I had just finished my first timed practice pack test on the track at Boulder High School in Boulder, Colorado when, exhausted and out of breath, I had a realization: I walk slow. Not just slow, but really slow. My natural gait is more of a strut – a casual, “I give zero shits” sort of a cadence. And for 21 years, that approach to walking had done me well. But with just two months left until my first day as a wildland firefighter in California…I realized I needed to pick up the pace. Here’s how I did it:
Walking is just something that we do subconsciously. We don’t think about it. We pick a destination, tell our body to advance towards it, and our minds shift to other things. This is fine, but the problem that I had was that when my mind turned on auto-pilot, cruising speed was much slower than it needed to be. So I had to change that setting. Which was hard at first. It was easy to walk faster when I was focused on it, but if my mind shifted to something else, *bam*, I took my foot off the gas, and the engine revved lower. It was incredibly annoying. The only way that I could figure out how to fix it was to just walk faster. Everywhere. I turned it into a game. If I was walking to class, or walking to work, or just climbing up the stairs, I did it fast. Always. With a little bit of time, it just became a habit. I learned to move faster. Suddenly, every time I was walking, I was aware that I was walking with purpose. I wasn’t just walking to the bar to meet up with friends – that walk was a training walk. It had purpose. It was moving me, literally, one step closer to my goal of being a firefighter. And it helped.
Fitbits and stepcounting weren’t all the rage when I was getting into fire, but they’re great tools. As a wildland firefighter, you’re essentially a professional hiker. On any given shift, you can easily expect to walk 10+ miles. That’s about 20,000 steps. Most civilians will celebrate and bombard Facebook with posts about how awesome they are if they hit the 10k threshold for steps. If you want to suffer less during the fire season, you need to harden your body in the off-season. You need to get yourself used to walking. There’s no substitute for this – you just simply need to walk more. So go buy a Fitbit or a Jawbone Up and start challenging yourself. Your goal, leading up to Day 1 of fire season, should be to regularly walk 15,000 steps, minimum, each day. That number doesn’t include the running or hiking you’re doing. 15,000 steps. It’s not easy. But wearing that little piece of rubber around your wrist should serve as a reminder to get up and move.
Play around with different ways to wear your pack. The way your pack is sitting might be prematurely fatiguing you. For me, I liked it tight. And if I was wearing a pack with a waistband, I always made sure that it was cinched snugly around my waist. Snug enough that the majority of the weight was supported by my hips, and not my shoulders. This is the way most wildland fire packs are designed, so it’s good training to get used to carrying weight like this. But experiment. If you fatigue your shoulders early in a hike, your posture is going to slouch, your shoulders will slump – all of which leads to suboptimal breathing conditions. And if you’re not breathing right – you’re not getting enough oxygen, which causes even more exhaustion. Hike tall, breathe better, finish sooner. Simple as that.
It seems a bit counterintuitive, but it works. On training hikes, I would watch people flame out by talking huge steps, usually when trying to close a gap between them and the hiker ahead. This was especially problematic when they would skip an intermediate step on particularly steep sections. Humans can walk vast distances because bipedal motion effectively leverages both our skeletal structure and our muscles. If you start talking longer than normal steps, you’re shifting the balance. You’re relying less on your skeletal system to support the weight, and more on your muscles. Think about it – what’s an easier position to hold – standing upright with your feet together, shoulder width apart, or a lunge position, with one foot forward, one foot back? Add additional weight to the equation, and the forces are increased.
One of the mental tricks I like it employ to speed up my steps is that with every step, I’m actively trying to get my leg out front faster. Usually, most people are casual about bringing the lead foot forward, and focus more on driving the weighted foot backwards to propel them. That’s great – but simultaneously think about advancing your lead foot forward as quickly as you can. I picture myself kicking through a few inches of fresh powdery snow. Honestly, just focusing on the act of walking, being aware of your pace, will allow you to start making dramatic improvements.
Thanks for bearing with us, everybody as we go through the process of migrating the site from a static-HTML site to a WordPress-hosted site. This weekend, I have been focusing a lot of my efforts on chasing down 404 errors and bad links. When the site was migrated over, the existing link structure was not supported, so I have had to spend some tedious hours manually providing redirect link information.
Hopefully, we’ll have the 404 errors wrapped up by Sunday. And then after that – we can focus on debuting some exciting new content!
Anyone who has visited this site regularly over the years can attest to the fact that it was in dire need of an update. So this weekend, I have committed to overhauling the site.
The biggest change will be upgrading the site from a static site, cobbled together in Adobe’s Dreamweaver to a WordPress site. At the risk of geeking out, moving the site to a contest management system like WordPress should dramatically improve the efficiency by which I can update the site, and also improve your user experience as you navigate it.
