Fighting Fires with Kayla

It’s raining now in Northern California.  The torrential fires of 2018 are fast becoming a memory.  Twenty-five miles north of Ananda Village, the entire city of Paradise was obliterated in a matter of hours on November 8, 2018.  Witnesses said the fast-moving fire engulfed the city of 27,000 so quickly, the roar sounded like a jet airplane moving overhead. The Paradise fire was the most destructive in California history.  At least 85 people lost their lives, others are still missing, the search hampered by the same rains that helped contain the fire. Earlier in the summer, the Carr Fire in Redding, California produced something fire fighters have never seen before—a fire tornado.  The Carr Fire was caused when a flat tire on a vehicle caused the wheel’s rim to scrape against the asphalt, creating sparks that set off the fire. Three firefighters were lost in that fire.

Ananda Village is the location of the Ananda College New Horizons GAP year program.  When I learned of the fire I checked-in with a former student who was now fighting fires professionally. Her name is Kayla Wills.  I was curious what led Kayla to become a firefighter after her training to work with young children and her training as a yoga teacher.

Kayla on a backpacking-hiking adventure
Kayla on a backpacking-hiking adventure to the Grand Canyon with Ananda College. (She’s in front with the yellow scarf)

“In April 2016 I saw a flier at Butte College for the Mendocino Fire.  There was a photo of a forest in flames, and in bold letters ‘Do you want to be a Wildland Firefighter?’  On the back of the flier it said if you bought your own fire boots you could get free training. For several months previously, I had been experiencing grief and depression.  Less than five months earlier, my younger brother had been killed in a motorcycle accident and there were other unpleasant incidents in my life.

“I was pushing myself to take more classes so I could keep myself occupied and stay close to home with my grieving family.  Right before my brother’s death I had been living with a family in Perth, Australia, working as a care-giver for their small children.  Previously, I lived and worked with the same family in Istanbul, Turkey. Before that I had graduated from Ananda College with an Education for Life teaching certificate. I had trained to be a pre-school teacher, but after my brother’s death, everything changed.  I had lost my faith in humanity and lost all drive and will to live, yet I wanted to move forward for my family.

Kayla working on the hand-built cob temple the college students built themselves
Kayla working on the hand-built cob temple the college students built themselves.

“Wildland Fire boots have to be a minimum of 8-inches high, lace-type exterior leather work boots with lug melt-resistant soles.  The 8-inch height requirement is measured from the bottom of the heel to the top of the boot. I put down $200 for some boots online.  By the time I got my boots in the mail it was too late for the Mendocino fire training, but I knew I would find a way into Wildland Fire Fighting.  When I thought about my local Volunteer Fire Department I got butterflies. It feels good to get butterflies when most of the time I felt dread. I knew fire fighting would be good for me.  I needed something intense enough to draw me out of myself and physically draw out my anger.

“Wildland Firefighting involves a lot of hiking, uphill hiking especially.  I knew I could hike in strenuous conditions. We once hiked in and out of the Grand Canyon with a heavy backpack on an Ananda College adventure. Wildland Firefighting also takes mental perseverance. The stress of putting fires out safely and quickly, long week assignments, long hours, smoke inhalation, the heat, the weight of the hose packs while scaling the mountain, the blisters, working as a team under pressure when everything around you is in flames…it’s not for everyone.  I feel like I’ve got fire inside that fuels my drive. I wasn’t the same after my younger brother’s death. Now, after fighting fires, I’m a different person.

“I’ve always felt it necessary to help others to find meaning in my own life. Through Intense hiking experiences in the Grand Canyon, yoga teacher training and meditation with Ananda College I’m able to stay composed when I’m rushing to a fire call and when I am putting out wild fires.

“There are not many women in structure or Wildland Fire.  I am the second woman ever to join my local fire department.  I was one of two women at my station in Paskenta for the U.S. Forest Service.  Yes, I’ve had some negative experiences being a woman in a male-dominated path, but it only fuels my fire!  I want to be an example for other girls and women. I am thankful for the women who fought fires before me. Because of what I’m doing, I hope it is easier for other women to take the same path I have.

kayla in her fire fighter gear
Kayla in her full firefighting regalia

“Last year was my first year in Wildland Fire.  On my second fire assignment our engine was caught between two spot fires.  While we were caught, one of our fighters was with a dowser that broke down and was cornered by flames.  We could hear other engines pulling back into safety zones over the radio. We took pause between protecting the engine and catching our breath inside the engine because the smoke was so dense.  Luckily, the forest around us wasn’t thick and the trees were medium height. Everyone made it out okay. That has been the scariest fire-fighting experience I’ve had so far.

