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Amanda Monthei | 08.09.2019

I’m on one of my first fires as a brand-new Hotshot for the U.S. Forest Service. It’s June now, and we’re in New Mexico; the annual monsoons haven’t arrived yet, and the fire danger is extreme when we get called to our second fire of the season in the bowl of an ancient caldera north of Santa Fe.

We are a 20-person wildland firefighting crew that usually works over 100 days a summer in rough terrain. We sleep in the dirt and log 16-hour shifts. On our last fire—the first of the summer for us—we spent a few days deep in the wilderness of the Gila National Forest, digging and cutting a fire break to prevent the spread of a relatively small fire that threatened cabins at the base of a deep canyon.

 


Amanda Monthei is a Hotshot with a crew based in Zig Zag, Oregon. Amanda Monthei.

This time, we attempted to contain a fire located on the steep, rocky wall of an ancient volcano, the rocks loose and unpredictable, the trees burned and weak, destabilized by burnt-out roots. Trees fell with no sound or warning, often crashing a couple hundred feet down the line from us, which made everyone lift their head from their pulaskis and shovels to scan the trees above and around them. Rocks were a more immediate hazard, as even a pool-ball-sized rock kicked loose above us could be potentially fatal. The hazards weren’t new to me, but I’d never experienced them at such proximity.

Trees fall, of course, but it’s different when you hear them fall just over the ridge above you. Another fell just a few feet away from the entire crew, a green, living tree that was presumably stable enough to ignore, its roots surely not burnt out yet. A crew member yelled, “Go left!” A handful of us swerved as the tree landed perhaps 20 feet to our right, its lay just a few feet off from where we’d all been standing a few moments prior.

By day 10 on this fire—perhaps because of fear, or crew dynamics, or my ever-expanding tally of mistakes—I’d cried no fewer than five times, often splashing the lukewarm water from my government-issued canteen into my eyes to reduce the redness. I put on my sunglasses until I regained composure. Rarely the fault of others, the tears seemed mostly to flow at the growing list of things I’d done wrong, a mental tower of incompetence that grew one tier with every little infraction, every punishment push-up, every subtle but critical remark from a crew member, however justified and kind-hearted (as they often were).

As the tower grew ever higher, it felt more and more like the crew didn’t like me, which had been one of my worst fears coming into the season. I quickly spiraled into a hole of self-pity, brought about by the strongest imposter syndrome I’d ever experienced and the pervasive thought that I was incompetent or weak—that maybe all of my worst thoughts about myself were true.

My friend Caitlin, a former Hotshot for the Forest Service, encouraged me to apply to the Hotshots in the fall of 2017. I’d just finished my second fire season and was in a good place to apply for a rookie position on a Hotshot crew, but I was strife with doubt over whether I’d cut it as a Hotshot or not. The physical requirements were within reason for me, but the mental fortitude was where my doubt began. Was I tough enough to hang? Would I be a valuable asset? Would I find a place on the crew, be a good crew member?

I’d met Caitlin on Instagram after I realized that we lived in the same place in Washington between fire seasons. She now rappels from a helicopter into small, mostly lightning-caused wildfires in places inaccessible to ground crews like the one I’m on. Self-pity, presumed incompetence, and tears aside, I attribute a large part of why I am on a Hotshot crew to Caitlin and other women I’ve experienced in my time in fire. It was Caitlin who convinced me to accept a position with my crew despite my unwavering attitude that I wasn’t good enough, strong enough, or tough enough. It was Caitlin who texted me after my very first day on the crew to see how it went, to tell me I was killing it, to urge me to keep on keeping on, to share her own experiences as a rookie—which, it turns out, were very similar to my own.

When I first started firefighting, I tried not to distinguish myself as a “woman in fire.” I figured as long as I kept up, worked hard, stayed safe, and generally contributed in any way that I could, I was just another firefighter, a working body in a world where gender was irrelevant. But in my second season as a Hotshot, as countless women asked me for advice on how to become a Hotshot, as countless more reached out to me on Instagram to ask how to pursue a job in fire in general, I realized that being a woman in this job is an important contrast.

There’s no denying that we operate, think, and express ourselves differently, but how we support each other—whether sharing a hug when we run into women we know on the line, or providing help to a rookie who is interested in the job you have—this makes all the difference. I can only hope to provide the same encouragement, inspiration and support to other women as Caitlin, and countless others, have provided to me.

Of course, we get those things from the guys, too, but there is an untold amount of assurance that comes from hearing that another woman has experienced what you experience, to know that your doubt, your tears, and your mistakes are not just your own. I can run and work and hike and keep up all day, but repeatedly telling myself I’m not good enough—that’s what will ultimately make me put sunglasses on so the guys don’t see my tears.

And when you’re there, when you’re at that lowest of lows, it’s profoundly valuable to have someone to call who has been there before and can say with certainty that they are a stronger firefighter for it—and that eventually I will be too.

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