Burnout: a technique on a wildfire whereby crews ignite natural fuel just inside the control line, i.e. firebreak, to consume all said fuel between the edge of the fire and the control line.
Also, burnout: exhaustion of physical or emotional strength and motivation, usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.
“We kind of suck at summer”, she says, standing in the hot kitchen with the baby on her back while I refill the dogs’ water bowls.
“Truth,” I concur. “It’s just not our season.”
Summer! We are offered so many messages about the joy and relaxation of summer, from the billboards that advertise water-park adventures to the gobs of summer toys, gear, and clothes that spring up in local stores; it promises to be the best three months of the year and I’m sure for some people that rings true. And it’s true for us —at least in June and the first part of July—that summer can be wonderful. But after that, after about July 15th, our fire season starts.
I am very close to my big brother Griffin. One of my dearest friends says we’re “freakshow close.” It’s not bad, she clarifies. It’s just kind of weird in this day and age, how much time we spend together and how very involved we are in each other’s lives. We’ve been close since childhood; sharing a birthday will do that. Sometimes our closeness looked like my covering his butt with our parents (very rarely) or him walking me home from school after I was bullied (slightly less rare). Mostly it looked like us having the same friends, like playing in the backyard in blackberry bushes, like treasuring our Christmas morning routine together.
Now we live five minutes apart. I count his wife Amelia as one of my very closest friends; they have two daughters who are the loves of my life. They feed me dinner and I give them date nights. It is a rare day when we don’t all see each other. Our lives are often idyllic and forever intertwined.
But when the second half of the summer comes, we start the slow slump towards September. The longer my brother is out on a fire, the less successful we all are at summertime. That’s not to say we drop out of our lives, or that the girls want for compassionate and attentive parenting, but every day is a little harder than the one before. We are all, including Griffin, tired. It’s the kind of tired that gets way down deep in your bones, in your very marrow, so that even when we get what is enough sleep and coffee the rest of the year, we are still exhausted.
There is a current of worry when he is gone, out there, closer to the flames than to his family. He is experienced and smart; history says he will come back tired and sunburnt, but fine. Still, the unpredictability of each wildfire he goes out on creates an electric undertone in the house. Even operating as a fire medic, and not a firefighter, it is dangerous. Just dangerous enough to leave those of us who love him most: Amelia, Riley, Emma, me, our parents—slightly nervous.
So why does Griffin do it? It’s good money—one rotation out there puts a new roof on the house or covers a month of the mortgage. They need him, need his skill set and good humor and steadfastness. But he does it mostly because he loves it. He looks forward to it every year, and part of being a family is supporting everyone in doing what they love. It’s why they carried me through five years as a child welfare worker. It’s why we carried Amelia through nursing school and our mom through retirement. Family should show up. And we do. We pride ourselves on it.
But like Amelia said, we are not gifted in the art of loving summer. The heat is too much; the places where we are already stretched thin become slick wafers comprised of moments where a skinned knee is the end of the world and an oversleep might as well be a Greek tragedy.
As for me, I am especially lost in the hot months. My patience shatters like glass in a hurricane and the words, the words I love, slide down my veins to rest under my fingernails, the one place I cannot get at them without extreme pain. Work becomes a chore; even my time with the girls slinks towards wary and weary. What it comes down to is that I am my very worst self in the summer, for there is nothing so foreign to me as a cactus. I don’t find my nourishment from under dry ground; no, I find it in thick downpours from angry skies, from delicious blue chilly sunrises, from the dark evenings when leaves cry havoc and let slip the dogs of fall.
There comes a time in every fire when burnout begins. So it is in our family, the natural rhythm of our struggle coinciding with the end of summer, when the weather is the driest and the flames blaze hottest. Just like them, we need the rain. We need it to be whole again, as a family, complete with everyone back where they are supposed to be. The land needs it, to cool and smolder and return to the sweet greenery of autumn in the forests and grassland. It is home the most when the rain comes down.
Come on, rain.
Come on, windy days and hot chocolate afternoons and snuggle times.
Come on, dancing in puddle mornings.
We’ve been waiting.
We will wait until you get here.
We will stand on the porch and watch you come down, reveling in a world that has once again returned to what is right.
And at night, when nothing else makes sense, you will chatter chatter whoosh plinkity plunk in rapid succession on the rooftops, and like a snug coat on a winter walk, you will bring me safely home.
Photo credit: Matt Chesin
I’ve read all of your articles and your writing is incredible. Amazing. I read, a lot, and it is up there with the best stuff I read. I’m addicted. Where can I find your work outside of here?
Oh wow, Kelly, thank you for your kind words! What a compliment. 🙂 I’m actually not published online anywhere but here. Yet. 😉