I felt compelled to write something: with all these fires going down right now I have gotten the same question from so many friends of mine, “I don’t know how you do this? I’d be a wreck, I’d go crazy if I knew my husband was in these fires? “

So, I thought I’d share some of my experiences with you as a “fire wife” of ten years. Our journey started when we met. My husband was a firefighter for the US Forest Service. They wore cargo pants and t-shirts and drove green trucks. I had no idea there was even such a thing. I had only ever seen the red fire trucks and when I visualized a firefighter that’s what I pictured. His station was in the midst of the forest, not in the city like you would imagine. As he explained to me what he did as a wildland firefighter I was still somewhat confused and naive to the whole thing. I didn’t really know what that meant. Flash forward another year later he had not been on a fire yet while we had been dating so I was still somewhat unaware of what it was like to be with a wildland firefighter. As we were buying our first house he got called out. I remember the first call and thinking, “how the hell are we gonna get these papers signed for this house with him gone?”

That was the extent of my worry’s at the time. We worked around his schedule and got everything signed and finalized. We moved into our house at the end of summer. I remember coming home one day after work and realizing I hadn’t heard from him all day and he should have been on his way home by now. I started calling like a crazy lady. His phone just rang and rang and rang, no answer. I must have called literally 100 times and nothing. It began to get dark. At the time, I was legit still afraid of the dark. Like seriously. As it got darker I started to panic, having still not heard from him. My mind had started to race to all those scary places you imagine they go. “What if he got in an accident on his way home? What if something seriously bad happened?” This wasn’t like him to not call or not respond. I called my mom to calm down, pacing around the house with every light on possible, I literally thought of driving to her house and staying there because I was so terrified. It was a new house over an hour from my mom in a totally new area and I knew no one out here. I started gathering my things to leave when my phone rang, it was Tyler. I answered so fast and burst into tears when he said, “Hey babe.” I was so mad that he sounded so calm and here I was “panic-city”. I yelled at him, “Where have you been? Why didn’t you call me or answer your phone, you scared the shit out me.” I could hear the tone in his voice shift, “I’m so sorry babe, we got called to a fire I didn’t have time to call you it was an immediate need and we just ran. I’m on my way back to the station and I will be heading home.” “It’s ok, he said again, it’s ok babe I’m good. I’m so sorry I scared you.”

That was the moment for me. The moment I realized what I had just signed up for.

That was where I got my first taste of what was to come for our future. I wasn’t sure I could handle it at the time. He got home that night and I was still crying. He knew I was scared to be alone. He was patient with me and still apologizing. When I look back now, poor guy felt so bad when really he shouldn’t have felt bad about anything. He didn’t do anything wrong; he was just doing his job. He told me something then that I remember to this day. He said, “Babe sometimes I won’t be able to call or text you beforehand, and sometimes I will. I will do my best to send you something even if it’s one word.” I said “ok” and we moved forward with our life.

He proposed shortly after we bought our house and at this time it was just me, him and our dog. So every time he would get called out I’d go to my moms and spend the night Because I still couldn’t be in our house solo. Or I’d plan sleepovers with girlfriends and keep myself busy every day so the time flew by quicker and I wasn’t thinking about it so much. That worked for a short while (about another year or so). Then we got pregnant. I still continued to go to my moms while he was gone but it wasn’t as easy with two dogs. My mind started racing again like “holy shit we’re having a baby. What the heck am I gonna do when I have this baby and he’s gone? I can’t go to my moms every time. I’ll be forced to for the first time stay at our house by myself, alone, with a baby.” As the pregnancy grew, so did my fears. “Can I do this by myself? I’ll literally be a single mother while he’s gone.” No one knows how often they’ll be gone or how long, they are basically on call 24/7.

The technical “fire season” is from around May through November-ish. Our first baby was due in March well-before the technical season started. So I figured it was a safe zone to have a baby. January and February came and so did a fire in early March. I remember getting a call at 38 weeks that he had left on a fire, “Don’t panic” he said. “Haha, don’t panic, ummmmmm ok. I’m about to deliver this baby and he wants me not to panic that he may or may not make it back for the birth? “

I stayed calm. I signed up for this I told myself in my head, I knew this was a possibility.

