Jean in Florida
Here’s an account of a few days in the life of U.S. Forest Service fire spokeswoman Jean Satterthwaite in July 1998. She is retired now, but has her name on reserve to manage the complexities of accounting for firefighters on the fire-line, potentially thousands of them when a fire grows as dangerously as this year in Arizona.
She phoned breathlessly from Juneau where she lived, to tell us she was on her way to Orlando.
Orlando? Why in the world would anyone leave Alaskan summertime highs of 76 to go to where the lows start out above 76, and the landscape is on fire?
The U.S. Forest Service gathers personnel from all over the country to augment the battle of the blazes in Florida, our youngest among them.
When I talked to her then, she didn’t know for sure what her role would be, and so packed for every contingency: boots, fire gear, uniforms for public appearances, her tent, a laptop, even her propane curling iron -- a girl wants to look her best even on a fire scene.
(She expressed only a twinge of regret that she was missing Juneau’s Independence Day celebration. They do things a little differently there.
Because the sky -- never really black that close to the summer solstice -- is the darkest it’s going to be around midnight, Juneau does fireworks at a minute after 12. Mount Roberts is the backdrop, and the deck of Jean’s condo on Douglas Island a perfect box seat.
Thus, Juneauites (a) stay up late the evening before a holiday rather than on a work-night and (b) brag of having the first 4th of July fireworks in the country.)
An e-mail message from Florida arrived about 10 p.m.:
“I got here early this afternoon. Did a little bit at the staging area and got to see area command. They have four overhead projections going at all times, with one a current download of the weather satellite.
“It took me a while to figure out why they were so well set up here: hurricanes and possible NASA accidents.
“Tomorrow, Cindy and I (she’s also from my office) will go over to Volusia to work fire information right in the thick of things. It looks like we’ll be staying in hotels, or at worst, in air-conditioned warehouses.
“The Orlando paper this morning had amazing coverage of the fires. People are already suggesting this could be a Yellowstone-type event. Folks at area command are even saying it might take a hurricane to bring this under control. The high pressure system has already diverted two tropical depressions since June 1.
“Yes, it’s hot, but I’ve become pretty good at ignoring the discomforts of fires. If you think about heat, noise of generators, flies, weird food, lack of showers or any one of the other 10,000 yucky things that can happen on a fire, you will go nuts.”
She has worked numerous forest fires in California, Nevada, and Arizona, and, except for the time she had a molar crumble in fire camp, has always enjoyed fire duty -- if I may use such an upbeat verb about a terrible event. For several reasons: the adventure, the deep camaraderie among firefighters, and the satisfaction of working with the affected communities.
The extra pay doesn’t hurt either.
Sunday the 5th:
“I am impressed again with how capricious fire can be. One home stands totally burned, the next didn’t even lose its landscaping. I know you hate lawns, but I have to say there are many, many houses where the woods are burned, and no fire started toward the house across the 10+ feet of lawn. A conflicting number from 30 to 40 homes were burned.
“Half of my old forest [Sequoia, California] is here, a bunch of engines, my old assistant fire management officer, three or four members of my old overhead (command) team, our fire behavior specialist, etc, etc. Plus lots of, `Let’s see, we worked together on, what was it, the Cienega Fire or the Los Padres?’
“Much is different here: the fuels, topography, weather.
“I’m doing fine, though I’m still feeling the effects of sitting on an airliner all night from Seattle to Detroit near a screaming baby, and Detroit to Florida with a bunch of restless folks.
“And my bags got lost! Fortunately, it was just the Delta leg at the very end. I had nightmares about Alaska Airlines pointing at Northwest Airlines who would point at Delta....
“After all that, I didn’t need my camping gear. I’m so used to sleeping in the dirt, and I’m staying at a nice department of transportation facility with a bunch of nice fellas from North Carolina....
“Tons of people see my name tag and want to start planning their trips to Alaska. And others ask me questions about Tongass [her present forest] media coverage or about information gleaned during eco-tours.
“This fire has kind of been training since I’ve gotten to use skills that aren’t demanded of me much there in Alaska. I’ve done everything from live interviews on MSNBC to fairly critical issues management. I’ve mostly been working in the communities. It was really intense when people were coming back after the evacuation to see their homes....
“More later! Jean (aka, Smokey’s spokeswoman)”
[Sallie Satterthwaite of Peachtree City has been writing for The Citizen since our first issue Feb. 10, 1993. Before that she had served as a city councilwoman and as a volunteer emergency medical technician. She is the only columnist we know who has a fire station named for her. Her email is SallieS@Juno.com.]