“The most satisfying experience with fire fighting has been when I shock myself by how far I can push myself without wanting to give up. When our firefighting team works well together is another satisfying experience. There was an IA (Initial Attack) Fire between the Hirz and the Delta Fire that our team put out that was so smooth and quick!  For days afterwards, I had a very uplifting feeling….of helping others avert disaster.

“When I first saw the Camp Fire smoke, it was on my way to work and it was my second to last day before getting laid off from the fire fighting season.  When I first heard the fire was in Paradise, my heart sunk. I was scared for the large community of elderly people who lived there. My team was asked to go on emergency staffing.  I asked if there was a way I could go, and my engine boss said to try my volunteer department. I immediately texted my chief to tell him I was available for assignment and my bag was already good to go.  Unfortunately, he had already sent out the new Wildland engine. I had friends with family houses that burned down. I felt so guilty to have the training I have and not be out there helping fight fires. So instead I helped by giving my time to my volunteer fire department with donations and face masks for several days.  I was fortunate enough to be asked to take a spot on the volunteer engine to relieve other fire fighters. I spent four days on the Camp Fire before we were released and it started to rain. We needed to secure a line around the fires edge and dig up large stumps to prevent reignition of the fire on the side we were protecting.

“When volunteering, I helped with donations.  I got to witness a wonderful side of Orland, which was my home town, right near Paradise.  We received so many donations that the fairgrounds couldn’t take anymore. We ended up taking full truckloads of donations in a cattle trailer.  So many people were asking how they could give their time, it was very inspiring.

“California Conservation Corps also prepared me.  After making it through a week of camping out in cold, wet and soggy sleeping bags and learning to work with so many diverse people, after being pressured to run chainsaw and drive a government rig, I knew I was ready for anything.

“My job title for the last two years with the Forestry Service is Forestry Aide.  We work on projects to keep the forest healthy as well as fire-fighting. My station is out of Paskenta.  We have two engines and a water tinder. There can be five people on an engine at a time. Our engine had a ten-person rotation.  There is also a rotation for engines on each federal forest. We are dispatched immediately to local fires within our jurisdiction, but wait our turn to go to large fires outside our jurisdiction.  We typically work 12-16 hour days and up to 21 days in total on fire assignment. On average we get 4 long fire assignments a season.

“Natural disasters are definitely getting worse.  Fire season is hardly really a season anymore. I missed Christmas and New Years last year because I was on the Thomas Fire in Southern California.  Fires have gotten so bad in California. This is due to many factors. California still hasn’t recovered from a long drought. Also, forests are meant to have natural occurring burns, but there have been decades now of fires being put out—so forests become too dense.   When a forest is too thick the wild fires burn too hot and quick–they kill too much. The Forest Service helps by thinning a bit of the forest and having controlled burns. Due to certain laws we are not always able to burn. It’s sad how destructive these fires can be and then how immediately after there are mud slides!

“With the Camp Fire in Paradise, I think the trees were so tall and thick and dry that when that fire caught in the tree tops…and that 30 mph wind hit…it just laid flame across Paradise.  I know it was just priority to get people out that day because sometimes there’s not much you can do when a fire burns like that.

“For communities located in forests I urge residents to thin the forests around your homes, and cut down anything too close.  You need a 100-yard clearance of defensible space. Keep your gutters clear of pine needles and debris, and seek to have more than one way out of your area.  If you have access to a large water dowser…install a dowser line around your property.

“My yoga teacher training through Ananda College has helped me stay composed in some terrifying situations.  I trick myself into relaxing by pacing my breath and relaxing my muscles. I use this same technique while Firefighting and learning to work well in a complex social work environment.  I appreciate how having lived the community lifestyle of higher consciousness has affected my priorities. Recently, I’ve lost my peace to some pretty life-shaking events. I want to continue to help others, live simply, and enjoy life despite adversity.

Kayla practicing yoga asana before a fire-fighting adventure.
Kayla practicing yoga asana before a fire-fighting adventure.

Kayla was recently mentioned in the San JoseMercury News

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