Welcome back to the CoolWorks Journal! In this edition, we hear from Michelle, as she recounts her numerous adventures, starting with an internship in Alaska, and later an AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps work opportunity which helped her discover and pursue her passion of wildland firefighting!
If you had asked me back in high school where I wanted to be at age 26, I probably would’ve told you my dream of living in a chic loft apartment in the heart of New York City, working for a fashion and lifestyle magazine, a la The Devil Wears Prada.
Oh how time and experience changes a person!
Right after college, I scored a 10-week, multifaceted internship in Nome, AK, where I saw and did things I never dreamed I would. I found I really enjoyed travel, being outdoors, and constantly varying scenery. Why did these amazing ventures have to be rare? I craved more.
After returning home to Ohio, I worked a “conventional” part-time job for about a year and a half, but realized I had no passion for the actual work. I needed to find something with more meaning. So, I applied and was accepted into the AmeriCorps NCCC work program, based out of Sacramento, CA. Cue round 2 of travel, service, and adventuring in the great outdoors! I absolutely loved traveling to different states, and partnering with four different organizations along with my team. I admit that I do get bored fairly easily, so being able to experience different types of work every few months was perfect for me.
I loved each of the projects, but my favorite turned out to be a 3-month stint doing trail maintenance and reconstruction on the Pacific Crest Trail (dreamy!). As a longtime reader of adventure books and hiking memoirs, I was overjoyed to be camping and working on the famed trail. Our team’s project liaison for our PCT assignment was a really cool guy who I respected as well as sought advice from, and he just happened to be a former Forest Service employee. Needless to say, we conversed quite a bit, and he introduced me to the idea of not only working for the USFS, but specifically in wildland fire. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the seed was planted.
About a year later, feeling once again disimpassioned at my 9-to-5 type job, I desperately sought the satisfaction I felt doing AmeriCorps work and conservation jobs, especially during the PCT project. CoolWorks.com was a blessing during my intensive research- I discovered dozens of amazing, seasonal jobs that sounded like they were made for people like me! It was a load off my shoulders to realize I didn’t have to trudge through the traditional office work routine. My eyes were opened to a world of possibilities; I couldn’t imagine being bored with all the different opportunities CoolWorks presented. I looked through a lot of Conservation Corps work opportunities on the website, which led me back to – you guessed it – wildland fire! I soon became obsessed with finding out everything I could about this amazing career.
Fast-forward to March 2019, when I received a text offering me a seasonal firefighting job on a type 6 engine in Kansas. It was such an amazing moment! I’d carefully curated and triple-checked my resume for weeks, and waited for months to hopefully hear back from the agency. By April, I was packed and on the road to move out of state for my dream job!
During my weeklong road trip out, my brain (of course) started to overthink what I was doing. I began wondering if I was, in fact, fit enough to hack it. Would I be able to keep up with the guys? Would I be able to haul 45+ lbs up a mountain? Would I be the weak link? Then my thoughts turned to the possible harassment issues. Being a woman in a heavily male-dominated field (women only make up 10-15% of the wildland fire workforce) definitely posed a risk of having a negative experience.
All of these thoughts were legitimate concerns. However, I decided to refuse to let fears of the “what-if’s” scare me away from enjoying a potentially incredible season. I’ve now been in this field for almost 4 months, and my love for this work has only grown. Is every day, every moment, unicorns and rainbows? No! Sometimes you’re sweaty, grimy, dehydrated, and frankly over it. But then you catch the eye of your crewmate and see you’re all suffering together, so you share a good laugh, suck some smoke, and keep going! The numerous people I’ve met have truly been one of the biggest highlights of this occupation.
I feel such a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment as a wildland firefighter. I’ve been on several fire rolls, from Colorado to Canada, and have proven to myself that I can not only “do” this job, but do it well. I’ve met and befriended a ton of awesome people, I’m constantly learning and growing my fire knowledge, and I can finally say I’m truly happy to go to work every day. I will likely stay in fire for a while, but I love that I have the opportunity to work in a different location next year. That’s the beauty of seasonal work- the only constant is that nothing is constant!
I also want to inspire more women to jump into wildland fire. Don’t be intimidated by the lack of female presence- the only way to increase the number of women is to apply and become part of this field! Don’t doubt yourself either- you can, and will, keep up/rise in rank/learn daily/be a badass.
Seasonal work may not be the most conventional life path, but it’s one I’d recommend to anybody, especially if the idea of being stuck behind a computer screen all day sounds like your worst nightmare! I’m a firm believer that our worst days still top the best days of the average “office rat”.
I can’t wait to see more ladies out there digging in the dirt, hoofing hose lays, and rocking their soot-stained Nomex! See you on the line!