News of the wildfires spreading across British Columbia has made me think of friends working on the fire line as I write this. It has been two years since my last season as a B.C. government wildfire fighter, most of which I’ve spent writing from my Toronto home. My work here is rewarding enough, but the current situation in B.C. makes me a little nostalgic for my former profession, and this nostalgia shows up most acutely during my morning 6K runs.
As the most physically challenging part of my day, running is also the daily activity most similar to my fire line experience. It’s worth mentioning thought that it’s the kind of similarity that at the same time, serves to highlight difference. Yesterday, as I pounded down a trail through a municipal park, I realized it has been years since I’ve done any running for practical or necessary reasons. These days, I run because I want to. As wildfire fighter, I ran because I needed to.
Wildfire perimeters measure tens or even hundreds of kilometers. You need to be able to cover ground to shuttle gear up the line, pass messages between crew members, and check ahead and behind to make sure you aren’t being outflanked or overrun. Being able to run fast and efficiently is practically useful and, sometimes, imperative.
The other morning, for instance, I was remembering a day spent working with a pair of bulldozers on a fire over 150,000 hectares in size. I was the only firefighter for kilometers in either direction, and communicating with the bulldozer operators and keeping an eye on the perimeter required me to run in boots, backpack, and Nomex uniform, for most of the day. I remember swilling water during breaks. I remember my backpack chaffing me raw at the shoulders and belt-line, and I remember thinking that it didn’t matter how I felt: I needed to keep eyes on the line.
Today, my firefighting friends are putting in similar efforts. They’re out there running hose, racing to helicopter pads, and scrambling up steep slopes carrying gear. I think about them as more and more fires are reported, more and more are people evacuated, and more and more crews are pressed into service.
My work in Toronto as a researcher and writer is far more abstracted than firefighting, and most of the time I’m OK with this. But this summer, when I return from my morning runs, the longing for that sense of urgent necessity hits me pretty hard. For the first time since I quit, I find myself wishing I was back on the line with my friends. But since I’m not, all I can do is be grateful for their efforts just like everyone else. I wish them well.