180.

It’s been raining ever since.

 

In the first week of the fire, I had two days off. The Chief had none. In the second week I suddenly had three as I had stopped working at the food truck. The Chief still had none. On my newly free day off I ran into a friend.

“A bunch of us are going into the backcountry for the next few days. We are bringing instruments and packrafts and we are going to just play music for the weekend and hike and then paddle all the way back. Wanna join?”

 

As a singer, I honestly can’t think of a better retreat into the wilder wild of the backcountry.

It was hot and sunny and the perfect time for backpacking. I was nervous about getting all the gear in order and squaring away things in time and I’ve always been wary of big group outings but I could tell it was a nervous that I needed to work through and so I set myself on going and started thinking of feelers I could put out for borrowing gear.

The very next morning was the start of the rain.

The trip was cancelled.

Another 180 degree shift.

And in some ways, in retrospect, I was glad. I spent my entire first day off in the cabin, grateful for the dreary weather in ways that were twofold: one, for the fire and two, so I didn’t feel guilty for staying inside. My body and mind were exhausted.

I finally felt myself start to relax. I let myself know that there was nothing that “had” to be done that day other than run the generator and do a few other chores. Overall, I could build a fire and read or watch movies or just do nothing.

It was heaven and in stark contrast to the go go go I’d felt since Summer hit. I don’t think I’d actually taken a deep breath since and so I melted into the day. Since it was still raining, The Chief was expecting to be off a bit earlier than his usual 10pm and so I started making a special dinner, excited to finally be home together when both of us weren’t moving at 100 miles per hour.

Wrong.

Just as I was settling in post-chores The Chief called.

“Change of plans, babe. I’m headed out on a helicopter to the Forestry station and spending the night there. I’ll be home in a bit to pack.”

Right. Expectations. I should have guessed.

Dinner for one, please.

Another 180 degree shift.

And so I spent the day alone, interspersing chores with utter nothingness and enjoying every minute of it (except for the moments when I worried, having not received word of his landing safely. I told you, I’m a pro worrier but also weather conditions in Alaska do change faster than you can imagine and I can imagine the worst).

And so now I sit in the middle of three days off, the most time off I’ve had in months. I planned to spend it outside in the middle of nowhere surrounded by music and people. Instead, I’ve spent it inside in the middle of my cabin. I’ve spent it mainly alone and chosen to do so. I’ve spent it with my thoughts whom are not always kind but are there to teach and with our pup whom is a pretty good teacher (especially in the art of relaxation) as well. I’ve spent it listening only to the sounds of the fire crackling and to raindrops on the roofing (oh, and to some so bad it’s good Netflix).

 

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New blooms from newly refreshed soils.

 

I’ve never lived a life like this, where the actual shifting of the wind can change the entire week or a rainstorm can send plans spiraling into the distance. Where Seasons are king and work is fluid and walking through life is done on one’s toes, constantly being ready for a change.

I’ve never looked back to a year past before for advice and found myself in the same physical place yet in such stark contrast to the daily life of the last year that there was no comparison and no advice other than to just go with it and expect change. There is no typical day or typical week or typical Season. This life is always changing.

It might sound exhausting and I guess sometimes it is, but it’s also the lack of pattern, the surprise of tomorrow and the tenderness of now which is beautiful. When you never know what’s next and never know if what you hope happens will in fact pull through you become a little more aware of what is now. Now may not be perfect or pleasant, but the 180s promise that it won’t be forever.

And so, for now, I sit cozily in our cabin, reheating the special meal for The Chief and hoping he does in fact get off of work early today on his return home, all the while knowing it’s entirely possible that he won’t. I’m sitting in the unknown and “planning” accordingly by trying not to plan at all. Clearly, I’m still working on it but I’m sure a few hundred more 180s will help me find my way.

Let’s just hope I don’t get whiplash.

 

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Rain may bring a dreary sky, but she also brings heart-shaped puddles, wonky as they might be.

P.S. A good friend of mine is a magician behind the lens. Here is what he captured of the fire pre-rain from the Hill Town.

 

There’s a Fire in them Fields

When I first told my California girlfriends back home that I was dating the Fire Chief of the Volunteer Fire Department here there were two and only two responses:

  1. “Oh my god, how old is he?” Yea, I guess when I hear Fire Chief I think of an older man with a huge mustache. He can only check one of those boxes. And…
  2. “Of course you are. Of course.”

Geez. I hadn’t thought of it as obvious until each and every one of them said that. I sensed a pattern…

I’ve always been interested in a more rugged lifestyle and hey, I’ve always worn cowboy boots year round, so I guess it does make sense that I would be attracted to a rugged place and a rugged cowboy-esque (think classic Marlboro, not rhinestone) man to go with it. The Fire Chief part was just a little title icing on top of the obvious cupcake, I guess.

