Flames Aren't the only Things Wildland Firefighters Face

March 19, 2024
"We need people to work together without animosity and I try to keep the temperature down," said Mike Baines, retired U.S. Forest Service officer.

Mar. 19—Battling wildfires is only one part of the job of wildfire crews who work to prevent blazes from scorching miles of forests for days, weeks and maybe longer.

They are people who sometimes work together for the first time with expectations of unity and firefighting expertise.

It doesn't always work that way.

Sometimes people are comfortable with their own biases and habits that conflict with others, said Mike Baines, 76, of Rostraver Township, Westmoreland County, a retired U.S. Forest Service staff officer who still maintains credentials for wildfires.

"We need people to work together without animosity and I try to keep the temperature down," he said.

good firefighter

He still really likes his work.

Born and raised in Bloomfield, Ind., Baines and his wife and three children have lived across the country for Forest Service jobs in California and other states.

In Pennsylvania, he worked as an assistant ranger for the Allegheny National Forest from 1988 to 1999 and retired as a staff officer for the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia in 2007.

Last year, he slept in a tent for 40 nights while working on two wildfires in Oregon.

He recently self-published "Drive Me To the Moon," a fictionalized account of what happens fighting wildfires.

Being a crew member fighting a forest wildfire is an exciting adventure in Baines' eyes.

"Fires are awesome," said Baines, who has been working to combat blazes in some capacity since 1974.

"They're so hard to control and the wind can take it where it wants," he said. "When fires get big, they create their own weather cell. They suck in air and the winds can carry hot embers for up to a half mile."

Baines has watched forest fires spread from smaller to larger trees, then to stands of trees.

"It makes you feel very small," he said.

Fire behavior analysts work with weather predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to observe what the flames are doing and how volatile it is, Baines said.

"Over the years, we lost so many firefighters that we seldom go direct — standing in front of a fire," he said.

They use other tactics to defend an area by eliminating "fuel" in strategic parts of a forest, trying to get ahead of the fire to stop it.

And they use equipment such as helicopters and lay miles of hose on the forest floor.

Firefighting gets into people's blood and they just can't quit, Baines said.

There's an old firefighters' joke that Baines put in his book:

"If you play with fire for money, you're an arsonist. If you play with fire for fun, you're a pyromaniac. If you play with fire for money and fun, you're a wildland firefighter!"

Heading off problems

Sparks aren't the only thing flying in the forests. Tempers and mistreatment can flare when pulling 300 to 1,500 people together to work in unison to combat these technically difficult blazes.

Baines was an adviser and a mediator covering firefighter issues in potentially hostile work environments, and as he notes, things come up when you round up hundreds of workers to do a dangerous job that might cost someone their life.

"If a 20-person crew has been riding hard and a rookie is being hazed, you don't want to post the person you have been mistreating all day as a lookout," Baines said.

His book's main character, Marcy Jones, is a female wildfire fighter who had to work with at least one contractor belittling her and slinging crude sexual slurs about female anatomy.

"She draws strength from God and her family back home," Baines wrote.

In the book, Jones almost loses her life twice because of the dangerous nature of wildfires.

The Wildland Firefighter Foundation reports that an average of 17 firefighters die annually.

Causes of death include fire entrapment, falling trees and rolling rocks, health emergencies such as a heart attack, and both vehicle and aircraft accidents, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

To increase safety at wildfires, Baines and other officials work to prevent issues between the firefighters.

"I'm trying to maintain trust among firefighters," he said.

Baines is called to situations where there is a failure of mutual respect, leading to a hostile work environment.

Gender bias is one of the themes Baines has confronted during his career as a mediator.

Race can be an issue on the fire line too; it comes up in Baines' book.

In real life, Baines had to deal with an engine captain who had a list of other engine captains on his cell phone. He labeled one of the black contractors with a racial slur.

"You don't say 'That's not nice, let's do a little education here,'" Baines said.

Baines made a recommendation. In that situation, the incident commander kicked that contractor off the job.

"That's a lack of mutual respect and we don't tolerate that.

"We need all the people on the fire line to be coordinated and focused on putting that line in to stop that fire," Baines said.

Family and the future

Parsing the hostilities of workers, Baines has found common themes like racism, sexism and misunderstanding. He sometimes applies his training, with a touch of Christian philosophy.

"Man's two greatest fears are the fear of death, and the fear of insignificance," said Baines, paraphrasing Max Lucado, an author and minister of a non-denominational church in Texas.

"Anytime you make someone feel less significant than what they should be, sooner or later, they will show how significant they can be and that can happen during a wildfire," Baines said.

Baines' daughter, Dionne Eddy, of Dunlevy, Pa., worked with him in private practice in the area of hostile work environment mediation from 2006 to 2011.

"Clients found my father easy to relate to, down to earth and ultimately caring about them and their emotional health," she said.

Her father's book is genuine, Eddy said. He shares bits of wisdom that Eddy said she grew up with.

The book promotes empowering women in the workplace in dangerous jobs.

"Just because a role is viewed mostly as a 'man's job,' the main character is believably successful in her job," Eddy said.

Baines has a second book "Between a Rock and a Dark Place" and is working on a third book about a fictional white-board fence race horse farm in conflict with a neighboring barbed wire fence paint horse farm in Kentucky.

To learn more about Baines wildfire and other books, visit Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and other outlets.


(c)2024 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Visit the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at www.post-gazette.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!