Wildland firefighting: A family affair

Mitchell Hartman Aug 7, 2013

Wildland firefighting: A family affair

Mitchell Hartman Aug 7, 2013

This has been a tough year to be a wildland firefighter.

It’s not that the job’s been any harder, or more dangerous, than normal this year. There has been less fire activity to date, and fewer acres have burned, than in recent years, even though the weather’s been hot and much of the West is suffering drought.

And it hasn’t been the worst year in recent decades for wildland firefighter fatalities, either. The number of deaths in the line of duty stands at twenty-nine, as of August 7, 2013, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

But nineteen Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed in a single incident on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona in June. And that means it’s shaping up to be an unusually tragic and stressful year in the wildland firefighting community.

We’ll introduce two people who work these big Western wildfires. One is a veteran, whose job it is to help firefighters manage risk, and sometimes loss, on the fire lines. The other is just starting out as a firefighter. What’s unusual is that this business runs in the family.

The scene is the San Jacinto Mountains in the San Bernardino National Forest, about two hours east of Los Angeles, in mid-July. The Mountain Fire has just burst out from a bone-dry pine scrub hillside along California State Highway 243, swept past a Forest Service office building, and taken off into the rugged country beyond. The resort town of Idyllwild has been evacuated, along with subdivisions scattered across the parched chaparral. More than forty square miles of steep, inaccessible forestland are now ablaze.

Up in Oregon, Janine Summy has been waiting. “I’ve been on two-hour call,” she says. “And then this morning my orders came in, and about 9 o’clock, I left.”

Summy hops a quick flight into L.A., grabs a Forest Service vehicle, and heads east to the fire. I reach her as she’s driving up into the foothills on her way to the Mountain Fire Base Camp in a high-mountain valley near Idyllwild, several miles from the fire-lines, to report for duty.

“Now that I’m here,” says Summy, “and I’m about to engage, I get really excited and a little bit nervous, just because I know that I’m entering into the unknown.”

When she was in her twenties, Summy would have been carrying a shovel and a Pulaski (a cross between an ax and a pick) to fight the fire.

Now in her mid-40s, she still wears the ugly flame-retardant pants and carries a two-way radio. She’s on a federal Forest Service command team, California Interagency Management Team 3, that flies in for Type 1 fires.  Those are the biggest and most dangerous. Summy is the Human Resources specialist on the team, managing 3,500 firefighters and support staff from local, state and federal firefighting agencies.

A few days after she arrives at the Mountain Fire, I head out to meet her.

The base camp is like a small city. There are hundreds of fire trucks, hotshot buggies, ambulances; water- and flame-retardant-dropping helicopters and a helicopter landing field; sleeping tents, a huge mess tent, ranks of porta-potties. A line of trailers for the command team sits at the center of the camp. They call this Main Street.

“Our function as a human resources specialist is to keep a pulse on what’s happening with the humans who are on the fires,” Summy explains. “These are firefighters. You’re working long, long, long hours, and people need to just sort of let off some steam.” Summy handles interpersonal conflict and personal crises.  She also deals with issues that come up between different organizations involved in the firefight; the fire is being fought by multiple local fire crews, plus state fire crews and others.

Summy says the first week or so of a fire is relatively calm. Then troubles begin to surface. “Life is still happening at home,” she says. “There are still things that you’re having to manage, and by about day eight, the things that you weren’t managing have come to a point where you can’t do that anymore.”  She says on a fire this big, family members invariably have crises of their own that firefighters need to leave to deal with.

I ask if her job is different, or if the feeling among firefighters is different, after the tragic deaths of nineteen hotshots in Arizona earlier in the summer?

“People are sensitive, people are hurting,” she replies. “One of the fascinating things about the firefighter personality is the amazing ability to put off your emotions until the crisis has passed. And you have to keep doing the work that you’re doing, despite the fact that your heart is broken.”

Under a tent in the middle of camp, near Main Street, a daily briefing is in progress. In turn, commanders make reports: fire behavior, weather expected for the next twenty-four hours, evacuation plans, personnel, staffing, safety precautions.

Most of the commanders making these reports are men. Most of the firefighters you see in camp, and in the hotshot crews, and on the inmate firefighting crews, and on the helicopters, and out on the fire lines, are men, too.

That makes Summy unusual. So is her commanding officer, Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, who was until last year the only female Type 1 incident commander in the Forest Service.

Summy believes having women around — both on the fire lines, and in fire management — matters, for what she calls the ‘managing stress’ and ‘letting off steam’ parts of the job.

“Being able to get that across,  I think,  sometimes is potentially easier because we are women,” she says, “to be able to express that kind of emotion in a way that is OK. I love that it’s appreciated—the feminine qualities that I have—when I’m out on a fire. And I’m even told that, not in a weird way, but in a ‘we’re glad that you’re here, sure do like that bow in your hair’ way.”

And here’s a second unusual thing about Janine Summy:  she points to her cellphone and says, “She just texted me. She just got dispatched to Montana.”

Summy is talking about her nineteen-year-old daughter, Iris, now in her second summer fighting wildfires.

“Because they’re doing initial attack, she had a 25-hour work shift that she just did,” Summy explains. “She said ‘Mom, I’m pretty tired.’ But she did a little smiley face and was happy.”

Soon after, I reach Iris by cellphone at the end of her shift. “I’m in Eastern Montana, on the Emigrant Fire,” she says. “It’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere.”

On Iris’s 20-person Washington State-based hand crew (the basic wildland firefighting unit sent in for attack, clearing brush, and to establish firelines) there are six women. That’s many more than when her mother was out on the fire lines, and later when she was a squad boss.

“It is a masculine type of community, and you do do hard work every day and you’re dirty,” says Iris. She says the jokes are dirty, too, though it doesn’t bother her and she likes the camaraderie that goes along with the hard, tiring work.

She also likes the money. With overtime and hazard pay, she’ll make nearly $10,000 this summer for college.

Mom Janine likes that part of the equation. And her voice wavers as she says how proud she is of her strong, capable daughter, just starting out in the same profession in which she’s made a successful, rewarding career.

But if Janine was excited as she headed into the firefighting ‘unknown’ as she arrived at the Mountain Fire, her emotion as she envisions her daughter doing the same thing is more like apprehension.

“I think as an older woman I have become much more aware of some of the imminent danger you’re under,” she says, adding sheepishly, “Every night I’ve texted her and said, ‘Please be careful. Please eat well. Hydrate.’”

Daughter Iris replies: “I know it’s a dangerous job, and I know that people do get hurt, and sometimes people die. It’s just my personality — I’m not afraid of much of anything.”

Mother and daughter are both safe now, back at home, until the next fire call comes.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.