Mary Lowry
November 09, 2014 12:00 pm

My first season working as a wildland firefighter on an elite “hotshot” crew, I—like all rookie firefighters—had a lot to prove. I had to show my crewmates that I could handle the physical strain of digging fireline for 15 or more hours a day, sleeping on the ground, and breathing smoke. I also had to demonstrate I could get along with my 19 crewmates, since we spent every waking and sleeping moment near each other for weeks at a time, and were often sleep-deprived, exhausted, and hungry. And I had to stay calm and competent during times we all feared we would be burned to death.

Here are the things I learned about what it takes to make it as a “hotshot” wildland firefighter, and how these lessons can be applied by anyone.

1. Show up fit

First and foremost, women have to show up fit enough to do the work, and ready to dispel the myth that women can’t hack it physically (such an archaic way of thinking, ugh). Timed runs, pull ups, pushups, and a timed hike with a pack are all initial measures of fitness for hotshots. Some women have to work harder to become proficient at pull-ups and pushups than men do, so some of us really need to train specifically for these skills.

Real Life Takeaway: Being strong and fast feels great. I focus more on what my body can do (ex. deadlift 225 lbs. or do 11 pull-ups) rather than on what I look like or how much I weigh. The result: self-confidence and body image serenity.

2. Never complain

Being fit is just a basic first step to being truly accepted on a hotshot crew. Hotshots also don’t have the luxury of complaining, no matter what. I’ve had to sleep on the ground in 40 degree weather with no sleeping bag, eat MREs (military issue Meals Ready to Eat) days in a row, and work 28 hours straight. But complaining in those situations just wasn’t an acceptable option.

Real Life Takeaway: Not expressing my discomfort when I was hot, cold, hungry, tired, or terrified was essential to gaining the approval of my crewmates. And this tenacity helps me in my everyday life now as well, because I really feel like I can take on anything.

3. It’s not a dating game, ladies

The third element of being accepted on a hotshot crew is to know that fire season is not a season of The Bachelorette. There is a strange (but sadly predictable) double standard on most hotshot crews. While it’s encouraged that men sleep around, women are often judged harshly for hooking up with crewmates. A female hotshot spends six months a year essentially alone in the woods with 20 smoking hot firefighters—and she has to keep her sexuality seriously on the down low. I’ve seen women that were otherwise fantastic hotshots lose the respect of their crew because of dating drama.

Real Life Takeaway: I’d advise anyone who “finds their honey where they make their money” to proceed with caution, and discretion.

4. Be able to laugh at yourself

If you are a rookie on a hotshot crew—male or female—you will be the brunt of some serious teasing (and even some minor hazing). You will be ridiculed for every mistake you make, and every embarrassing thing you do. I had to learn to laugh at myself, and not be too bothered when people were laughing straight at me.

Real Life Takeaway: Life is easier when I don’t take myself too seriously.

5. Be willing to get dirty

I’ve gone two weeks without a shower, slept in the ash, dipped Copenhagen and then barfed as a result, and cracked jokes too disgusting to repeat. I’ve watched my friends eat giant grub worms on a bet, and let a buddy cut a wart off my foot with his Leatherman. And I’ve found that all of these things can be more fun than you could ever imagine.

Real Life Takeaway: Being rough and tumble has served me in my post-hotshot life. The willingness to get dirty and take risks has helped me learn to rock climb and surf, and it gets me invited on lots of fun backpacking trips.

6. Choose your friends wisely

Hotshotting is a dangerous and sometimes deadly job. Part of the reason hotshots are clannish and clique-y is that they don’t want anyone around who can’t hack it when lives are threatened on the fireline. They don’t want anyone on the crew who will fall behind on a hike to safety, or who can’t keep their emotions in check when lives are at risk. Hotshots only want friends and crewmates they can really count on to protect them and keep them safe

Real Life Takeaway: Everyone loves to have a bunch of fun pals. But it’s also good to have friends you know will really show up for you when you are going through a rough patch.

7. Try something that terrifies you

When I started fighting fire, I had never been in a helicopter, never set a backfire—I’d rarely even been camping. And I’d sure never had to hold my own as an athlete in such a demanding way or with such high stakes. Was I afraid of failing? Every day. Was I afraid of making a mistake that would result in my crew ridiculing me? Lots of times. Was I afraid I would “fall out” on a long, steep hike into the fire? Absolutely. Sometimes, the fear was the only thing that kept me going when I was past exhausted. But pushing through those fears allowed me to have some of the best and most memorable experiences of my life.

Real Life Takeaway: Often times the real magic happens outside of your comfort zone. Go ahead and step out there and see what it’s like—especially if you think you’re too afraid to do so.

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