Working the front lines of America’s wildfires is a difficult and dangerous job, but that doesn’t mean everyone who signs up is chasing adventure. While physical and mental challenges are part of the attraction, what draws many to the field is the camaraderie that comes with working in an unpredictable environment alongside a committed crew. And what makes a great firefighter isn’t a high tolerance for risk so much as the ability to be calm and assertive no matter what the day brings. In this episode, we speak to a trio of firefighters about how and why they fell in love with one of the most demanding jobs out there.
Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.
It goes without saying that the job of a wildland firefighter is not easy. The work is extremely demanding, physically and emotionally. You're away from home for extended periods. And, of course, it's dangerous.
So, who would want this job?
The common assumption is that it's adrenaline junkies–people who have an innate hunger for action, adventure, and risk. Especially now, when every year seems to bring a series of catastrophic blazes. But if you actually talk to people who work on the frontlines of America's forest fires, you learn just how misguided our expectations really are.
And so, as we enter the heart of fire season, producer Paddy O'Connell spoke to several current and former fire fighters about what really drew them to the work, and why they loved it, despite everything. He started by speaking to a firefighter he knows very, very well.
Paddy O’Connell: What was your nickname when you were on this crew?
Carly: The nickname was The Toe.
Paddy: This is my wife, Carly, AKA The Toe, telling me about an experience from her very first season working as a wildland firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management.
Carly: This was one of the hardest fires I was on. And we were hiking with these hotshot crews out of Salt Lake. The thing like you really can't prep for is like an ingrown toenail. And this toenail had like started, I could feel it.
I am determined to keep up. I'm not gonna be the slowest one. And on that third day, I am limp hiking, trying to hide this swollen pussing toe. And I get back that evening, and I'm trying to discreetly take my sock off and trying to hide, what is now like, completely oozing green.It was not well.
And my boss walks over and just catches this and is like, holy hell. You hiked like that all day today? You are not hiking tomorrow. When that fire was over, I did get to go down to the hospital and had half my toenail cut off.
Paddy: If you are wondering I do not refer to my wife as The Toe, but I may start.
When Carly signed up to become a wildland firefighter back in 2007, the last thing she expected was enduring a condition that sounds like a podiatrist's worst nightmare. She had just finished her freshman year at the University of Utah, and like most college kids returning home, Carly needed a summer job.
Carly: I was trying to figure out a way to pay for college. And working just after hours as a server wasn't gonna cut it.
In three short months you could basically make your college tuition.
I still remember when I got my first semester college tuition bill that I paid on my own. Felt so good.
It was like, here's that money. Oh, next semester I have that too saved. That just felt so liberating.
Paddy: The Toe, er my wife Carly, worked fires for three summers. There are about a bajillion different jobs and specialties in fire fighting, but the main categories are engine crews, hotshots or hand crews, Helitak or Air Attack, and smokejumpers. Land managers like the Forest Service, the BLM, and other state agencies, as well as private entities and volunteer fire departments, all employ wildland firefighters.
Carly's first two summers were spent at a 16-person fire station in the West Desert of Utah about an hour drive from Salt Lake City. She was one of four folks on an engine crew there, and by engine I mean a big-ass off road truck that can hold fire fighters and hundreds of gallons of water. Carly's fire station was designated as initial attack, or IA.
Carly: That really meant that our crew were set up to be the first people to respond to a smoke report or a fire.
That first summer was almost exclusively on the engine crew. In my second year in fire, we were able to do some stints or some rotations on hand crews.
I also did a detail on a helicopter crew, uh, which was so much fun. Flying to fires with the doors open. Just peering out the side, that was wild.
Paddy: For any adventurous outdoorsy person, flying around in a helicopter is an easy way to fall in love with a job. But Carly is quick to point out that she was never in it for the adrenaline.
Paddy: What do you think the characteristics that you have, made you good at this job?
Carly: Being 19.
