How Was Your Day … Forest Firefighter?

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Tom Rawlings
Libby, Montana

We’ve been out on a fire in southern Oregon. It’s been crazy hot there — 109 in Medford. It’s hot and dry and in fire danger, and that’s why I’m getting paid overtime. After 8 hours, we’re overtime, and when we are on fires, it’s almost double your wage. Our pay is pretty tied to having an active fire season. So yeah … we want to be busy. We want to make a difference.

I’m a helicopter program manager for the U.S. Forest Service, which means I manage two helicopters and 16 firefighters, but I’m also out there with them on the fires. I’m a firefighter, a rappeller. We drop down from the sky to fight forest fires during the fire season. But it’s not like they drop us into the middle of the fire. We look for a very strategic point. I’ll go down with a crew, and we’ll camp out for three or four days.

At 44, I’m the vet out there with the 20-year-olds. I’ve worked all winter to stay in good shape. I live by a pedal-hard-and-coast philosophy. I work hard April to November during fire season, and then in the winter, I do what I want: ski, travel, see family. I look forward to both seasons.

Tom Rawlings poses for a portrait.
Tom Rawlings poses for a portrait.

Tom Rawlings poses for a portrait.

Source: Courtesy Thomas Rawlings

I grew up in Idaho and Montana. I got into this business when I was 25 because I was looking for a way to get paid good money to work in the woods. In the western mountains, unless you’re swinging a hammer or slinging coffee, there aren’t a lot of jobs. My dad and his brothers all fought fire in the summers when they were in college. I knew how much firefighters loved doing what they did. I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I just realized I could make a living and live where I wanted to live. This is good work. It keeps me tied in to good people.

We’re wiping sweat and dirt out of our eyes, trying to keep our vision clear. We’re eating 8,000 calories a day just to keep up.

When I hear there’s a fire and I’m going on it, at first I get excited. Then I get all logistical. I want to know everything I can about it. The call comes over the PA, and we hustle to our lockers and put on our fire-resistant clothing, flight suits and harnesses with belly bags with our survival equipment — so that if we rappel into the fire and then the chopper for some reason can’t get to us, we won’t be stranded out there.

Sometimes they drop us right in the middle of thick trees and we descend through branches. Then we hike into the bottom of the fire, which is typically the safest place to approach one because fires go uphill. It wants to spread in all directions, find its fuel, in the white fir, the huge trunks, the downed logs. Our job is to cut a tree line and take away the fuel from the fire. Right next to the fire is most effective. So we get as close as we can stand. Then we just start sawing. Chips are flying and causing flare-ups. It’s hot and loud. Often there are aircraft roaring above, dropping water. And we’re wiping sweat and dirt out of our eyes, constantly trying to keep our vision clear. We’re eating 8,000 calories a day just to keep up and drinking tons of water.

We usually sleep on the ground, no tent or anything. We build a little fire, find some mushrooms or something local and make some gourmet backcountry cuisine. We joke that our job is Extreme Picnicking. It’s a good time to get to know one another and bond. It annoys boyfriends and girlfriends when we get going about firefighting, so our nights around the fire … that’s our chance to be geeks.

Right now we’re at the peak of our fire season. This year has been a barn burner. There are fires everywhere. We’re trying to manage them until the weather changes. But everyone’s out of resources.

Sure, my parents worry. Moms are meant to worry. I have lost friends. In 2007, one of my best friends was killed. The helicopter was in a smoky, low-visibility situation and crashed into a tree. But that didn’t make me want to quit. I’m OK with the risk that comes with my job. We are well-trained. There are times when I’ve felt in over my head, but each day when I am done, I feel gratitude — not only for myself but for my team.

—As told to Shannon Sims

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