By Jamie Balke Explorebigsky.com Columnist
With the West ablaze this summer and fall and firefighters working to keep us safe, it’s reminded me of my own brief foray into wildland firefighting.
It was the summer of 2007, and having recently graduated from college, I’d gotten a job working an entrance station at Grand Teton National Park. At the start of the summer, my supervisor sent me to a weeklong wildland fire school in Bondurant, Wyo. Everybody was late for the first day of class on account of a group of cowboys herding cattle down the main road.
After learning the basics that week and passing the necessary physical tests and examinations upon my return to the park, I was issued a Red Card. In a fit of panic, I purchased the most expensive boots I could find, reasoning if I found myself running from a blazing inferno, I didn’t want my feet to hurt.
Over-the-top custom boots take a while to arrive, and before they did, I received my first request to join a fire crew. I explained to the gentleman on the phone that having not yet received my boots, I would have to wait for the next callout.
Shortly thereafter, I received a call from a fire supervisor out of the park, asking for my boot size. We didn’t know each other, but upon learning my feet were within a couple of sizes of hers, she wondered if I might want to break into her house that evening while she was away and borrow her too-small shoes. I declined her generous offer.
Several weeks later, after the arrival of my boots, I received my second callout while hiking in Yellowstone. With all reasonable haste, I got myself home to prepare for departure the next morning.
My crew met at the fire cache to receive our gear. In my spastic excitement, I admitted to being an EMT, and in short order was designated a medic and issued a first-aid kit. We loaded into the vehicles and learned we would be headed to an assignment in Idaho. The fire had made a rather dramatic run the previous week, and with another wind event predicted, more crews were being called in as a precaution.
Fire camp is an interesting experience, which could easily be the subject of an entire column. Perhaps my fondest memory involved my predominately male squad making relentless fun of me for stocking our truck with the purplish-pink Gatorade, and when it was their turn to retrieve our beverages for the day, making sure to pick up a few for me.
The first full day in the field, my squad spent the majority of our time perched atop a beautiful hill, taking weather readings, and wondering if the wind would bring about the anticipated fire behavior. It did not.
During the first week we worked on protecting structures and digging line. When it became clear that fewer resources would be needed, the fire was downgraded. We stayed to work on projects such as rehabbing fire line, felling dangerous burned trees near roads, and mopping up.
The closest I personally got to fire was during the mop up procedure, when one of my co-workers identified a tiny smoldering ember. Because it was my first assignment, they made a big show of letting me “put out the fire.” These things start to seem funny when you have had very little sleep.
Although my assignment didn’t turn out to be the wildly adventurous experience I anticipated/feared it would be, I was glad to have the opportunity to participate. I barely scratched the surface of wildland firefighting, but was profoundly impressed by the professionalism, skill and knowledge of the more experienced members of my crew.
When I can barely see the Bridger Mountains through the smoke from Bozeman, I think of them.
Jamie Balke moved to Bozeman in the fall of 2009. She can generally be found behind the cover of a book, meandering down a trail or desperately trying not to kill houseplants.