When you're 19 the thought of having a plan for next week is not something I was capable of. Every day was a new day. Every day. You were at the fire station waiting for that call.
I didn't have the responsibilities in my life that would've made something unexpected difficult.
In addition to just being 19, I've always leaned into physical pain, it's something I still do to this day where it's like this is painful. This feels good. I'm growing.
I think another big part is it just was this super hands-on way of learning. How to pay attention to weather, how to pay attention to your environment, your surroundings, a very hard close look at topography and how the landscape fits together.
Every moment was this educational opportunity.
Paddy: In addition to pushing herself physically and intellectually, Carly says the camaraderie is what truly made the job special; spending time with and getting to know an eclectic cast of characters: a former rodeo clown, ski patrollers, the classic weathered mountain town perma-bachelor, other college kids, folks with families.
Carly: I think maybe the one common characteristic that all of them would have is they would be that person that you would lean on if you had a tough decision to make. And good at making decisions under pressure.
Paddy: Do you think everybody was really tough too?
Carly: I think when you use the word tough, your mind goes to like ego tough. And I mean, there were days when we all looked like idiots doing those P90X DVDs because you know, it was 2007 and that was working out.
Paddy: Did you guys also have like a Bowflex?
Carly: No, but we had this makeshift Foursquare court. And some afternoons we'd end up playing Foursquare, just waiting for that fire call. But of course we had to add to it. So, you know, whenever you got out you had to do 20 pushups. I can remember days where I probably did 500 pushups cuz not great at Foursquare.
The idea that everyone is just this like tough, risk driven person, is not my experience. I think everyone that I worked with had toughness.
Carly: You know, they were physically capable, they were mentally capable. The toughness that I experienced was calm assertiveness.
Paddy: That calm assertiveness came in handy during a fire midway through her second summer on the job. Carly and her crew boss were driving on a gravel road to a remote outpost in Northern Utah when they spotted a cloud of smoke. A small fire had started in a grassy drainage at the base of a rocky slope.
Carly: We were first on scene. It was a super small fire when we got there, maybe less than an acre.
So we start from the source of the fire. We start trying to go around with the engine, and we quickly realize this thing's moving. It's gonna need a lot more than two people.
So we call in for some additional resources. The folks that were back at our duty station we're almost three hours away, so it was gonna take a while for those crews to get there. So the local volunteer fire department responded.
Paddy: Carly and her crew boss met to brief the volunteer fire department that had arrived on the scene a mile in front of the fire. After the quick meeting, Carly and her crew boss then headed back to the origin of the fire, the safest place to be since it had already burned. Carly was driving the engine on a two track dirt road parallel to the fire, traveling the opposite direction the fire was moving. Her boss was sitting shotgun communicating via radio with air attack, a plane flying overhead.
Carly: About halfway down this dirt road the wind switched. And so rather than the fire heading parallel to the road that we were on, the fire shifted. And from above air attack is seeing that the fire is coming straight toward the road that we were on.
There was no turning back. The fire was already starting to hit that two track.
We get this call on the radio very calmly and assertively that our best move is to continue driving forward, that we are going in the right direction, and then there was silence on the radio.
And the fire is getting closer and closer on the driver's side and starts to hit these junipers. So these junipers start on fire and arcing over the road.
And we could feel the heat. It was hot. It was so hot in this truck.
And my boss says, we've gotta go, we've gotta drive. And I look over at him with the calmest look, and I said, I am driving as fast as I fucking can. And I turned my eyes forward and there was no talking. We just drove.
Paddy: They headed into the black, or the previously burned safe zone, unscathed except for some melted side view mirrors.
Even though this event sounds objectively terrifying, Carly says that she never felt unsafe, that she trusted her boss and the commands from air attack. To her, It felt like, well, just a day at work.
