Last August I found myself on a fire in western Oregon. It was early morning and my crew and I were just waking up – even though it was still dark outside. We shook our sleeping bags out to get the frost off and struggled to get our cold leather boots on. We went into the cafeteria of the school we were using as a command center to have breakfast and a briefing. I don’t recall much of what was said that morning – except for one question that came from the safety officer. He stood up – a man I recognized as having been the former superintendent of the Prineville Hotshots . He was tasked with leading the hotshot crew following the deaths of nine crewmembers on a fire in Glenwood Springs, Colorado in 1994 but he had since moved on to new challenges. He looked out over the hundred or so firefighters that were in the briefing and asked, “How many of you have been on a fire that never went out?” Not a single hand went up. He continued, “how many of you have been on a fire where someone never went home?” Hands went up – a lot of hands. Three days later I found myself playing a part in returning the remains of a firefighter to his family – a firefighter that had stood next to me in another briefing on another fire the morning before he was killed by a burning tree.
The wildland firefighter community is nomadic by nature. Many of us have worked in multiple states and we travel all across the country where we meet new firefighters – a situation that leaves us separated by only a few degrees from one another. This means that every fatality, every serious injury and every near-miss accident that occurs has an impact community-wide. That closeness made 2013 a difficult year – 37 members of our community were lost – some to accidents, some to fire and some to the physical stress of firefighting. The realization that we may each make the final sacrifice in order to protect lives and property looms in the back of the mind of every firefighter. No matter what measures we may take to prevent that – the possibility is always present.
Sacrifice – a commonality for everyone in the wildland community - comes in many shapes. Some walk with limps, cracking knees and damaged backs. Some talk of divorces while others talk wistfully of family vacations – always during the summer fire season – that they missed and children whom they never see. But that tie to one another – a tie that can only come with a shared sacrifice – is what brings many firefighters back year after year.
Here in the Great Basin we have seen an unseasonably wet July and mid-August. This is historically the time when large fires occur – but much of the Elko district is green – a color not common in the height of the summer heat. With no fires to put out we have made strong headway in projects – from fixing fences to spraying weeds to knocking down the stack of paperwork that has accumulated on our desks. But the rain won’t last forever, and as the dry weather returns to the Great Basin we each hope that we won’t be asked to remember another brother or sister who will never go home.