You must not allow your fears to keep you awake at night as you lie directly under the stars.
When you sign up to fight forest fires, you will be issued two uniforms of fire-resistant Nomex. The first is for wearing on the fireline (that’s the hand-dug ditch meant to stop the fire) during your two-week-long assignments. It will become dirty because you cannot wash it, and you are not allowed to wear the second uniform on the fireline.
You will sweat all day before returning to Incident Command Post (that’s the field headquarters made up of generators, food trailers, and circus tents housing computer arrays), where you and your crew will sleep on the ground next to your Nomex and leather boots. During those two weeks, the public will not see you, so you can be dirty. On the 14th day, you will stay at a hotel and scrub the ashes from your body. The water will run black. The second uniform is for wearing on the long transit home, because you must look clean in the public’s eye. What the public thinks of you is very important.
You will be issued a large brick of space-age foil that is meant to unfurl and wrap you like a burrito if the fire is about to kill you. The burritos have saved many lives; yours could be next. You must never open it because that voids the product guarantee (unless, of course, the fire is about to kill you), but you must inspect it weekly for signs of internal disintegration. If you notice flecks of grit floating inside the clear packaging, you must beseech your boss for a new burrito, lest you be cooked a little hotter than your crew in a burn-over event (as it is called when the fire kills you).
In the event of a burn-over you will die or survive with injuries. You must carefully consider the items carried in your pockets every day, because they could injure you. The Nomex uniform and leather gloves will not melt inside your burrito, but plastic (pens, booklets, Chapstick, tubes of sunscreen) will melt and your pocket-knife will get hot enough to brand you. You must organize your items so they will cause minimal damage to your body in a burn-over.
If, after your first two weeks on the fireline, your feet are not bleeding, do not fuck with your boots. Your feet will be blistered. Your toes will be so cramped that skin will chafe away, leaving raw sores atop deep bruises. You will want to change the boots: add a softer insole, or even buy a new pair and send in the old to be resized. Don’t. Whatever you do will make the problem worse. If your feet are not bleeding, that’s as good as it gets.
The boots are just the source of your injuries, not your pain. The source of your pain is deeper, so you must not exact your frustration upon the boots. You can mitigate your injuries with expensive accoutrements, but your pain will remain the same.
To mitigate your injuries, start with medical tape. If you don’t have that, use duct tape. Wrap your injured toes with exactly two revolutions. If you do less, it will offer no protection. If you do more, it will spread your toes painfully and cause new injuries. If you have a blister, wrap your whole foot, making sure to grab the entire blister with tape.
You must wipe your feet with a wet wipe every day—tape and all. You must change your underwear every day, even though the only place to do so is inside your sleeping bag. You must double layer your socks and change them every other day.
You will use an assortment of powders, creams, pills, and supplements every day. Gold Bond powder and arnica cream for your feet, CBD cream and kinesiology tape for your knees, sunscreen for your face. Ibuprofen for the inflammation, caffeine pills because you don’t have time to drink coffee, fish oil to help your joints. Protein powders to decelerate the rate of muscle loss (you will be losing muscle at an alarming rate), herbal tea so you can take a shit on time, Emergen-C so you don’t get sick, Pedialyte so you don’t get dangerously dehydrated (you will be a little dehydrated).
Pack your own wet wipes for your daily dry shower, because the Forest Service only provides bleach wipes to its crews, and those will burn your vagina. Avoid touching your penis, because you will have the residue of a few different carcinogens (gasoline, diesel, ashes) on your hands, and penile cancer is common among retired firefighters.
Though you will adhere to your regimen with zealotry, you will sustain lingering injuries, both physical and emotional.
In order to fit in with your crew, you must acquire a taste for rape jokes, because your crew will tell them. Some of the rape jokes will be confusing, but others will be crystal clear. They will be about using alcohol as a date-rape drug and penetrating people while they are unconscious. The men around you will use the word flippantly and with a smile. Rape.
If one of these men brings a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 to the fireline, you must not read it. To do so will force you to grapple with Orwell’s concept of “doublethink,” which means to think, to truly believe, two mutually exclusive premises at the same time.
For example, you will already be wearing a necklace knife every day in case a crewmate attacks you, so deep is your distrust. And you will remember (daily, hourly) if the fire burns over you and your space-foil burrito, the plastic sheath of the knife will melt against your bare sternum. But you will hide your distrust so profoundly that you forget it. You will never let a shadow cross your face. You will remind yourself that you like your crew, they are your team, you belong among them, you enjoy them, even, because if they ever see the shadow, they will become confused and resentful. You might be in danger. Holding the distrust as well as the trust is doublethink.