Carly: I honestly had this just singular focus. My job was to drive. There was no thoughts of worry. There was none of those oh my God, what if, what if. There was just this knowing that this was my job and the only way out of this is to drive well, to drive forward, to drive fast and safely.
We knew that at the other end of this road was our safety zone. It had already burned. We knew we needed to get there. That was a frightening event. But in the moment it was just this atypical situation that happened on a routine fire.
This whole day started out as just this typical routine day. And the thing about the job is any day has the potential to be wild.
Like wildfire is inherently wild.
Carly: Yeah. Yeah. Day to day, the unexpected can happen. Those three summers that I spent in the field, in fire seeing the aftermath, were pretty foundational.
Paddy: Carly's time spent fighting fires bolstered her undergraduate studies in urban and regional planning, and her graduate degree in landscape architecture. Her thesis was a comprehensive audit of statewide best wild fire practices across the West. After graduation, Carly became a consultant at a landscape architecture and planning firm, where she called upon her time in fire for projects where community planning and wild fire safety practices overlapped.
Which is to say, even if you only work on a fire crew for a few summers in college, this is a job that sticks with you forever. But it's not actually the scary moments that stand out.
Carly: I have so many great memories but I enjoy more what it's given me in my work today. There were people there to lean on to answer questions. The group of people that I worked with, we’re very tight-knit, but also welcoming.
There was always a willingness to teach or show the new person what you're doing and also why you're doing it. And I definitely believe it has informed who I am today.
Paddy: Carly is not alone in believing that fighting fires shaped her character. Outside contributing editor Kyle Dickman has been reporting on fire for the last 15 years. It's a topic he knows intimately. Just like Carly, he got a job on an engine crew when he was in college and in need of some dough. After graduating, he joined a Forest Service hand crew called the Tahoe Hotshots. Years into his journalism career, Kyle rejoined his old crew in 2012 for an Outside story titled In The Line Of Wildfire.
Kyle: I think I wanted to just tell people what it was like to work on a Hotshot crew. And I kind of got to use the story as a way to explain how fire fighting works, but what it's like to work on the crew and also just like, the crew dynamics. It was a, just a super fun experience for me.
I got a moonlight as a firefighter without actually having to be a firefighter.
Paddy: That's not entirely true. Kyle wasn't just standing around with a pad of paper and pen, taking notes. He worked damn hard, sometimes digging so furiously for so long, he'd vomit. And then, there was the time he was swamping, clearing everything that had been cut by the sawyers, when things got, er, itchy.
Kyle: And it turned out the things that they were cutting were just like mountains of poison oak.
So I got the worst case of poison oak on that fire. It's all, it's like really pus-y I would've to change. It was gross anyways. Yeah, it was pretty gnarly.
I had to go get a cortisone shot in my ass. And some rural Northern California clinic, which ended up working out okay, because I didn't have to fight fire the next day. And I got to go up in a spotter plane. So that, it was fun. It worked out pretty well.
Paddy: With experiences like that, you have to wonder who in their right mind chooses to get into this line of work. And why they end up loving it so much.
Paddy: Why did you want to do that job?
Kyle: It wasn't fire. I'll tell you that. It is a good place to go to meet people who you admire.
Paddy: But that's not even the half of it. More on why Kyle and others are drawn to this dirty and difficult and dangerous job coming up after the break.
Paddy: Before writer Kyle Dickman started reporting on wildfires for Outside, he fought them. Wildland Fire fighting for the US Forest Service helped him cover the cost for college. Plus, Kyle says he loved the physical challenge--or as he puts it, "getting paid to work out." But most of all, he loved the community he found on the fire line.
Kyle: If you're lucky, you meet a few people in your life that are just worth emulating. I think about my superintendent, Rick Cowell. He was tough as hell. He was 50 years old when quit and he was still running like 7:30 miles on runs that had like four or 500 feet of climbing. Like he was just a hammer ass. He pushed people hard. He asked a lot of people, and I think he asked a lot of them because, you know, he, he believed in them. He was good to everybody.
