The Pacific Northwest couldn’t seem to catch a break in September.
If it wasn’t the pandemic, it was wildfires — and the resulting smoke. Sure, why not, 2020?
“On Labor Day, when we had that huge wind event, I was working at this station, and we ran 18 calls,” said Station 31 career firefighter Michael Guinett. “That’s more than double the weekly call volume.”
Typically, Station 31, the headquarters of Fire District 3 in Brush Prairie, sees maybe five calls a day and between 30 and 40 calls a week, Guinett said. But as a firefighter, he was ready for it.
“It is a really rewarding and valuable feeling after the calls have wrapped up, and even when we’re just driving back to the station to just feel like, wow,” he said. “If we weren’t there and made the decisions we did, that person would be in a lot worse shape.”
Guinett, 32, grew up in the same area he serves as a firefighter: Hockinson. For six and a half years, he has worked for Fire District 3, where employees often work 24 hours on and then 48 hours off. He wasn’t deployed to help on the most recent wildfires in Washington, California or Oregon, but several at Fire District 3 were.
Wildland firefighting isn’t out of his realm, but it’s one of his areas of “specialized interests,” he said. In 2012, when he was employed by the Department of Natural Resources, he helped with the Cache Creek Fire in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
The Columbian chatted with Guinett to get a better sense of what he does for a living.
Tell me about yourself.
I finished high school at Hockinson School District. After high school, I was fortunate to land a job as a wildland firefighter with the Department of Natural Resources in 2007. That’s a seasonal summer job and that was out of Battle Ground. That was really the exposure that got me involved in the career of fire service. I interned with Fire Department 3 and was able to get hired on with them about one and a half years later.
What interested you about being a firefighter?
I remember doing an assignment in high school that had you research different careers, and whatever platform I was using had a metric that measured people’s satisfaction with those careers. When I looked at jobs across different industries, firefighting and emergency services seemed to be up at the top. So it was interesting to me that a large percentage of the workforce in emergency services seemed to be pretty satisfied with the job. That was a big interest to me that people seemed to like showing up for work and found a lot of value in it.
So, the core of the job is to deal with fires. Do you ever fear for your life while working?
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I have not had one of those moments, and I’m appreciative that I have not. There are a lot of variables that take place in both structure fires and wildland firefighting. You’re dealing with pretty rigid, fixed environments like a structure fire. Generally, how big the building is, if it’s a residential building or commercial building. There are things that you can kind of gather from that. Same with wildland environment; you can tell with the weather you’re experiencing what kind of fire you can expect. So it’s important you pay attention to that kind of stuff so you don’t get caught in tunnel vision that could get somebody hurt.
Do you find it emotionally draining? How do you cope?
Yeah. As a first responder in general, not even just a firefighter, you witness a lot of human suffering, unfortunately, and that’s kind of the nature of what we do. Some of those circumstances present a pretty brutal exposure to some of the trauma that people experience both physically and mentally. There’s a really healthy movement within the first responder community to make sure people are taking stock of their emotional and mental health and especially when we run particularly traumatic emergencies.
How do you balance work and home life?
Finding that balance of your personal life and professional life can be challenging. I’m married. I have a daughter who’s almost 3 years old. I’ve been married over 10 years now. And it’s important and healthy to leave work at work and to just know when you clock out, it really is kind of doing your family a disservice to take a lot of that home with you. It can be difficult to do if you ran a really traumatic call. It’s hard to go home and function completely normally.
What would you say is the most challenging aspect of your job?
The most challenging thing is just, again, not being able to help people who really need your help. Or maybe too far beyond your capabilities or your training, or just time in general. It’s such an ingrained thing in first responders, but firefighters too, that we’re here to help people. And sometimes, unfortunately, events don’t transpire where we’re able to help everybody.
Rewarding, though, when you do save someone?
It is really rewarding to know you made a difference in such a timely way, when the window of ability to make a huge impact on that person’s health was so narrow, and we were able to get there as soon as we could and to have such a beneficial outcome on their health.