I prayed.
I prayed a lot.
Every day, all day, until he came back.

He was only gone a week and came home just in time for my 39 week check-up where I was admitted to the hospital. We had our son a day later via c-section. He was able to take 8 weeks off with me to stay home and help. The six-week mark came and so did a fire. They called him and asked if he could come back early. He looked at me and I gave him the green light. I never told him no when it came to work. So he packed up and left and my fears were quickly becoming reality. I was alone in our house with a baby. Facing my fear of the dark AND being home alone. The first few days were really rough. I called my mom crying almost nightly about how scared I was. I didn’t sleep, I was exhausted. Giving myself daily pep talks like “You can do this! You’re fine. Courtney stop freaking out. You’re fine! You’re an adult AND a mom, you have to be brave for your kid!” He came home two weeks later. I had done it. I survived the first fire solo with a baby in our house by myself.

Things slowly got a little easier after that. I had gotten a little confidence that I could do all this alone and I was still ok. Until about a year and a half later. This time we were pregnant with our second baby and our first son was a little over a year old. I had placenta previa with both kids, but this time it was harder because I technically wasn’t supposed to be lifting our son. I woke up one night at 1 am and glanced at the monitor to check on Lincoln. He was moving weird and I rubbed my eyes and looked again and he was moving faster in complete convulsions. I jumped out bed ran to his room to find his eyes rolled back in his head. His body as stiff as a board in a full-blown seizure. He was burning up. I ran into the kitchen grabbed the Tylenol and gave him to some. He was groggy and a little out of it. Tyler was gone and with no cell service. I called my neighbor and they drove with me to the hospital. It turned out to be a febrile seizure; something that was common when a fever spiked too quickly.

I didn’t sleep at all, we went back home and I watched on him all night. We went to his doctor’s office in the morning to be checked. His doctor came in, took one look at me and just hugged me. She said, ” It was ok. He was fine and I was gonna be ok.” It was the scariest thing to see him in that state. She shared her own similar experience with me saying how she panicked and SHE was a doctor. Her husband had to yell at her to pull herself together.

I returned home and got a call from Tyler shortly after. I answered the phone in full-blown hysterics. I couldn’t speak to get the words out. I didn’t want him to worry or stress out either. There was nothing he could do. His attention should be focused on getting a fire out and keeping himself and his guys safe. I finally calmed down and told him what happened. He said he would come home. He would do whatever I needed. I assured him there was nothing he could do and I was gonna be fine.

Rule number one as a fire wife:
Always be strong, if not for you, do it for them.

The added stress they feel when something’s wrong at home and they are helpless is horrible. I learned that the hard way. I tried to be strong even when it seemed impossible or hard.

The hospital told me what to watch for, what to check for if it should happen again and I felt like I could handle it. I told him to stay.

By this time I had built strong relationships with some fire wives and we leaned on each other, we supported each other.

Rule number two as a fire wife:
Find a support system outside of your family.

Find someone you can vent or cry to so that stress isn’t always on your husband. Someone who knows what you’re going through because they are experiencing it too. When I would be weak my person would be strong for both of us and vice-versa.

In December, we welcomed our daughter the same weekend it ACTUALLY snowed in southern California. She’s like the real-life Elsa. Everything went great. Despite, her fairy tale arrival, Tyler had actually just had a very intense unexpected back surgery. The fear felt more intense, as I worried not only for his safety, but now I’d have two kids at home during his fire season.

The second it started to feel easier it got harder real quick. Tyler had gone on another fire and called to see Lincoln and Lincoln would just cry, he didn’t wanna talk to him or see him. Being away got harder and harder for him. He would come home from fires after being gone for weeks and his son barely recognized him, he was wary about letting him hold him and would just cry when he was in his arms. It was heartbreaking to see. I can’t imagine how much that must have hurt my husband’s heart. Here he was providing for his family and just doing his job and his kids were struggling to remember his face. I used to struggle so bad getting used to the wildland fire wife thing but I wasn’t the one feeling like he had to make a choice between his family and the job he loved. He would call me with such excitement in his voice with the sirens blasting rallying with his boys and girls getting ready to face the fire head-on.