When we'd get helicoptered into assignments. He'd fly a coffee pot out. And he would make a fire every morning and he'd be up super early and he'd make a pot of coffee for the crew.
And you could come over there and bring your mug over and he'd pour you a pot of coffee. It was just like the smallest thing. But man, it was great.
Paddy: Kyle says the times he enjoyed the most were the moments between all the fire fighting action that we imagine. Being in uncomfortable situations, but surrounded by good people.
Kyle: You would just stand around there and everybody would bullshit and it would be, a sort of gauzy light to dawn, and the smoke's hanging low still cuz the fire hasn't woken up yet.
You're just in it. You know? And I think the shittiness is what makes the camaraderie so strong. It's easier to suffer if there's, if everybody else around you is suffering at the same time and it just makes it a little bit more fun, you know?
Paddy: Kyle has written boots-on-the ground articles on a number of notable fires that recount Rick Cowell-like characters doing everything they could to suppress blazes. Like the 2011 Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico, where he traveled along with a crew as flames hundreds of feet tall ripped down canyons and threatened to burn a nuclear weapons facility at Los Alamos National Labs.
Kyle: There's a bunch of legacy stuff that was put there when they were building the first atomic bombs that, I don't think anybody wants to find out what happens when it burns.
Fortunately we didn't. Like, like it's a little bit miraculous, that the lab didn't burn.
That's an example of when all of the effort that goes into fighting fires goes right.
Paddy: I think it's safe to say that no one ever started fire fighting because they wanted to stop a nuclear disaster. But being calm under pressure and rolling with what the day brings seems to be ubiquitous.
This was exemplified on a fire Kyle covered in 2021 when he traveled to Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park. At the time, California had had a rash of fires that had destroyed 20 percent of the state's giant sequoia trees in less than five years. Kyle was embedded with the Arrowhead Hotshots who were tasked with building a fire line on a ridge to protect some of the last remaining groves of sequoias that abutted their fire station.
Kyle: It was nighttime and they were bringing fire with drip torches down this ridge. And , the fire was sort of backing down, but the wind was blowing up and so the fire would just like pulse and spark and jump. And it was a big fire. There are giant Sequoia trees around us and it would rip off these sugar pines. And like I was hanging out with a hot shot and we would just like look up and watch this. It was like Roman candles of just sparks that would like crest up and then blow over the line and then sucked back in by the fire.
This guy's just like watching this stuff and crane his neck up and he’s like, yeah, I don't know man. I think November, I'd probably go to Joshua Tree and maybe do a little climbing and, you know, camp out with some buds or something.
Paddy: I mean, it's like a wild reaction to this thing that like, otherwise, like, sounds kind of biblical.
Kyle: I think if you do the same thing 90 days a summer and you watch fire 90 days a summer, like your reaction to it is very different than it would be if you were out there on day one.
They just see that stuff all the time. So it's, that's their job. And as long as the fire is doing what they expect it to be doing, I don't think that they were surprised by it, you know, because that, that was the objective and it was behaving the way that they wanted it to behave.
At the same time he was bullshitting with me about J-Tree. He was also, you know, making some check marks in his mind and looking up and saying, look, okay, there's the embers, they're pulling over the line, but then they're getting sucked back in by the main column.
It's exactly what we wanna be seeing. This is, you know, it's all good. It's all good.
Paddy: I can't get past my shock at what becomes normal for firefighters, but what Kyle and I both agree on is that they are all too often mischaracterized as either energy drink-infused risk addicts or hero complex loons.
Kyle: The thing that they wanna do most at the end of the day is go home.
That's what I think I want people to know. If there's a fire in your backyard and firefighters can safely help protect it, your house, then great. Then they should do that.
But like, remember that if you're asking them to take exceptional risks, you are asking people with kids and families and like, just people you know.
