Words by Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
photographs by wade schaul
Rachel Holmes has spent 10 years with the Connecticut Interstate Fire Crew as an initial attack wildland firefighter. For Atmos, she breaks down the reality of life on the fireline.
Rachel Holmes grew up in a densely populated city in northern New Jersey, far from the wooded areas she now spends so much of her time in. Accessing nature was an intentional act as it is for so many city-dwellers, something that wasn’t lost on Holmes’ parents. And so, from her early school days, Holmes was sent to spend her summers at her family’s ranch in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.
It was during her time on the ranch, which is located on the edge of Pike National Forest, that Holmes first saw the devastating effects of wildfires on national forests. “I just remember riding through on horseback seeing the damage from the wildfire,” she said. “It was really jarring and unsettling to see the landscapes turned completely black. I didn’t know then that I would eventually have the opportunity to become a wildland firefighter, but it was something that really stuck with me.”
Now, Holmes is a qualified wildland firefighter, which she first trained for while working as an urban forester for the state of Connecticut. It’s a career she has built over the last 10 years alongside her urban reforestation efforts with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) where she continues to work. It is also a job that couldn’t be more urgent.
Already this year has seen record-breaking temperatures in India and Pakistan, causing landfills to spontaneously combust, while outbreaks of agricultural fires have been reported in countries across southern and eastern Asia, including in Myanmar, China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. In the U.S. alone, one million acres have already been lost to wildfires, many of them in New Mexico which is—at the time of writing—seeing blazes spread across thousands of acres of drought-parched land by 40mph winds. One fire near the historic town of Las Vegas in New Mexico has already destroyed 170 homes.
For Holmes, such headlines carry the prospect of a busy summer ahead. “I’m currently learning more about fire behavior and fire as a proactive conservation tool and working on increasing my training and qualifications,” said Holmes, who has to pass a physical fitness test every year to retain her red card—the qualification required to fight wildfires.
The unpredictability of wildfire outbreaks means Holmes’ bag is always packed. That’s especially true when the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) increases the country’s preparedness level to five—the highest alert—as tends to happen every summer. Protocol then requires Holmes and her team to post themselves as an available crew ready to be mobilized to wildfires anywhere in the country and even Canada. From then on, it’s a waiting game. Six hours, 12 hours, even 48 hours can pass before they are picked up and relocated to the frontlines. It’s often only then that they’ll be told exactly where they’re headed.
“Through my work as a wildland firefighter, I’ve met lots of interesting people with a range of backgrounds—it gives new meaning to the term melting pot,” Holmes told Atmos. “Many of us are multi-faceted. For me, I feel just as comfortable in Nomex and fire boots with unwashed hair tucked up into my hard hat as I do wearing makeup and heels and performing as a Flamenco dancer.”
“I feel just as comfortable in Nomex and fire boots as I do wearing makeup and heels and performing as a Flamenco dancer.”
Holmes is part of a Type II Initial Attack crew, which is made up of 20 people collectively authorized to respond at the start of a wildfire and fight the blaze in adverse conditions. They are self-sufficient and mobile in order to react to and contain new fires by setting up water pumps and hoses, removing fuel from the fire’s path and digging line to control the blaze. In practice, that means Holmes can be sent with her squad from one remote location to another with little warning and few additional resources. “You work long days, you’re living in a tent—the pace is intense,” she said. “We are prepared not to be in civilization for days.” It requires constant readjustment, a habit that’s hard to shake even after she returns from service. “For example, when I came home from assignment last summer, I remember feeling really bored,” she said. “And so I painted all the furniture in my living room over the course of a day.”
Holmes’ enthusiasm for fire safety is palpable—especially when she describes the many ways individuals and municipalities can help to mitigate fire risks, which include installing sprinkler systems, keeping a buffer of no trees around homes in fire-prone areas, and implementing prescribed burns.
But the reality is one of constant risk. Holmes describes how her crew engages directly with fire, surrounded by smoke and with flames less than two feet away. It’s why hierarchy and discipline are so crucial to the service. And it’s why expectations of what is required—and when to retreat—are repeatedly reevaluated. The psychological impact, however, is harder to process.
“The fires are getting worse and the risk is getting higher. You’re out there and you’re meeting people who either have previously or stand to lose everything,” she said. “It takes a toll. But, at the end of the day, you really feel that you’ve made a contribution in a real way.”
Camaraderie amongst crew members is, therefore, crucial. It’s not just about friendship; a respectful dynamic is what ensures the safety and wellbeing of individual team members in dangerous situations. “The 19 other people that I’m on a crew with have a major influence on my experience,” said Holmes. “Many of them feel like brothers at this point—and sisters, too.”
“The people that I’m on a crew with have a major influence on my experience. Many of them feel like brothers at this point—and sisters, too.”
Holmes is still in the minority as a woman in wildland fire, a field that continues to be heavily dominated by men. But recent efforts by agencies like the USDA Forest Service and organizations like The Nature Conservancy promise to level the playing field. One facet of these efforts includes redesigning uniforms for a greater range of body types. For example, the majority of fire-retardant Nomex shirts available to crew were for the longest time designed only with chest pockets for men. More recently, however, shirts designed with patch pockets lower on the chest, a more practical option for people with busts, have entered the market. Line gear, the fireline packs used by wildland firefighters, are also undergoing renovation as brands like Mystery Ranch start issuing bags with harnesses designed to better suit women’s frames.
The Nature Conservancy has also recently introduced a women’s-only prescribed burn training program, while last year saw the creation of the third national Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (or WTREX), sponsored by TNC, U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, in Tallahassee, Florida.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of allies,” she said. “The importance of people that see you as a contributing member regardless of your differences. I’ve been very lucky with the crew bosses and crew mates I’ve had in that regard.”
But Holmes hasn’t let her work stop her from pursuing other passions. In fact, her interests extend far beyond the firelines. “Even in wildland firefighting and urban forestry, you can wear a lot of hats,” she said, pointing to the red fan, known in Spanish as an abanico, that’s propped up beside her. For Holmes, that means putting on her traje de flamenca and dancing to traditional Andalusian flamenco music with as much pride as she wears her Nomex suit—neither is more or less important than the other.
“I’ve always been a musician. I describe flamenco dancing as making visual music because I’m creating rhythms, whether it’s with my feet or my own hands or my Castanets or my body,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to think you have to sacrifice who you are at your core—regardless of your job.”