I’ll never forget my first official day on the job. Graduating from Crew Members Course in the morning, jumping in the truck with three other rookies and driving three hours to our first fire in the afternoon. Working our first shift ever on the fireline as an overnighter, about a twenty-four-hour day in total, and how good it felt to crawl into bed the next morning around 9:00 am.
I’ll never forget the weeks I spent on that fire without a sleeping bag – I thought we would have time to buy one after training camp – and how I had to wear about nine layers of clothing to bed because it dropped below zero at night. We were in the Rockies and it was early spring.
Or how one of the rookies that I shared a ride with on that first day influenced my decision to apply to dental school several years later.
Funny how life works, isn’t it?
I spent three summers during my undergraduate degree working as a wildland firefighter for the government of Alberta. Roughly thirteen months in total, about four of which were spent in a tent on the fireline. Not a very long time relatively speaking, one could argue.
I’d argue that I learned more in those thirteen months than many people do in thirteen years.
I won’t forget my first couple of days at a fire base just North of Grande Prairie, AB. My first as an employee of the government, waiting to be sent to Crew Member Training in Hinton. How I thought that I’d made a terrible mistake. I knew nobody on my crew, there was no cell service, our rooms were small, simple and shared. I felt a long way from home.
I won’t forget Crew Leader Training course, where at the end of that summer I learned how to become a better firefighter, a better leader and a better individual. Or the next spring, when I couldn’t wait to go back to work.
I guess sometimes we do need to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones to grow as individuals.
I won’t forget our trip to the Northwest Territories that next summer. Roughly three weeks spent working the line without a predictable shower. Eighteen hour days walking through muskeg with sixty pounds of gear and more bugs than we thought was even biblically possible. How our waists bled from the bites and the friction of our Nomex. How the sun and the relative humidity refused to go down as it often does during July at that latitude, and how the fire refused to stop burning at night. How we were given six minutes to pack up our belongings and evacuate camp because the fire had jumped the highway.
I also won’t forget when a community member from Kakisa shook my hand and thanked our crew for working to make sure that his home didn’t burn on a summer night in July. Or how I realized in that moment that my discomfort over the last several weeks was nothing compared to his.
I guess sometimes we need to put others first.
I won’t forget running seventeen kilometers up a logging road at 5:30 am, before breakfast, the following spring. Trying to ignore the truck rolling along beside me filled with rappel firefighters telling me that I was soft, that I couldn’t make it.
I’ll always remember the first time that I tried to put on a rappel harness over my Nomex. They want me to do this in under two minutes? Or the first time I stepped into suspension in the training bays – floating there like an idiot and feeling awkward. How hard it was to get past the skid of the fake helicopter. Fend and turn. Watch your hand. Drop and give me fifty because it wasn’t perfect.
How many emergencies and hand signals do I need to know? Caught in a tree, injured man, bad rope, bad site. Telemark when you land. Permission to enter the high bay, no gloves on the staircase. I will empty my pockets before I rappel.
Or what it felt like when the door of the helicopter opened during my first live rappel. How we took the long way home so that we could fly past the mountains bordering Jasper National Park. What it felt like to be told congratulations by the coordinator.
I guess hard work does pay off.
I fancied myself pretty good on the chainsaw. I had been chosen to complete my fallers certificate the summer before, after all. I remember watching my spotter fall a burning tree in Idaho that summer, one foot in an ash pit, leaning out over a rock face, cutting at an angle that I don’t think I could even hold a saw at.
I guess that I do still have a lot to learn.
I won’t forget how that spotter was the best at everything he did. First up in the morning, last to leave the machine at night. How he never complained, rarely made mistakes. How he was never loud, never boasted. How he went out on a limb to help a colleague the following spring because he knew that he was a good person.
So that’s what real leadership looks like.
I’ll always remember the unique experiences. How nice it felt to ride on the roof of a Haaglund after a long day. What it was like to have a black bear come and say hi because he was curious. The time that I managed to fly a helicopter. How thankful I was that someone bought raw honey on their days off and packed it in the cooler.
Try to appreciate the little things.
But mostly, I won’t forget the people. The ones who were going to make a career out of forestry, and the ones who were only going to be there for a while. People who had made it in the corporate world and who had chosen to leave – former pilots, bank employees, accountants. Those who were only in fire for the experience and soon to move on – future electricians, gym managers, coffee roasters, and dentists. People who I only knew briefly but will be my friends for the rest of my life. Those who had traveled the world, and those who hadn’t left Alberta but had more wisdom than all the lifestyle bloggers trying to tell you how to live your life. People who I looked up to. Others not so much.
Don’t form opinions of people based on where they are from, where they’ve been, or what they have. Form them based on what they do.
I only worked as a firefighter for three summers during my undergrad. I’ve moved on to pursue a new career. It’s obvious that dentistry shares little common ground with the former when you look at the day-to-day. However, I would argue that the lessons I learned from my colleagues during those three fire seasons contributed to my success as a student, and for that I am grateful. I am hoping that they will also translate to my success as a professional.
Nothing worth doing is easy, otherwise everybody would do it.