Paddy: I think it is unfair, and ultimately unsafe to characterize anyone as like clocking into work and saying like, today I am gonna put my life on the line. People don't think of it like that.
Kyle: That's exactly it. Like, yeah.
It's not a field of adrenaline junkies, and I think it's just worth remembering that, when we see firefighters running out into the field, that just like the rest of us do, these people are making practical decisions even if we don't understand the calculus behind them.
Paddy: In 2013, right after Outside published Kyle's story on rejoining his hotshot crew, he traveled to Arizona to cover one of the most tragic events in US firefighting history: The Yarnell Hill fire that claimed the lives of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Kyle wrote a number of articles for Outside and eventually a book about the incident called, On the Burning Edge.
Kyle: It was a national moment, right? And that was sort of like right on the edge of when, wildfire was becoming a much bigger annual news event in the U.S.
You have to remember since 2013, there's been all these, like paradise has burned and these like historic fire season after historic fire season. And I think it's become a much more reliably big deal. But it, it, but at the time, nobody knew really what hotshot crews were. Like that, you know, that was, they were aware of smoke jumpers and they kind of had a vague idea of what, uh, wildland firefighters did.
But I think the job in the profession was like, lived largely in the world of mystery. And I think what I wanted to do was sort of demystify a lot of that stuff, but I also wanted to talk about what happened out there? There are a lot of seasons that we fight fire, where entire crews don't get killed.
And so what happened in this particular fire that led to this, just this like, you know, absolute tragedy.
Paddy: Kyle was shaken by the Yarnell Hill Fire. As he wrote in his book, he simply couldn't reconcile the loss of "19 young men to save something as ephemeral as a house."
To him, this was a tragic waste, but one that is likely to be repeated given the way we currently fight fires. That fact is what leads us to label firefighters as heroes, which can lead us to make all the wrong assumptions about what they really do.
Kyle: Like I just think about like those kids who died at Yarnell, and I promise you this, this is, this is, that's not what they signed up for. We need to have reasonable expectations about what, what these people can do.
I think this is a job, and there are many like it that are freighted with this, with like these ideals of like, these are heroes. These people are selfless. And like, some of that is true, but also that they're just people doing a job.
I just think that that's something that's always worth remembering whenever we're talking about people in professions that we sort of think of as crazy. The results may be heroic, but I think the individuals who do them are just people.
Paddy: Katrina Mohr first started fighting fire when she was 26 years old. At the time, she was ski bumming in Victor, Idaho and looking for a job that would give her winters off. She also craved a physical and mental challenge, something she wasn't getting from her job waiting tables.
Katrina: In my opinion and in my experience living in mountain towns, and like, not having, a degree that supports like a really high earning job, like a lawyer or someone who's good with computers, who can like code and stuff like that. There's not like a ton of really good paying jobs for women that aren't service related.
So I feel like fire was kind of my great happy medium of feeling challenged and being able to move up and like get into different leadership positions once I realized like, oh, I don't have to just be like digging line for the rest of my life for 20 years to make this a career, it started seeming more appealing.
Paddy: Though she swore she'd only do it for a season or two, Katrina fell in love with fire fighting. Now, 37 and an assistant on a Forest Service engine crew, she still loves it but a lot has changed in her 12 years on the job. Like, making 11 bucks an hour, plus over time and hazard pay, when you're a twenty-something is bookoo bucks. But when you're eyeing 40?
Katrina: Now I have a mortgage and like I have health insurance to pay. That money doesn't go as far. Especially now with housing prices and even rental prices just increasing in these places that people wanna live and where there's fires.
Paddy: And as fire seasons are becoming longer and more abnormal each year, Katrina says there is an added strain on the crews.
Katrina: It's not a work-life balance anymore. It just feels way more pressure to be available and have to go to these fires and not really have as much time off. When I started in fire to only work six months outta the year and then I have six months off. That's just not feasible anymore.
