Rain glanced out the window blocked by gray metal plates with holes so small she could barely see the Sequoia forest they came here to help protect. Though she just spent twenty-four hours immersed in the open ashen area mopping up, sitting in the inmate vehicle confined her spirit every time. It didn’t help that she was the only woman crammed back there with thirteen raucous guys. The other woman, Alma, sat up front with the fire captain. The louder the twenty-two year old boys grew, the more quietly Rain sunk into her earphones.
The wild land firefighters in training weren’t always in the inmate vehicle. Unfortunately their usual rig with clear windows broke down the day they were supposed to go to this fire, so they switched everything over to this one. The Pulaskis, saws, McLeods, forty pound packs, everything.
The alternative rock play list Rain was listening to stopped, and she checked her phone. The LTE in the corner disappeared, as it often did in different parts of the forest, and she didn’t have any songs downloaded on Spotify.
Through the silence of her ear buds, she heard Garth say, “Hey guys, want to see the picture my girl sent me the other day. You can see everything!” Most of the guys gathered around him, smiles twisting just like the mountainside roads.
Rain had given Garth the advice to break it off with her before. He always talked about how he missed his ex but wanted to keep this girl just in case he ever wanted someone around. Even after Rain gave him that advice, he’d still ask her how to approach new girls and kept saying whatever he was saying to this picture girl.
To her right, Sal sat with his arms crossed and eyes closed, chest hair peeking out through the top of his nomex. Probably still angry about how Rain went up to first McLeod. He’d yelled at her early on in their shift and said she had no idea what she’s doing. Because there’s so much to understand about setting the line by scraping one foot. The truth was, this was the simplest job Rain had ever done, but also one of the most difficult in many ways.
Every day Rain felt more cut off from herself, even as she pulled further away from everyone surrounding her.
The rig turned into the busy fire camp. They stopped alongside other vehicles near the food tent. Fluorite green Forest Service vehicles lined together in one area, and ruby Cal Fire gathered in another. Their crew was something in between. Trained by Cal Fire, yet quite a few wanted to go on to work as hotshots next season.
They stepped out one by one in tool order, faces covered in soot from their mop up assignment. Rain could feel it deep in her nostrils, and knew it would take much more than one tissue for her breathing to feel normal again.
They got in line behind another crew. Rain just wanted to get breakfast over with and hoped they’d get to stay in hotels that day. It was so much more restful than sleeping in tents. Captain Holden walked around the vehicle with a watchful eye, and Rain nervously looked at others in the crew.
She turned to Hale, his long red hair was tied up in a bun with some small pieces drifting down to his neck. She asked, “Do you think something is wrong with the rig?”
He looked over to Captain Holden’s inspection and crossed his arms, “It’s definitely possible.” A crease appeared between his eyebrows.
She muttered, “I was really looking forward to a nice bed and time to myself.”
“What was that?” Hale asked.
“Nothing.” She replied, and Hale turned back to talk to other guys on the crew.
They got their breakfast boxes and Captain Holden waved them over to circle up.
“Alright everyone,” He said. “We’re gonna have to stay here for the day so they can fix up the rig a bit. So, y’all can just walk over towards where supply is, and I’ll drive there. We’ll set up camp kind of close to that spot.”
Rain fought off a sigh or any trace of emotion that might show on her face, even as some of the guys complained. She fell behind everyone walking.
Alma walked back to her, “Hey Rain.”
“So, it seemed you were having some issues yesterday.”
Rain pursed her lips. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“C’mon, with Sal. What happened? I know how it is, being a woman on the crew.”
Rain felt something lighten in her a bit. She could finally talk to someone about this.
She said, “Well, I feel like he’s treating me like I’m stupid. Which gets annoying. I think he’s mad that I moved up so fast, even though I’ve done well on the hikes. I can’t help but wonder if he would even care that I’m in this spot if I were one of the guys.”
Alma’s face was impassive. “I’m the one who bumped him down. I didn’t like the way he talked to me once.”
“Oh.” Rain wondered if that meant she didn’t really deserve the spot out of merit.
“Thanks for telling me though. It’s nice to know you trust me enough to share that.” Alma paused. “So, what tools do you want to work on in this program?”
“Well, you know, I’d like to try out Pulaski at least. It would be cool to try saw, but I know that probably wouldn’t happen this season.”
“Alright nice. I’ve noticed you’re a hard worker.”
Alma walked faster to catch up with Hale and the others on saw team, including her low key boyfriend Aaron. Rain would’ve liked to talk to her more, but she just stayed behind everyone else on the way to the sleeping area. Part of the crew, but not really part of the crew. She felt at her phone, wishing she had service to talk to Maya, her best friend back home. Unfortunately, this camp had no cell service and no access to social media.
They arrived at the grassy spot to put their tents up, and Rain quickly set hers up on autopilot. It wasn’t the restful hotel day she wanted, but it would be better than nothing. She walked over to the showers with a change of clothes, brushed her teeth, and curled right into the sleeping bag when she returned. Sleep came to her in a nearly instant fog.
“Hey! Wake up!” Alma’s voice resounded through the zipped tent.