Growing up and honestly pretty much until now, the only interactions I’d had with fire departments had been dichotomous and rarely fire related. I’d admired fire fighters as a kid and keep that wonderment and respect with me still to this day. I’d had child like interactions with fire personnel that I wasn’t acquainted with, like being sprayed off by fire hoses at the end of a 10k Mud Run I completed a few years ago.

On the opposite side of things, I also used to hang out with friends in high school who were part of the Volunteer Fire Department in the area with whom I would get into more trouble than public service. Sneaking into the Fire House to have a party (with the radios blaring in case of emergency and the guys on duty staying sober, don’t worry) was a common weeknight activity. But neither of the two interactions really had much to do with fire other than hoping that during the party that we would all get to slide down the ladder.

Firefighting to me was a very distant reality. One which I admired but did not see myself participating in. Looking back I’m not sure if it’s because I felt I had come upon the game too late ((most of my friends had been in the VFD (Volunteer Fire Department) for years already)) or if it was too much of a boy’s club to break into, or if, as a shorty I was too physically intimidated. I do know that it intrigued me, but I never pursued it.

So, upon moving here and finding my (apparently obvious) partner in crime who just so happened to be Fire Chief of the VFD in town, I again felt fire pique my interest but again shied away. The Chief holds meetings for the VFD on Wednesdays and I would conveniently always be working or busy.

That was last year.

However, come the middle of Winter last year with all the grant proposals and planning for the year ahead taking place in the middle of our small cabin, I started to get interested and invested and started thinking towards this year. I still felt intimidated. I still felt it was a bit of a boy’s club. But after talking about it we realized that in the event of a fire, considering how much we like to be together, we likely would be together. If The Chief was called to a fire I could either arrive with him, untrained and unable to do much to help, or I could come to trainings, learn the equipment and become a member of the VFD.

Me?

It didn’t seem quite real, or feasible for that matter. I tried different angles to see if The Chief really was serious about needing me there. I tried to get out of it, but at the same time somewhat hoped he would push me towards it.

In true Chief fashion, he did.

“There’s no reason why you can’t do anything at the VFD that I can do and there’s no reason for you not to know how to help when we live in such a vulnerable area to fire. You’ve got this.”

Well, shoot. There’s no arguing that. We do live in a vulnerable area. We are in rural Alaska. The road to the town is 60 miles of pothole ridden gravel and dirt. Outside help would be a long time coming. We should know what we are doing. We are the initial attack force.

 

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Changing out the Smokey Sign to High Fire Danger. Only you.

 

So, I resolved to go to meetings and try my best.

 

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Not a bad place to train, I guess.

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Piss packs and water reserves and mountains, oh my!

And it’s a good thing I did.

Three days after our second meeting in which we practiced running the different pumps on the different trucks and in which I tried, with fail, to memorize the order of operations to get water flowing, there was a fire.

Sure enough, The Chief was right. The first fire of the area and we were together, only now unlike last year, I could help.

A neighbor had come by to report smoke down the road from our house. Erratic winds had caused it to flow in his direction but not ours (we live on opposite sides of the fire and the winds had sent it his way. He also had to pass the area to get home whereas our turnoff is before the site). Smoke? The Chief had been alerted about a controlled burn in the area but had been assured the night before that it had been tucked in for the night and was completely out.

Or so they thought.

But they were wrong.

By the time The Chief and I got to the burn site there was not only smoke but open flames. Fire is tricky like that. She can seem like she’s gone and then, with just the right fuel from a windy day, she can pick right up as if resurrected from the dead.

 

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A panoramic view of the burn site.

 

The winds were just so that day and the temperatures (for Alaska) were cooking that the situation could have spelled disaster. Surrounded by dead Spruce trees and fields of dried grass, we arrived to the open flames and immediately got to business. We live a mere 5 minutes down the road. That fire could have beaten us home if it caught the right wind, and then beaten our home to a pulp. The Department isn’t equipped for structural firefighting and so we would have tried to contain the fire but likely wouldn’t have been able to save our home. We would have had to watch it burn while we tried to contain it so we didn’t also have to watch our friends’ houses burn as well.

The firestarter (or rather the person who ordered another to oversee the fire) was called and told of what was happening and that we required immediate help. He may have thought that the fire was out but unfortunately he was wrong. Further, a fire should never have taken place the day before in the conditions we were experiencing and it should have been overseen by a larger group with better water back-up had things gone wrong. He sent a crew to help us to handle the situation.

Our neighbor had to drive the fire truck to the site while we watched the fire. We had left the truck in town, stationed to be near the more populated areas where fire seemed more likely. Of course, it was the day that we should have brought it home. When you live in a town where it takes twenty minutes minimum to get from our house to town in a loaded fire truck and there are only three functioning trucks in the area, it seems right that it should be centrally located and easily accessible by qualified members of the VFD if need be. But now, we were on our side of the bridge and the river without an immediate truck response.

