NO COMFORT IN THE GROWTH ZONE - 11/18/2022
As I prepare to leave my full-time job at the end of the month, I look into a near future filled with discomfort.
I am voluntarily leaving behind a wholesome community, a sufficient salary and the place that has been my home for several years to chase new experiences as an independent storyteller and as a member of the Air Force Reserve.
A desire for growth is ultimately fueling this decision making process. It requires thoughtful introspection and a reaffirmation of my values and goals. As an aid to my own rumination, I reflect on my favorite firefighting assignment of the year. The discomfort it presented was immediately apparent as was the growth that was rewarded.
May of 2018 was my first personal reckoning with the realities of wildfire as the infamous Ute Park Fire quickly engulfed Philmont’s central country. While I never witnessed it up close, as some of my coworkers and friends did, I can only imagine the power that it commanded as it swept through the forest canopy at a rate of 1000 acres an hour. Should there have been participants in the backcountry at the time, people would have certainly died.
As we were evacuated underneath a towering plume of smoke thousands of feet high flames licked the ridge tops visible from base camp. We migrated en masse to a shantytown of tents at the fairgrounds in Springer, New Mexico some 30 miles away while a feeling of helplessness and dread sank into me.
Four years later, the remnants of that fire are ever present. Additionally, new wounds have been added to the Philmont landscape in the forms of the 2018 Morris Creek Fire, the 2020 Wilson Mesa Fire and most recently, the 2022 Cooks Peak Fire. What is different now is that I’m equipped to do something about it.
Being a member of the all-volunteer Philmont Fire Department has been an amazing opportunity that my current full-time employment affords me. Small, local volunteer departments such as Philmont’s are a gold mine for learning experiences and development opportunities. The men who make up this team are humble and dedicated. A cross section of the Philmont full-time staff, they work to fix Philmont’s roads, plumbing, and vehicles. They restore historic cabins and maintain our vast network of trails and campsites. Many of them also work as volunteers on the ambulance service, giving up their own precious time to help others. They are honest individuals who speak their mind and revel in the opportunity to work hard.
When, in late July, our Fire Chief called me asking if I could get the drone up over a recently spotted smoke column on the north side of Tooth Ridge, I was excited to pursue yet another learning experience. As I rolled up to his truck in a meadow below the ridge he and LJ, one of the motor pool mechanics, had already flown the department drone equipped with an infrared camera on a scouting run. The smoke was high above us and it became apparent that this lightning strike would not be easy to get to.
I had brought backup, my smaller and faster DJI Mavic Air. Dubbed YBJ (Yung Boi Jack) by another former volunteer firefighter, he is an exceptional team member and adopted a personality all his own. Within seconds YBJ was in the air zooming towards the threat. About a mile out and 1500 feet high, YBJ dropped into the smoke which revealed a lightning struck tree and a pile of smoking rocks. In examining our options, bringing in a fire truck was immediately out of the question. Someone would have to hike into that heinous terrain on foot.
The next morning I awoke to an alarm at 3:45 a.m. I donned my nomex pants, an old T-shirt and fire boots. I quickly downed a five hour energy and made my way to the station. Another member of the department, Curtis, had beaten me there and already had our Type-6 fire engine running and pulled out of the garage. We gathered the last of the items we would need and were ready to start hiking by 5 a.m.
The Stockade Trail is a steep ravine up the south side of Tooth Ridge that is notorious for posing physical challenges to participants. As steep as the climb was, it would be the fastest way to reach the lightning strike on the north side of the ridge. I’ve climbed through that ravine dozens times over the course of my Philmont career but never with a full cascade of wildland firefighting equipment. My pack was loaded with essentials like nutrition, a radio, the drone, a fire shelter, and more. This all sat underneath an independent water pack that brought the total weight to at least 70 pounds.
