“When I get the call”

Tom Knappenberger
Pacific Northwest Region, U.S. Forest Service
August 21st, 2013 at 7:00PM

There are many ways firefighters “get the call” to head out to a wildfire.  Usually they know the call is coming, but not always.  In my case, I’d get a call from the lead public information officer on our National Incident Management Team : “Hey, we’re headed to Lake Chelan again.”  “When do we leave,” I’d ask. “Got to be there tomorrow by 1500 (3 p.m.) so meet me at 0600 (6 a.m.) and we’ll head out.”

What followed was a frenzy of stuffing my “red pack” (a firefighter’s suitcase) with uniform parts and socks and underwear and toiletries and a Leatherman tool and a flashlight. I also take a kit full of notepads, pens, scissors and a stapler.   I packed up my laptop, power cords, mouse and cell phone.  Plus I always take a small tent, sleeping bag and air mattress.  I’ll likely be gone for 14 days.

It’s an adrenaline rush - the fury of getting ready and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.  Two weeks on a fire can seem like two months of regular life.

For information officers, the job is to keep the public, media and key stakeholders abreast of what’s happening on the fire.  That means becoming an instant expert on a big fire in a geography you’re likely seeing for the first time.  Those first few days are pressure-packed as you get up to speed.  Funny how soon you’re a local expert.

The job requires the routine – writing daily updates, posting to the Inciweb site, answering phones and stapling information flyers on bulletin boards around town.  It also requires managing angst-filled town meetings, explaining evacuation procedures to nervous homeowners, and taking reporters on back roads and dozer trails to see the front lines of the fire.

Yet our job is cushy compared to the firefighters.  They get up early, wolf down breakfast, take a long bus ride to their “drop point” then begin 12 hours of hot, dry, dirty work diggingfire line or mopping up – making sure there are no hot spots left in the black, charred line.  Firefighters come back to camp, line up to eat, stand in line for a shower, maybe wait in another line to call home, and try to get some sleep on the ground before 5 a.m. rolls around again.  It’s a tough but rewarding life.

“The call” transports you from the comfortable known world of your home to a new place full of smoke and dust, stress and long hours.  It’s a call you don’t soon forget.