When resources are limited, it’s hard to know how to best play them but from now on that truck will be with us every second, ready to respond and the two others will live on the opposite side of the river, poised for attack.

 

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I seriously can’t imagine a better color scheme. I love that truck.

 

So, with the fire truck arrived and a hand crew to boot, we started at it. Having just gone through my first round of training, I figured I should defer to our neighbor and to The Chief to operate the pumps.

Wrong.

“It’ll be good training. Fire her up.”

Gulp.

O.k.

Thankfully, they were there to answer any questions which arose and I was able to get water flowing within minutes. Then, of course, I immediately walked away from the pump to ask The Chief a question while our neighbor headed out with the hose.

 

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Easy-peezy, right?

 

Big mistake.

The pump runs at whichever pressure you set it at. That being said, if you walk away from the pump and the pump runs out of water and you’re still trying to run the pump, well, it will run. It will run itself right into the ground and blow up.

When you have three fire trucks total for a great expanse of land it’s best to keep all three functional. It would have taken almost an hour to get a different truck over to us had I broken the pump and it takes hours to get to town and weeks to replace the pump. Overall, it’s just best not to break it in the first place.

The neighbor quickly reminded me of all of this with just one quick point and shout.

“You walked away!”

I ran back to the pump.

“This is your station. You watch your water levels. You watch your guys. You watch your pump” said The Chief.

 

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A few hand signal snafus (we didn’t really cover those yet) and a lot of digging and water later and the fire was contained and put out. I brought the throttle down slowly and then killed the engine. All was quiet again as everyone seemed to stop and look at what had become of the fire and to what could have been.

 

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Having been surrounded in refuse smoke, we all stunk to high heaven but even smelling like a dump couldn’t break my spirit. I had helped. I had run the pump. It hadn’t been perfect, but I had learned and most importantly, I had gone to training even though I had been intimidated. I kept imagining myself just standing there, feeling helpless as The Chief did all the work and I was so glad that a different reality had been the case instead. While I ran the pump and our neighbor ran the hose, The Chief could call and report the fire, take wind speed measurements, check conditions and oversee the effort. I would have missed out on helping because I was intimidated and afraid to fail. What a waste that would have been and in a different situation, what a danger that could have been. An ego at bay (momentarily) helped keep a fire away.

Within the hour The Chief had been called onto patrolling duty by the Department of Forestry. 12 hour days of driving the area back and forth and up and around to monitor campfires from visiting campers and to be on the lookout for developing weather systems, smoke and the like. To me, living in or near a city, I never even knew to contemplate just how much attention goes into hyper rural fire prevention. A lightning strike could be the beginning of a fire. A cigarette butt or an unattended campfire, or sparks from metal contact or any number of things could start small and turn into something very dangerous. In a city, response is easier to mobilize (though the fire is no less dangerous). Out here, we are on our own for precious hours. And so, he is on watch for anything and everything that could lead to fire.

Two days later of patrolling later, there was a fundraiser for the VFD.

 

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The event of a couple days past was abuzz in the community and so was the reality of the importance of the VFD. I watched as The Chief spoke to our community of the rising numbers of fire, the elevated danger of fire with our high temperatures and erratic winds and the dwindling water levels.

 

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The historic Rec Hall

 

Throughout the night, the mountains of delicious potluck foods (seriously, this place can throw a potluck) and the music and dancing, I kept looking at The Chief with a new respect and a special sort of awe. I knew what he did was of great importance but I guess I hadn’t understood just how much was riding on his back. When he said the ‘fire was out’, the fire was out but what if it had sparked up again? It would have been on him. Placing the trucks and training his team and keeping the equipment functioning and funded. In the end, it all rests on his shoulders.

I’ve always appreciated being in a role of leadership. I can jump into a situation and see what needs to get done and help to delegate so that it does. But I’ve never been in the constant state of responsibility The Chief is in. I know that I could do it though I can’t say whether I’d volunteer for it, but someone has to.

Seeing The Chief in front of the attendees in this light, seeing him speaking to them, asking for their help since fire is such a community effort, seeing him in this situation of responsibility did make it obvious. I further understood what my girlfriends’ saw (or heard from me by phone) immediately. I love seeing this serious side, this side that makes me and others feel safe. This side that knows what the relative humidity levels are every morning and watches the sky like a hawk scans the ground. I love seeing him in Chief Mode and well, it’s Summer now. ‘Tis the fire season. I also love how Chief Mode affects me. I take myself more seriously now. When he asks me what the water level is off-hand, I answer confidently. At trainings (instead of being the goof-off I usually was in class) I listen because I know it could come into play and now, I’ve seen it come into play and seen the potential mistakes in play. There’s nothing like a sense of urgency or emergency to challenge oneself and I hope each time to better and better be able to respond. I also hope we never have to respond again but I’ll train every week nonetheless.

Engage Chief Mode.

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…and co-pilot Lou