This is not the type of exercise that builds the kind of body showcased on the cover of GQ magazine. It doesn’t reward you with immediate endorphins and strains your neck while rubbing your hips raw. It reminds me of the loads that I can carry. Both physically, as in instances like this, as well as the psychological loads required of a servant leader. Those are perhaps even heavier.
Daily physical discomfort is just a surface level reminder that there are bigger challenges that await. When they come knocking I want to make sure I am the kind of person who steps up to the challenge.
During our climb, Curtis demonstrated a wiry strength that caught me by surprise. Few words, little sweat, and all speed. I like to think I’m tough, but Curtis was the one who made it the top with the most ease that morning.
We were also not the only ones slogging up the ravine. Dan, an old Ranger friend who was visiting for a reunion, saw fit to volunteer to take some weight for us during the most physically taxing part of the day. A young Marine Officer, Dan is no stranger to this kind of discomfort. As we ascended he happily carried one of our Indian pumps weighing 25-30 pounds. This was water we would desperately need.
As we climbed, Dan recounted stories of his time in The Basic School which trains newly minted marine officers. They were similarly punished with 80+ pound loads for hours on end.
After less than an hour of pushing on through fatigue we had reached the base of the infamous Tooth of Time, the high point on the ridge. Dan and I Iet out a “hooyah” and continued on up to the summit to watch the sunrise and check back in with LJ via radio. Stationed down below, he would be our lookout for the operation.
Before long Curtis and I were back on the trail and now beginning our descent on the other side of the ridge. His quiet and calm demeanor was reassuring to me as we at last found our target.
The scene Curtis and I entered into was bigger than the drone images had suggested. The rock pile we had seen the day before was surrounded by thick vegetation on a steep slope. The tree we had seen standing was half burned and another large log leaned against it. The rocks were in fact large boulders that spread out over an area 30 by 30 feet. Everything was smoking. I thought to myself, “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do this.”
That’s exactly the kind of thought that makes firefighting such a valuable vessel for learning. Doubt, fatigue, and even a little bit of fear can be refocused with the right attitude.
As we surveyed the scene Curtis and I came up with a plan of action. Both of us are still rookies and we had to consult our Incident Response Pocket Guides for things that were not yet habit. We radioed LJ with what we saw, evaluated the risks, and got to work. For nearly three hours we dug a line around the outside of the rock pile ensuring there was no fuel that could reignite anywhere close to the center of the heat. We heaved the log, still hot from the lightning strike, into the center of the rocks as far away from other fuel as possible. We de-limbed the burned tree, now cold, and began dousing hotspots with water as strategically as possible.
LJ kept a careful eye on any storms rolling in from the west as they often do in early afternoon during the second half of the summer.
Little by little, the hot pile of rocks we stumbled upon began to cool and the smoke disappeared. Nearly everywhere there was ash we could stick our bare hands into ensuring that no further fires could ignite and affect the well being of the thousands of people currently in the Philmont backcountry.
Before concluding that our work was satisfactory, the two of us surveyed a now completely rejuvenated scene while sipping on gatorade and eating ritz crackers and tuna.
We began our re-ascent back up to the ridge marking our way out with flagging tape, just in case we missed something and would have to return. Having used all of our water our packs were significantly lighter.
We passed more than one crew that looked at us oddly. They didn’t expect to see two dirty men covered in soot on their afternoon hike.
Walking back down the trail Curtis and I were beaming. What we had done was not easy, and drew on both of our collective knowledge as still relatively new firefighters. I was probably more vocal about my elation than Curtis, but I could see it in his eyes. Put plainly, we were stoked.
The growth that results from being in an uncomfortable, but not unmanageable position, is what this work is all about. As I return to my impending state of discomfort that results in leaving a job to take a risk on my own, these are the experiences I will lean on. Much like firefighting, my full-time position at Philmont has been the road less traveled. While I sometimes think it would be nice to take the more straightforward path, I don’t dwell on it long. I envy the ravine’s steep climb that will ultimately yield the perspective I could never predict.