Working the Seasons: Wildland Firefighting & Keeping the Dream Alive

Marissa Krawczak

From where I am I can feel the warm sun on my face and see the white, mountain ridges against the cool blue sky. My feet sink into the snow and the breeze stirs the leaves of the nearby trees. The chatter of friendly banter coaxes me to open my eyes as I walk, my heavy leather boots sinking into the soft dry dust of the Nevada desert. I see my crewmates gaggled up by our trucks, no doubt laughing about some dude humor while the girls are away. The mountains here are covered in sagebrush, the winds carrying dust and tumbleweeds, but the sky is still blue, except for maybe some smoke, and the sun is still really, really warm.

As a wildland firefighter and snowboarder, it seems my seasons could not be more opposite. However, after four years of jumping in and out of polar opposite worlds from one pair of boots to another, I have realized they both feed off of each other in a super awesome way. In both lives I lead, emphasis is placed on flexibility and being ready for anything, working with the weather, traveling, staying strong mentally and physically, meeting and working with new people and doing some seriously fun stuff in some gnarly picturesque places.

Ultimately, my life goal has been to be a snowboarder. I moved to Mt Hood from Michigan via Amtrak for an internship with the US Forest Service with nothing but my snowboard bag and the ambition to fulfill my visions of summer riding. I was a green bean uniform-wearing tour guide and Smokey Bear sing-along conductor during the week, and hiked up the glacier to ride on my weekends. Little did I realize, my summers of hot, sweaty hikes had just begun.

I lived for free in the bunkhouse that summer, which put me right next to the ZigZag Hotshots. Upon arrival, they welcomed me like one of their own, and as fate had its way, I was working with them on the crew the next two summers. I knew next to nothing about fire starting out, but it didn’t take long to learn that hard work, grit, staying calm under pressure and keeping up with a bunch of macho dudes goes a long way—even if you have to puke to get through it. Yup, I got yelled at, but I learned fast that way. I was pushed and I got sore, not tired; we had the night to sleep, we all just got sore. Mostly it was moving dirt around to build line around a fire and falling hazard trees as project work near trails and roads. It was a no brainer: get in shape and make a bunch of money all summer, so I could take the winter off to snowboard.

My experience on the hand crew, coupled with a great reference from my one-day a week terrain park job at a small resort in Tahoe, led me to working with Bridgeport Helitack. Someone said helicopter, so I said ‘yes.’ There is no other way to describe Helitack but this: flying to a fire, getting dropped off with tools, hooking up a bucket to the ship, putting water on the fire, hand line around it and getting picked up at the end of the day. Or we spike out, or hike out. Versatility and flexibility are assets in the field, because there is no predicting what will happen next. Sometimes, we use our helicopter to transport crews, long line supplies, map a fire or recon areas for new starts. This means we might be at big helibase in the middle of nowhere or at an airport. I might be out falling trees to build a new helispot landing zone or I might just be a driver, monitoring and operating radios.

All in all, wildland firefighting has been a dream job come true for me and has put me in the least likely places you would find a snow-loving, beach-dreaming, long-haired Betty. I get paid to be an athlete, to travel, to drive a big rig, fly in helicopters, be an aerial photographer, to talk on the radio, be a map interpreter, light stuff on fire once in a while, chase lightning, work with chainsaws, sleep in the dirt—and I get to be outside every day. Not to mention I’ve made great relationships with very hard-working people and I’ve learned more than I could have imagined from really knowledgeable folks.

My Assistant Supervisor these past two seasons, Carrie Thaler, has been a great role model for me, as a leader and professional in the fire community. It is awesome seeing her in charge, thinking on her feet and making calls that eventually put the fire out. Not to mention working with another girl balances out all of the testosterone that dominates the scene all summer. We have fun too, making latte stops on road trips and listening to metal while doing yoga! Not only have I learned that hard work pays off, so does being a leader and being the person I would want younger girls to look up to. So, as my reps of pull-ups increase, so does my mental capacity for tactical fire fighting. I work with lots of personalities, so it’s important to stay true and operate on the cool and smooth when the lightning has struck and there is more on the way.

The money I make goes towards resort passes, gas money for traveling, having a dependable vehicle, entry fees for competitions, any gear I need, healthy food and rent. Basically, it all goes towards my snowboarding and I wouldn’t have it any other way. When the helicopter is in the sky, I am right there with it. I am looking out for smokes, but I’m also looking for lines to ride, scoping potential winter routes and envisioning a blanket of white over all of that burnt out black. It is a beautiful balance that opportunity has created for me, living seasonally amongst the mountains and trees, all in the spirit of keeping the dream alive and thriving.

Posted by Gabby Rainville on 08/06/14

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