Light still beamed through the gray roof, and Rain felt that she’d barely slept at all. The day was near an end though, and her empty stomach recognized it must have nearly been dinner time.
Rain awkwardly rushed to change into her crew t-shirt and pants, bending in the short tent despite being only 5’2. She put her hat on and went outside.
The crew was already walking in hook line order towards the meal area, and she ran to catch up.
Alma glanced back at her. “Hey, put your hair up!” She yelled.
Rain grimaced and darted back to her tent, frantically searching for her ponytails to put her hair in a bun. She got them and sprinted towards the line even faster than before. Some of the guys, including Sal, snickered at her tardiness.
They sat down to eat, and Rain sat by herself since Alma was sitting with Aaron. Even though it was technically against the rules of the program for crew members to date each other, everyone turned a blind eye to it since they’d both been on the crew for a year. The supervisor of their training program, Jerry, walked over to Rain. He pushed his glasses up and crossed his arms.
“So,” He said.
Rain finished chewing her bite of pasta that actually tasted pretty good and replied, “So. What’s up?”
“What’s going on with you and Sal?”
Rain glanced over to Alma.
“Yeah, she told me what you said. You can talk to me about this stuff. This is what I’m here for.”
Rain’s stomach sank. If the guys learned about this, she’d just be even more of an outcast than she already was. She said, “It’s nothing. Just, you know. He talks down to me sometimes and I don’t like it.”
“Well, you have my permission to talk back to them anytime they talk to you like that. You’re so quiet, you know.”
She didn’t feel like she was quiet. “Okay.” Was all she replied.
“I’ll talk to him too.” Jerry said.
“No need for that.”
After dinner, Rain fell right back asleep, dreading the thought of another twenty-four hour shift like the one the day before.
“Hey, there’s a spot fire over there!” Hale yelled and pointed towards the green in the middle of their shift while mopping up in the black.
Captain Holden said something on his radio, and a reply filled with static came shortly after. “Okay, let’s go over there now!”
The crew swiftly gathered in hook line and hiked to the first actual fire they’d fight. The saws powered up, Pulaskis readied their stances, and the Mcleods waited behind the rest. Alma stood apart from everyone as the crew leader. Rain glanced over and noticed the piercing gaze she shot her way. She shook it off as strange until Alma walked towards her.
“I don’t think you should be first McLeod anymore. Come up here Jason. Rain, you’ll be fifth McLeod again.”
Silently, Rain switched places with Jason. Sal smirked as she walked to the back, only in front of the rake.
Alma moved to her distanced place and watched everyone cut line around the spot fire, smoke crawling through their shrouds and making some of them cough.
As fifth McCleod, Rain just had to knock out the berm, but she noticed some spots on the line still needed scraping. She scraped the spots the others missed and knocked out the berm, causing her to be slightly slower than the others.
Alma walked up to her and said, “Here, let me see that McCleod. Just do this. It’s not that hard.” She knocked out the berm.
“But there are spots they’re missing on the line. Isn’t it supposed to be bare mineral soil?”
“Just do what I say.” She shoved the tool back into Rain’s hand.
They finished tying the line into the creek and finally got water to put the fire completely out. The rest of the shift was just more mopping up of ashy areas, and Rain barely said anything to anyone throughout the day.
They were demobbed the day after, and Rain stared out the dreary window for the entire three hour drive back to center. Every day, she became more of a shell of the free spirit she once was. That was part of what drew her towards wild land fire fighting. The thought of being out in nature, conserving resources, and helping people by protecting property. They did some of that, but Rain didn’t really feel like she was doing much as someone on a hand crew in training. All she felt was constricted.
They had three days off before going right back to work, and they passed quicker than Rain anticipated.
The crew was lined up side to side as they were every morning on center. Two new guys replaced some others on the crew. Alma put one on Pulaski and another as fourth McLeod.
She smiled at Rain. “So, are you happy with your spot?”
“I mean, I would like to try other tools one day, like I told you before.”
“Well,” She paused. “You have to perfect your tool first.”
Rain glanced at the new guy on Pulaski. What was Alma’s game? Rain remembered Lacy. The girl who used to be on fire crew said that Alma would talk about girl power but say things about Lacy under her breath.
“Hold on a minute.” Rain finally spoke up for the first time since she’d joined the crew. “What about him going straight to Pulaski?”
“Just keep working hard and you’ll get it one day.” Alma started walking away.
“You literally told me I’m a hard worker. What’s the deal?”
“Look,” Alma said. “I know exactly what you’re feeling. When I first started, I was passed up for positions like the Pulaski too. I just kept working hard, and look at me now.”
Rain shook her head. She wasn’t respected here at all, even by the other woman on the crew. She couldn’t live like this. Working hard with her head down and no creativity or mobility. Listening to guy talk almost all day and dampening her own opinions. Becoming more and more unlike herself.
She walked over to Jerry and said, “I’d like to put in my two weeks notice.” Maybe she’d become an English teacher, like she’d thought of before. Whatever the next step, Rain knew she’d connect once more to who she truly was.