I was done in October, my first season, so it truly was like six months outta the year at most, and now that's not the case. Crews are coming on earlier and they're working till like at least Thanksgiving or sometimes more into Christmas.
Paddy: But Katrina says there are some consistencies with fire, though not in the ways that'd put a smile on your face.
First, there is the often overlooked and rarely discussed strain on relationships.
When Katrina and her husband first started dating, they saw each other once every 6 to 8 weeks. She says it was hard to feel connected. But even now when she returns from a fire it can be difficult to express her needs.
Katrina: Recently when I've become more supervisory and like being in charge of things on fires instead of just like doing what people told me is that I feel like immense stress feeling like I have to keep everyone safe.
And I think that was a hard thing to articulate is like coming home felt like a rest. You're with people all the time on fires. You're just living with people in like a little apartment box of your vehicle. And so I craved my alone time when I came home and he wanted to be like, hey, let's catch up.
Like, I wanna have dinner. I wanna like, do all these things with you. And I'm kinda like, I need a minute. Like I need a little bit of time.
Paddy: And I want a room by myself where no one is asking me.
Katrina: Like I wanna go drink a beer in the shower and like listen to nothing. It was really hard to be like, Hey babe, like I love you, but like, I really don't wanna look at you or like interact with you right now.
Paddy: Katrina also says that she can count on public perception about the job completely missing the mark. First, there are the putdowns.
Katrina: There was a California congressperson who called firefighters, like unskilled laborers. And it was just really insulting.
And I do feel like sometimes how people see us is just like, I don't know, dumb idiots, who are not fit for society, just like out in the forest, cuz that's all we can do.
But it really does take a lot to fight a fire.
Paddy: But even the compliments don't sit well with firefighters, especially the H word.
Katrina: A lot of people are like, oh, you're such a hero. Like, thank you for your work. Thank you so much for what you do. And I feel like that's the stuff I say to people who went to war. Like it's just not, to me it doesn't feel equivalent and it is uncomfortable.
And that's just kind of our culture of like, we don't want to be recognized in that way. And like a lot of people do this job either cuz they just wanna do it for a little bit or they want challenge. Like we don't, I don't know, people like don't like to see themselves as heroes.
Paddy: Even with financial stress, the strain on relationships, and the physical mental toll of the marathon nature of the work, Katrina is a lifer.
Katrina: I do love wildland firefighting. I can't truly imagine doing anything else.
There was a fire last year and it happened to just be all ladies on our engine. And so I got on the saw and then one of the other crew members was my swamper.
And then the last two were digging line behind us while we were cutting line. The repellers showed up and they started like digging line on the other side. Basically like we're trying to get like a few bucket drops in before the sun sets and they can't fly anymore. And we finally wrapped the fire with like headlamps on and we had like, are all dirty. And we just like high-fived basically at the end of the line. Like, yeah, we did it. Like the sawyers were like, woo.
And then the wind died down and like the fire was pretty calm and there wasn't a lot to do before we went to bed.
And then you're just like sitting there eating your dinner, watching the sun set over. A really good view of like some sweet mountains in the distance. And it was just like so beautiful and everyone's just dirty and sweaty and like that kind of stuff exemplifies like why I love fire.
I'm like, this is my life. Like that, that was my job. I just got paid to like do this and now I'm here in this amazing place with these people and we just like accomplish this goal. And it's just those kind of fires like really make me keep coming back
Michael: If you want to learn more about what it's really like to be a wildland firefighter, and how to navigate applying for a job, Katrina Mohr has information on her website, the5ftfirefighter.com.
Kyle Dicman's many stories about fire and other topics are available on Outside Online.
This episode was produced by Paddy O'Connell and edited by me, Michael Roberts. Music and mixing by Robbie Carver.
The Outside Podcast is made possible by our Outside+ subscribers. Learn about the many benefits of a subscription and subscribe now at outsideonline.com/podplus
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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.