Caveat – Please bear with me as I drag HF from the land of outdated, 2007-era web technology into the world of Web 3.0 or whatever we’re calling the present state of web development. I’m a novice, and run this site in my free time.
While my goal is to always provide an amazing experience to my visitors, over the next 96 hours, there might be some bugs and down times, and I ask that you please be understanding of that.
Thanks again for your continued support and I am excited by the changes we’re making. I hope you are too!
Smokejumping. There’s freedom, prestige and a sense of majesty that comes with floating from the sky onto a fire. Rookie training is notoriously brutal, and the fact that you’re an airborne firefighter grants smokejumpers a special status among their peers, mildly similar to the divide that exists between grunts and special forces operators in the military. If you’re a smokejumper, you’re a badass. That’s all there is to it.
Ernest Hemingway himself couldn’t have invented a more masculine job. Put on armor. Load into plane with fellow warriors. Fly to desolate wilderness area. Look for fire. Jump out of plane. Avoid impaling oneself on tree limbs during landing. Pick up battle axe. Attack fire. Rest. Attack it again. Hike home victorious.
Thinking more about it – who wouldn’t want to be a smokejumper? Well, like anything in life, there’s some pros and cons and compromises that you should consider first before submitting your application.
Flexible vs. Structured: Smokejumpers are a notoriously loose bunch. Hotshot crews..not so much. If you love structure, rigid hierarchy, tool orders, and an iron-clad command and control structure, you might want to stick with hotshotting. On a jumper fire, the first person to land is the IC. That means you could have a rookie bossing around a 10-year veteran. Some people thrive in this environment, others don’t.
Fire Assignments: Smokejumpers are an initial attack resource. Hotshots are an extended attack resource. Smokejumpers live on a steady diet of lighting-started fires. They get in quick, scratch some line, hook it, and call it good. They take their packs off when they work (or so we’ve heard). They don’t hike in tool order. Hell, they don’t even HAVE a tool order. When it gets big and ugly, they turn it over to the hotshots. So if you love burn shows, and have a panic attack when you see a handline with anything less than a six foot saw cut and a three foot scrape…you should probably stick to hotshotting.
What do you want to do in fire? As a smokejumper, you’ll be able to pile on a lot more certifications than you would on a hotshot crew. If you have aspirations to be on an IC team, or to be division, jumping for a few years might be a great career move. You’ll gain valuable experience with coordinating logistics, handling paracargo operations, managing helispots, and other aspects of the aviation-side of firefighting that you just can’t get as a hotshot. Plus, it’s great for street cred. If you can make it through rookie training, and hold your own as a jumper, that says a lot about your physical fitness, and your mental fortitude. The fire world is a macho culture – it always will be. Knowing that you had “SMKJ” on your hard hat earns you some serious points.
If you love running the saw, and that’s the only thing you want to do, you might not want to be a smokejumper. When jumpers land, it’s a free-for-all for the tools. If you land late, you might be cutting line with a pulaski. You have to be alright with that. As a hotshot, if you’re on saw team – you’re running the saw no matter what.
Money. During a busy season, you’re probably going to bank roughly the same amount regardless of whether you’re on a hotshot crew or jumping says Ramona Atherton, a smokejumper out of McCall, Idaho. “We get more per hour, but during a slow year like the 2010 fire season, [jumpers] have fewer opportunities for OT [overtime].” Atherton also added that jumpers have more opportunities for off-season work (Smokejumpers regularly travel to New York City, Chicago, and even Worcester, Mass to assist with urban tree work and invasive species eradication programs.)
During a slow year, hotshots benefit most from the nature of their assignments. Smokejumpers are utilized in the early stages of an incident. If they can’t control a fire within a day or two, extended attack resources (e.g. hotshot crews) are called in, and the smokejumpers return to base. Smokejumpers don’t spend 14 days on a fire, mopping it up. Any hotshot will tell you that the money is in the mop-up. The shifts can be agonizingly boring, but that’s where you get the bulk of your overtime and hazard pay.
If you’re seriously considering becoming a smokejumper, get a few seasons under your belt as a hotshot, preferably in the region where you want to jump. For instance, if you want to jump out of Missoula, consider working on the Lolo Hotshots. You’ll have the opportunity to cross paths with their overhead, and get a sense of their culture, and maybe even cut some line with them on a fire or two on forest. When hiring season comes along, that familiarity with help boost your chances considerably.
Oh, and definitely read Murray Taylor’s autobiography “Jumping Fire”. It’s hysterical and will put you about two beers and a dare away from submitting your application to jump AK.