Fighting fire, embracing change

August 18, 2011

By Kristen Steiner ‘12, MBA

A lot of professions crossed my mind growing up as a child - zookeeper, meteorologist, WNBA player and optometrist, just to name a few - but I have to admit that firefighter was never one of them. Growing up in Plentywood, a small town nestled in the very northeast corner of Montana amongst a few rolling hills, I never really knew that wildland firefighting existed, let alone what the job entailed. In fact, here I am finishing my fourth fire season with the Forest Service, and I am still a little surprised that I ever got involved with it in the first place.

It wasn’t until the spring of my sophomore year at the University of Montana in 2008 that I was introduced to fire for the first time. One night, I got into a discussion with a friend who had just come off of her first fire season and decided to give it a try. Before I knew it, I was a seasonal wildland firefighter for Ninemile Ranger District, just west of Missoula, Mont., and have been there every summer since.

Our fire crew at Ninemile is composed of 20-25 people. We typically work five eight-hour days a week; however, days off are staggered to provide seven-day coverage. Montana’s fire season normally doesn’t start picking up until after the Fourth of July, when it starts to get hotter and drier, and can last through September and even into October. When not on fires, we do “project work” as a crew. Most often, this involves using chainsaws to thin/slash different areas within our district to be burned later as a method to clean up the forest in efforts to avoid future large wildfires by reducing the fuel available if they were to start on their own in that area. Also, individuals on our crew can be outsourced to fire assignments in regions across the U.S. that are burning more heavily.

This summer, I was fortunate enough to get two different fire assignments. The first was as a member of a 20-person crew that traveled down to New Mexico for 18 days in June, and the second was a two week stint as a detailer with one of the helicopters on our forest at the beginning of this month. Both were great experiences. In New Mexico, I worked on the biggest fire I had ever been on and got to see more active fire behavior than I had ever seen. As a helicopter crew member trainee, I was able to take part in shuttling firefighters up to a secluded landing site above a local fire, hook up the long line and bucket underneath the helicopter so the pilot could perform water drops, and prepare cargo nets to be delivered up to crewmembers already on the hill.

Although the job is not always glorious and is generally hard work, it didn’t take long for me to come to love it. The scenery and wildlife alone are enough to captivate anyone, but I also enjoy that I learn or see something new every day no matter how long I have been around the organization and that I never know if I will end up sleeping in my own bed at night or up on the hill. The best part, however, is definitely the people. Over the past four years, I have met some amazing and insightful individuals that will more than likely be lifelong friends. I cannot even begin to describe how much easier it is to get through those long, hard days when you are in good company.

With only one more year of school left before I have finished my master’s degree, I’m afraid that this may have been my last fire season as I will be heading into the “real world.” Though working for the Forest Service is not directly related to the business degree I am currently working toward, I have learned so many things that I will be able to take with me and use in all the aspects of my life. I have come to realize how important it is to be flexible and able to adapt to any changes that come about. I have also gained leadership skills that will allow me to effectively work with and manage others. I am so grateful for the opportunities I have had - though I never would have pictured myself fighting fire or running a chainsaw during my lifetime, I am extremely glad that I decided to take that plunge into unknown waters four years ago! Although my time fighting fire may be coming to an end, I am grateful for the people I have met, things I have seen, and the experiences that I will never forget!