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Wildfires and Dawn Patrols

Mike Ewanowski spends his summers fighting forest fires and his winters patrolling at the Canyons Ski Resort in Park City, Utah. In between those jobs, he finds time to climb, run rivers, and travel to foreign countries for a month at a time. We caught up with Mike to discuss the finer points of boot construction, the draw of emergency medicine, and the best haircut for firefighting.

Can you give us the rundown on your jobs and how long you’ve been doing them?
I’ve been with Unified Fire Authority’s Wildland Division for two summers, and this will be my fourth year patrolling at the Canyons.

What drew you to each of these jobs? Was it the adventure, the danger, the chance to be outside?
I love skiing and I love first aid care, and patrolling combines the two. Along with snow safety, it makes for a really engaging and fun job. The firefighting was motivated by wanting to do something challenging and a little bit dangerous—well, not dangerous, but with a certain amount of adrenaline and risk.

What’s a typical day like as a firefighter?
A typical day on a fire, you wake up at dawn and go to breakfast. At a big fire, there will be a chow tent with cafeteria-type food. Then you drive to the work site, whatever part of the fire you’re assigned to, and you hike in. Sometimes it can be a pretty long hike. A work shift is typically around 12 hours, and it can be really fast paced or a little easier, depending on what needs to be done. You take a quick lunch break. After your work shift, you go back to camp, where you have an After-Action Review, and just kind of debrief the day, and then you eat dinner and go to sleep.

You really, literally, eat, sleep, or fight fire.

In the station, we do a vehicle/gear check first thing to make sure we’re ready to go, since we’re on call. After that we do Physical Training, or PT, which consists of a hike, a run, or CrossFit. After that we do project work, where we’re cutting trees or chip brush, or we contract to do defensible space work, which is basically clearing brush, and we do some training and classes, or chores we haven’t been able to do because we’ve been gone. We’ll make tools, or refurbish chainsaws that have complex problems.

What kind of tools do you make?
We make a Dunford, which is kind of like a hoe made from a shovel, with the tip cut off. We also make a hazel hoe, and it has a slam hammer on the backside. That’s for the people who put wedges into the trees so they fall the right way when they’re cut down.

Station days are kind of the worst. PT is way harder than a firefighting day. We hike some of the hardest hikes around here, Grandeur and Beacon Peaks, and we do it in full gear, boots, pants, long-sleeve shirt, with a 35-pound pack and our tools. The sawyers will carry their saws. It’s pretty brutal.

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And a typical day as a patroller?
For patrolling on a control morning, you get there at 6 a.m., and it’s dark, and you have a meeting where Snow Safety tells you what happened with the storm, current conditions, and specific concerns for your routes. Then you go to the bomb room and get your shots, and you ride the lift in the dark. Then more often than not, you ski to another lift and ride that up in the dark.

When the sun rises, you start your route. When that’s done, you go to your station for the day. That’s where you do station checks on all the medical equipment, check all the runs, and check that the grooming and ropes are good, because we serve as risk management out there, too.

The rest of the day, you’re skiing, checking snow conditions, and being prepared to respond to medical calls. Then you do end-of-day sweeps.

You essentially get two months free in the fall, and a month in the spring. What do you do with those transition periods?
I think the transition is eased by the fact that the jobs are similar in some regards; they’re both physical jobs in inclement weather. You get in the mindset of doing physical work in nature, and you sort of move with the seasons. A lot of the transition time is spent relaxing and processing what happened during the season, because during the season there’s only go time. When I’m not doing those things, I try to get out climbing. I’ve gone to Yosemite the last two years and spent October there, just climbing.

Were you assigned to the Rim Fire [in Yosemite] this year?
No, they like to keep us available to the Intermountain West, and a lot of crews were either closer or stationed in less fire-prone areas where there wasn’t as much concern that their absence could cause logistical problems. I wanted to be on it, though.

What is it about climbing that keeps you engaged?
That’s a good question. I’m sure I’ve thought about it before, but haven’t really figured it out. It’s a never-ending challenge, mentally, physically, and emotionally. Keeping your head in check when you’re doing dangerous, strenuous things. And it’s open ended —you can climb for your whole life and still have things that are out of your grasp. But at the same time, you can go out and climb really easy and fun routes that are just beautiful.

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When you talk about keeping your head in check when you’re doing dangerous, strenuous things, does that mentality apply to firefighting and patrolling, too?
Oh, sure. Everything I do, I think, in the winter and summer, and in climbing, is based on a measured risk. You get good at assessing risk and mitigating it, and eventually this becomes a natural phenomenon within yourself. You’re able to make snap judgments based on your experience.

