Life as a fire wife

March 12, 2011

I knew that being a wildland firefighter’s wife would have its challenges.  It is nearly impossible to plan a warm-weather date night ahead of time, much less a summer family vacation, when your husband is on call 24/7 from May through September. 

There are middle of the night fire calls and that whole unpleasant risk to life and limb thing. 

Wildland firefighters spend days and even weeks in the wilderness, without cell phone service or connection to the outside world.  All a firefighter’s loved ones can do is listen to the radio for fire updates and pray for good news. 

I learned early in our dating relationship to never stray too far from the phone when my firefighter is on a fire.  I savor those few scratchy minutes on the line before the mountaintop connection is lost.

As we were planning our November wedding, I comforted myself in the illusion that during the winter months, he was all mine.  I’ve since learned that even in the off-season, a wildland firefighter’s heart is still on fire.

My first clue came last fall, as we were headed to a local golf course for a reception.  Someone was burning a slash pile about a mile past the entrance.  As soon as he saw the flames, my then-fiancé hit the gas. 

I gently suggested we may want to slow down or we would miss the turn. 

“Uh huh,” he agreed vacantly. 

“I think we’re going to miss the turn,” I repeated nervously. 

He didn’t even blink. 

“There’s the turn!” I called out as we zoomed past. 

He snapped out of his trance and smiled sheepishly as he slowed the car to turn around.  “There’s a fire…” he said, his voice trailing off.  He gazed longingly towards the smoke in the distance. 

I had thought one of the benefits of being married to a firefighter would be a heightened vigilance about fire safety.  I was discouraged to discover that the first time he tested and replaced the batteries in his smoke detectors was when he prepared to sell his house not long before our wedding. 

Like a lung cancer doctor taking a cigarette break, my sweet husband feels immune to the risks he sees in his profession. 

My concern was confirmed a few weeks ago when a humidifier in our house was running hot.  “What’s that smell?” I asked.  He sniffed the air and shrugged.  I guess when you breathe smoke for a living a little hot plastic doesn’t faze you much.

I generally accept all these things as the tolerable eccentricities of someone passionate about their chosen vocation.  But one day last week, I finally had to draw the line.  My husband stopped me on my way down the hall.  “Where are you going?” he asked.

“Why do we always have to report to each other every time we go to the bathroom?” I asked, exasperated.   

He gave me that now familiar sheepish smile.  “On a fire it’s important that someone always knows where you are.” 

“We are not on a fire,” I reminded him. 

It just goes to show you, you can take the firefighter out of the fire, but you can’t take the fire out of the firefighter.

This article first appeared in the Lewistown News-Argus and the Sidney (Mont.) Herald on March 12, 2011.