I never thought I would ever become a firefighter. More than that, that I would be working in wildland areas on the West Coast of the USA, so remote, they’re only accessible by foot and a healthy dose of grit. My full-time work since graduating St Andrews in 2017 has been photography and videography, however, at the start of summer 2021, the municipal fire crew here in Lake Tahoe, where I’m currently living, ran an emergency hiring round due to additional funds and an increase need of personnel on the fires in the Great Basin region. Having a bit of physical fitness under my belt, I took the plunge and sent out an application, soon becoming the first female to pass the fitness test to join the fire crew. Just for context, women consist of 7% of wildland firefighting. Despite the fact that it’s been four years since being in a boat with UStABC, I’ve retained an impressive amount of fitness and mental toughness required for this job. Throughout the season I have had to draw on my endurance training to push through the gnarly hikes and long work days.
Wildland firefighters exist to reach places where engines cannot. As a crew of 20 people, we work for 14 consecutive days, 16 hour shifts each day, sleeping outside and often have no running water for the full two weeks. When things are really going wrong, we work 24 hour shifts. Brutal. We work with packs, weighing between 20-25kg, and carry around tools such as a Pulaski, scrape, or a chainsaw with us all day, bushwhacking our way through the wilderness to access the flames for a direct attack or from a safe distance with indirect attack. Our operations depend on the stage and section of the fire we are working on, ranging from cutting line with our chainsaws and hand tools to tediously going through burned areas with our bare hands mopping up, ensuring there is no heat in an area that could reignite. Things can and will change in an instant and the amount of flexibility and adaptability required to keep moving forward is astounding. Everything that can go wrong, often does. The men I work alongside are full of raw grit and can withstand and huge amount of discomfort which has been both challenging and encouraging.
Having thrown myself into this journey with no background in fire, almost everything has been a new experience. For example, you can’t truly imagine the feeling of being directly by a flame front until your face full of piercings is right there. Ouch. What hasn’t been a new experience, however, is working in a tight-knit team environment. My time rowing at St Andrews gave me the most wonderful encounter with teamwork, learning to trust my partners, knowing that we were all fighting for the same goal. I’ve gotten glimpses into that here working with all the guys on the fire crew.
You could probably say that I like Type 2 fun - which is awful to do at the moment, but fun to talk about at the bar. It’s been a whirlwind summer that I will never forget. As I move further into the year back to my photography business, I will be walking away from the fire crew with deep appreciation for hard work, getting a little messy, and pushing past any limitations I have put on myself. Whilst these last few months have been fleeting, the ramifications are long lasting and I have been forever changed.