What I Got Right, and What I Got Wrong My First Year on a Federal Interagency Wildland Hotshot crew in California

By Meghann Gunther, MTI Contributor

Preseason Prep Wrongs & Rights

My first and biggest mistake was my lack of strength training. I considered myself fit because I was an endurance runner. A couple months before my rookie season on a Federal Interagency Wildland Hotshot crew started, it fully sunk in that I needed to focus on strength training and being able to hike fast with lots of weight. Those final three months preseason, I learned foundation strength training with a personal trainer. That time helped me to succeed physically my first season even though I historically had a strictly cardio background for fitness. 

Another mistake was not preparing mentally for our crew PT hill. The hill, named Mo, shapes you as an individual and as a crew. It is a grueling, demanding hike with a time limit, in full line gear. I was told it was hard but I didn’t expect the level of mental demand it took to complete. It pushed my mental limits harder than anything I previously experienced and I found I was lacking a level of toughness. In hindsight I would have been better prepared if I had spent more time doing PT sessions that pushed me to my zone 4 and 5 for extended amounts of time. This would have allowed me to see mentally where my perceived physical “limit” was and given me the opportunity to train past that barrier. While I succeeded in meeting the hill standard, I wasn’t bringing my A game to the table, I was surviving. I could have done better had I properly prepared.

What I did right preseason was to stay in communication with the crew superintendent, some of my peers on the crew and on track with all my onboarding paperwork. By communicating with the superintendent, I was able to make sure I completed all my hiring details in the months before my employment date. My peers were able to fill me in on crew culture, expectations for rookies and tips to help me prepare to be successful.

Why morning routine was important to me to show up fit for duty

In his book, “Turn the Ship Around!”, Retired U.S Navy Captain L. David Marques writes, “Commitment means we are present when we come to work. We give it our best. We choose to be here.” I learned that my morning routine affected how present and committed I was, both mentally and physically, when I showed up to the fire station each shift. At the beginning of the season, I did not have a good morning routine. I would show up for shift feeling rushed and stressed before the day began.

As a rookie, navigating my first season on a highly efficient and disciplined Federal Wildland Hotshot crew, I was feeling behind before I even started each day. This changed when I took the time to dial in a morning routine to set myself up for success. I made adjustments by reviewing and refurbing my fire line gear at the end of each shift. When I left the station each night I knew that I could grab any of my gear and throw it on the truck knowing it would meet all the standards and requirements. I started leaving a full set of PT gear at work. Every morning we reported to the station, we would PT. By leaving gear at my work locker, I had one less item to think about grabbing as I walked out my front door each day.

When I arrived home each night, I would prepare for the following day with my crew uniform, personal gear and food. My morning would be set up the night before. By prepping all the small details ahead of time, I cleared out my mental space. By having less things to mentally process in the morning, I removed the stress of forgetting gear or missing steps. 

A major routine adjustment was learning how much to eat in the morning and timing it before PT correctly. When I failed to fuel correctly, my body suffered and my PT sessions were much more miserable. Routine allowed me to avoid this mistake as I progressed in the fire season by setting up breakfast to be the same everyday. A good routine was a message that flowed from the top down on the shot crew. When I started paying attention and implementing one personally, it allowed me to do my job better.

How I learned to be efficient on fire assignments

When on my first fire assignment, I learned how our crew was expected to operate and that being efficient with my tasks allowed me more freedom. Starting with waking up. Morning wake call to the time you are supposed to be in the buggy is a couple of minutes. To be both quick and not forget anything at my sleep spot, I learned to put my boots, pants and a flashlight in the same spot every time. I stopped wasting time looking for things in the morning. Learning how to pack my war bag efficiently in the morning saved time as well.

Eating in fire camp became an efficiency game. By learning what food and how much I could eat, I would simply skip through all extras at the end of the line. This allowed me to eat and get back to the buggies and start doing my morning chores faster. By timing my crew chores and clocking how long the briefing was, I found moments of time to spend on personal things like reading and journaling. While the needs of the crew always came first, by being efficient with tasks and being observant I found plenty of time to accomplish personal needs which were valuable to me.

How I wasted days off and then learned to plan ahead

My work week was disciplined and structured during fire season but it took me some time to realize that I needed to schedule out my weekend if I wanted to use time off wisely. I failed to prioritize time wisely to the things most valuable to me. Instead, I would spend my days off doing small, pointless tasks and getting side tracked with distractions. That all changed when we became locally and nationally available as a federal fire resource. When I was constrained by a call back, I realized too late that I had wasted many opportunities to go into the backcountry to explore and unplug from my phone, or see my family.

After that realization, I started to plan ahead. A routine came out of this planning. The night of my final shift each week, I would clean and prep all work gear for the next week. By getting all those tasks done the same night, I was able to switch out of work mode and mentally reset while being responsible and disciplined about staying fit for duty. I scheduled rest time, events with people, going out to explore in my local area and when I needed to go to sleep and wake up.

By being disciplined about my time, I gained more freedom. It allowed me to invest my time in things that were important to me. I also better maintained being fit for duty, both physically and mentally. Physically, by getting enough sleep and planning my meals. Mentally, by allowing structured space to decompress in healthy ways. My weekends stopped getting away from me. I started recognizing distractions and how to remove them. I was more present around the people I was with, my responsibilities got taken care of and I maintained, even improved, my role as a committed and focused Wildland Fire Professional.

Decompression tools I learned to use

I didn’t realize that I would need to purposefully use healthy tools to decompress during fire season. During my first year in fire, I didn’t experience a lot of stress and therefore didn’t have that on my mental radar going into my first season with the hotshot crew. It was a couple months into the summer that I noticed that I had pent up stress and tension both mentally and physically. This came out with lack of flexibility, easily irritated with other people, high strung emotions and trouble sleeping.

After conversations with a mentor who has been in the Wildland Fire community for over two decades, I put together a list of tools that I started using to decompress. These included journaling consistently, more mobility and stretching, cutting out extra stimulants, especially at night, limiting my sugar intake and scheduling my social events with more consideration. It also meant creating a consistent sleeping schedule and prioritizing it. After sticking to these rhythms for a couple weeks, I noticed a positive difference in how I was regulating stress. I was able to calm down and decompress on days off more effectively which in turn helped me go back to work with a better mindset.

What I will do differently entering fire season this summer

Based on lessons I learned my first year with a California Hotshot crew, my winter looks different than last year. It involves a heavy emphasis on strength PT. I am dialing in routines at home and at work to be efficient and focused. There will be adjustments to my diet needs to be fueled properly. When I deploy with my crew on fire assignments, I have a handle on how to use time at fire camp in order to be efficient and find personal time. How I spend my days off will look different based on mistakes I made last year that resulted in me wasting time and missing the chance to invest that time in the things that are the most important to me.

 My commitment to staying mentally and physically fit for duty has matured since last fire season. I better understand the importance of staying focused and engaged both during the season and during the off season.

Meghann is a full time Wildland Firefighter in California.

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