I began working for the United States Forest Service as a department secretary in 1996 while in college. I worked in the Law Enforcement Department and the Wildlife and Fisheries Department. My hourly wage was $8.25, well above minimum wage at that time, and for me it meant I could work less hours and still pay my rent and tuition. It was a great job, despite the fact that I may have been the world’s worst secretary.
During my time with the Forest Service I also began dating John, a guy I had hoped to marry, and eventually did. John also worked for the Forest Service as a sawyer, and had spent 9 years as a member of the Lolo Forest Hot Shot crew. In the “off season” he would work out with a 50-pound pack on his back to prepare for the spring test to be on the fire crew. He and I would hike to the “M” in Missoula, and while I would rest at the “M,” he would run to the top of Mount Sentinel and back. He loved the job and worked hard to keep it. He worked for days in the forests fighting fires without a shower, and sleeping under a tarp. Long hours, long days, weeks without a day off of work. Breathing copious amounts of smoke. And for that, he was paid (at the time) $7.65 an hour. To him, that was an adequate wage, and he appreciated the overtime compensation, until he discovered that the hourly wage of a very mediocre secretary – me – exceeded his. The inequity was not lost on me; I had my own desk, I worked no more than eight hours a day in a climate-controlled and physically non-strenuous environment. My parents didn’t worry about me when I went to work; John’s parents worried constantly when he was on a fire. And yet his pay was less than mine. That the government valued its secretaries more than its sawyers and firefighters was (and is) inexplicable.
As we watch the smoke billow into our valley, it’s important to recognize the folks risking their lives to save our national treasures and homes. Breathing smoke and working around the clock are not valued by the wages they are paid. It is thus incumbent upon all of us that reap the benefits of their work to value them in other ways. Thank them, buy them a meal at the café, fill up their tanks when you can. These are not acts of charity, they are acts of appreciation, and judging by their work this year, our firefighters have earned all of the appreciation they can get.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.