What kind of climbing is your favorite?
Moderate trad. Granite. Little Cottonwood Canyon [in Utah].

Would you say your interest in medicine is also derived from that risk-assessment skill?
I don’t know … I would say it’s more derived from my interest in systems and how they work, specifically human systems: how we work and how we function optimally. You know, the point when I actually became interested in medicine, I was skiing in the Midwest and my friend went off a jump that was too big for her. She overshot it and landed right on her tailbone and broke her back.

I had done the merit badge and the lifeguarding thing, but I didn’t know what to do, really, so that was the first time I wanted to have training and be in a position to help someone. That’s when I first started patrolling, as a volunteer in Wisconsin.

Do you want anything to eat? I was thinking about a jerk pizza.

I was thinking the burger looked good.

So what’s your all-time favorite piece of gear?
K2 Sidestash skis. Or maybe the Fritschi Freeride Pro bindings, because when I’m skiing in the Wasatch, like when I’m at work, I never know when I might need to go uphill.

For climbing, it’s the CAMP USA Pink Tri-Cams.

For firefighting, it’s White’s Smokejumper boots. They have Vibram soles and a good heel, and they’re essentially fireproof. It’s the burliest boot in the world. The outsole is sewn on, glued on, and screwed on, and then the uppers are sewn on and glued on. Everything that touches your foot is leather, so they mold to your feet over time.

And Copenhagen LongCut. Wintergreen.

What’s a typical off-season day like?
Sleeping until 9:30 or so, a good, healthy breakfast, and then probably a combination of Netflix, Gmail, and Mountain Project. Gotta get my research done. That, and spending time with my lady.

That’s probably the biggest challenge of firefighting, really, you’re gone all the time, so you miss out on a lot of life, on summer in Salt Lake, which is awesome. You don’t get to do the casual things where you bike around with friends and go to concerts, and you don’t get to do all the fun things like kayaking and climbing. And then you just feel like an outsider because you’re not around enough to have consistent relationships.

Do you find yourself trying to pack a whole summer’s-worth of fun into those three months?
Yeah, definitely. I also try to make my days off count. If you work 14 days in a row, you have to have two days of R&R, so first thing, I’ll usually get everything I need done so I’m ready to go two days later. Then I just relax, see all my friends, go climbing, hang out with my girlfriend, all in two days.

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What’s your long-term plan? Do you see yourself doing this indefinitely?
No, I want to go to nursing school in the next year or so. But I want to stay focused on the outdoors. I’ve been pretty blessed that in the last few years I’ve worked something like 300 days a year outside. I’ve spent half my nights sleeping outdoors, I think. That’s pretty good. Pretty lucky.

Why nursing?
I like nursing—what I like about nursing as opposed to doctoring is that it’s more of a holistic approach to care. You actually get to spend time with the patients.

And the schedule for nursing is really good, you typically work three 12s, which is full-time, so you have four-day blocks to go outside.

Any particular nursing field?
Emergency. Emergency nursing, for sure.

So you want to maintain that fast-paced, high-adrenaline part of your jobs?
Yeah, I work well under stress.

What’s the hardest part of each job?
For firefighting, it’s being away. As far as the actual work, the hardest part is the really long, strenuous shifts. Physically, its really challenging, but you learn mental strength to overcome that. It’s amazing—I’ve learned—what I’m capable of if my mind wants me to do it. It’s taught me my limits, physically, for sure.

In patrolling, it’s hard to see people get really hurt doing something that’s supposed to be fun. People go out for vacation or for a ski run after school and they end up with injuries that change their lives. That’s pretty hard to see.

Knees are common, other things are rare, but even though you know it’s dangerous, you never think it’s going to happen to you.

What’s the hardest part of climbing?
Climbing, I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think the hardest part about of climbing is the amount of knowledge there is to gain, and it’s really humbling because you never know anything. No matter how many years you’ve been climbing, there’s a lot to learn, still. Whether it’s technique, strength, or just in regards to gear.

I was surprised to see you with longer hair. It seems like that doesn’t usually show up until November or so.
Today, we went for a run in the rain, and I started to smell smoke, and it was from my hair. It was pretty shitty. It’s starting to get cold out there, though. On our last tour, I think it was close to freezing in the morning. We were up north of Ketchum, Idaho. I normally keep the hair short to stay cool, and to limit the amount of smoke smell, but when it starts to get cold, I let it grow a little longer.

Want to fight wildfires? The National Wildfire Coordinating Group can point you in the right direction >
Interested in ski patrolling? Outside Online has some tips > 

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