Fire on the Mountain
Katherine Lewandowski ’03 plans to teach high school English after leaving Sarah Lawrence. First, though, she’s going to spend another summer fighting forest fires.
Lewandowski spotted a newspaper ad for firefighters after returning last spring from her junior year in France. Without job plans, and inspired by a firefighting acquaintance, she took on the four-day physical and comprehension test given by the U.S. Forest Service. By July she was on duty in the mountains of Colorado.
“I loved the idea of going out and working insanely hard for a couple of weeks and then coming back a reigning war hero to party in the strip clubs and eat steak,” says Lewandowski, who has studied literature, language and creative writing at SLC. “But I didn’t do either of those things. When I got home I would bathe three times a day, until my skin lost the gray sheen of ash and dirt, and sleep as much as possible.”
Her baptism was Colorado’s Missionary Ridge fire, a monster blaze that ate up 70,000 acres and threatened Durango. Lewandowski, an Oregon native, was among almost 2,000 firefighters on the scene from across the country.
“There’s an instinctual part of you that sees fire and wants to run away,” Lewandowski says. “Toward the end of the season you’ve learned to see what’s real danger and what’s not, but at first you just watch other people to see if they look scared.”
Lewandowski also ended up fighting three fires in Oregon. Her crew performed tasks such as clearing fire breaks, inspecting both charred areas and thick underbrush for flames, and connecting as much as a mile of hose to reach remote but vulnerable locations. Lewandowski did much of her work with a Pulaski—half axe, half hoe—and sometimes carried up to 35 pounds of drinking water.
One of two women on her 20-person crew, she had to confront sexism. “That was the hardest part,” she admits, “having to prove that I was really there to work. By the end of the summer I got the respect I deserved, but it was really hard.”
Ultimately the glory of the outdoors, both its beauty and its menace, eclipsed any difficulties. At one point she was struck in the shoulder by a falling rock, resulting in a painful bone bruise. “Then a huge lightning storm came in, and we had to crouch under low trees. The lightning was tearing across the sky, and then it started to pour, and I’d almost been killed by that rock—it was just a complete moment of the utter exhilaration of existence.”
If she makes it on to a Hotshot crew this summer, the work will be even more intense. “I’d be stationed somewhere, living with the crew for the duration of the season. They require you to run and exercise when you are not working a fire. What they do is much more dangerous and exciting.”
Which isn’t a problem for Lewandowski. “I like adventure. I like things that are hard. I like contrast—the cafés of Paris to burning mountains. I like stretching the limits of who I am and what people expect of me.”
—Lynn Pitts MFA ’03