If you read your crewmate’s copy of 1984, you will realize you have already been employing doublethink to survive. You will notice disturbing similarities between yourself and the main character, Winston, who tells the reader that he knows he is doomed on nearly every page before he is shot in the head at the end, and you will become more disturbed. Afterward, you will not be able to use doublethink, because you must forget you are using it for doublethink to work.
You will begin to admit your fears to yourself: assault, incineration, failure. You must not allow your fears to keep you awake at night as you lie directly under the stars. You must rest. And though you will sleep, as you learn more about the history of fire management, another fear will emerge in your dreams. The new fear will be existential, nebulous; you will only grasp its shape in the fleeting seconds before sleep. This will be the fear of a future without forests.
One hundred years ago, a spate of destructive wildfires spurred your forefathers to attempt to annihilate every wildfire within hours of discovery. For the next 43 years, wildfires were exterminated from the West like wolves. Fuel—pine needles, shrubs, vines, young trees—that previously would have burned and returned to the soil as ashes instead accumulated throughout forests like towers of paper in a hoarder’s house.
After a while, land managers realized they had created a new forest—a forest shivering with young trees and shrubs in the undergrowth. The new forest burned hotter than forests of the past, and fires became more difficult to extinguish. The desperate rush to control fires injured or killed more firefighters.
Land mangers instated a new, better policy. Man-made fires, called prescribed fires, were added to the land on purpose. Prescribed fires burn the accumulated fuel left over from the era of over-zealous extermination and help the forest back to its original state. Your boss’s boss, the district fire management officer, will tell you that, eventually, the whole country will be under prescription, and wildfires will be extinct. What remains unsaid is this has been the plan for 50 years, and fires are getting worse.
You will learn about a new federal guidance from 2009, in which the government directed firefighters to allow all wildfires to grow (whenever safety permitted) in order to burn undergrowth and fix the forest. You will notice that your job is more often fire-gardener than fire-fighter. What remains unsaid is it isn’t working—the fires are still getting worse.
The problem is not that wildfires are burning more area, but that wildfires are burning at greater severity. They are killing more full-grown trees. Sometimes severe fires convert a forest to shrubland. You will learn that destroyed forests will not regenerate during any timeline meaningful to a human, if at all; Earth may be entering an epoch dominated by shrubland. The future of forests is uncertain and, you will learn, those who are doing the strategizing and the budgeting, the research and the modeling, the fighting and the dying, are being forsaken by a nation that does not understand their work.
The nation, you will realize, is practicing doublethink—simultaneously dreading the future of wildfires while refusing to comprehend what is about to be wrought by climate change, refusing to elevate the words of scientists and firefighters closest to the flames. Without a change more encompassing, more piercing than the policy tweaks of the last 50 years, you will realize, firefighters are already implementing their last, best idea.
If you ever thought you could make a difference in the world, that your injuries and suffering might have meaning or might benefit the wilderness, you must cherish the thought like a tiny flame in your heart. If you let it go out, you will enter a deep darkness. You will become lost to yourself, and your loved ones will be unable to reach you. To avoid despair, you must garden your soul into a new, unknown shape, one which will accommodate destruction and uncertainty but not ecocide. You must pray the fire can be similarly gardened.
Guiterman, Christopher H., Ellis Q. Margolis, Craig D. Allen, Donald A. Falk, and Thomas W. Swetnam. “Long-Term Persistence and Fire Resilience of Oak Shrubfields in Dry Conifer Forests of Northern New Mexico.” Ecosystems 21, no. 5 (August 2018): 943–59. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-017-0192-2.
Husari, Susan J., McKelvey, Kevin S. “Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project, Final Report to Congress, Vol. II, Assessments and Scientific Basis for Management Options.” Davis, CA: University of California, Centers for Water and Wildland Resources. Report No. 37, pages 1101-1118. (1996). https://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/rsl/husari.pdf
Orwell, George. 1984. New York, N.Y.: New American Library, 1961.
Young, Jesse D., Alexander M. Evans, Jose M. Iniguez, Andrea Thode, Marc D. Meyer, Shaula J. Hedwall, Sarah McCaffrey, Patrick Shin, and Ching-Hsun Huang. “Effects of Policy Change on Wildland Fire Management Strategies: Evidence for a Paradigm Shift in the Western US?” International Journal of Wildland Fire 29, no. 10 (2020): 857. https://doi.org/10.1071/WF19189.
Emily Shepherd is a freelance writer covering science, including wildfire and wildlife conservation. She worked in wildlife conservation for eight years, followed by two years fighting wildfires as a U.S. Forest Service hotshot. Her work has appeared in Undark Magazine and Ours to Save. Find her on Twitter @emilyshep1011.