His heart was in two places at once. I struggled to find the balance between holding down the fort at home and reassuring him everything was fine. In the beginning, I would resent him for leaving. I was upset and angry. I would vent to him and feel like I needed to tell him about what was going on here good or bad. But as we grew in our marriage I realized it was so much harder for him when I did that. I started keeping things to myself and/or venting to my support system. It took a long time. I’m not gonna lie I’m talking years and years. But I wanted him to feel secure when he left and be able to focus on what he was doing without being distracted. He had way more faith in me, then I had in myself at the time so he knew I could handle it.

As the years passed and we survived each season with a little more ease. The fires got easier, I was never worried about him being on the fire, I shared in his excitement with it. By this time, the kids weren’t babies anymore and things were much easier to do solo. Lincoln was older now though and definitely aware that his dad was gone. We used marble jars to count the days of when he would be returning, like it was a fun game. That helped Lincoln keep his attention on something else other than his daddy being gone again.

And then another tragedy hit.

During one fire season, a fire had turned and burned over an entire hotshot crew. In that fire, all but one of The Granite Mountain Hotshots crew lost their lives to Mother Nature. I remember seeing it on TV, as well as social media and I just broke down. It hit so close to home for me and really put things in perspective. I never really looked at Tyler’s job as dangerous, even though it is. I had children now and to see these wives and mothers broken trying to explain something to their kids that is totally unexplainable broke my heart. I couldn’t imagine if that had been Tyler, how easily it could be any one of our husbands. Tyler always reminded me of something, he used to always say, “ no news is good news” no news meant everything was good. So if I didn’t hear from him I just kept repeating that. When I started feeling scared or nervous that I hadn’t heard from him I repeated this.

The news meant a police officer and or fire chief showing up at your door notifying you that something had happened. As a fire wife, that is our nightmare. That we would get that kind of call. I cried for what felt like weeks, just trying to put myself in their shoes. The first fire he got called out to after this tragic event was probably the worst one to date for me. The visions of these devastated wives and children played in my head. I couldn’t shake it, I was so scared and nervous. The entire fire community felt this one and it still hurts today. They made a movie about these men, one that I own but have yet to watch. If you get a chance you should watch it. It’s called “Only the Brave “and it gives you a glimpse into the lives of the families of wildland firefighters.

That fire seemed like the longest fire for me. I couldn’t wait to have him home and when he walked through those doors I just cried again. I was so thankful and happy to see him. Fast forward a little more, Tyler came home one day with some news. He had told me he had applied to Orange County Fire Authority. Something I remember asking him if he would ever do when I met him. He said no, he was a lifer, he bled green, and his passion for wildfires was so great he couldn’t imagine doing anything. This was something I would never have asked him to do. It’s something he chose on his own.

He missed his family.
He missed his kids growing up and he didn’t want to miss anymore.
He wanted to be home more.

He made a choice only he could make. He has now switched over from US Forest Service to Orange County Fire Authority. Even though wildfires aren’t his main focus anymore it’s still a passion of his and something he still stays active in, in teaching, training other guys, and putting on classes. He lends his hand wherever it’s needed, wherever he can help.  And he still get so it on a Fire very now and then.

Rule number 3 as a fire wife:
Always put yourself in his shoes before you unintentionally make him feel bad about being away so much.

So what can I tell you as a fire wife of ten years? I can tell you that my husband runs into fires when everyone runs out. I can tell you he drops everything at home to protect yours. I can tell you that he doesn’t think twice about it. It’s in his nature and part of his natural instinctive response. I can tell you that this is a passion of his. From the way, the clouds form to the humidity and temperatures in the weather forecast. He looks at it all, he knows it all in and out. I can tell you that learning how to support him has been a journey. I can tell you that I learned the hard way and probably put more stress on him than I should have in beginning. I can tell you that he’s a leader and he puts others needs in front of his own. I can tell you that he has saved lives, helped birthed lives, and been the shoulder someone needed to cry on. I can tell you that he’s a therapist, an encourage of others. I can tell you he’s extremely hard on himself. I can tell you his body suffers, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. If he could do it all over again he would choose this life over and over. I can tell you that he fears nothing. I can tell you that he doesn’t need the praise or the thank yous. I can tell you that his response is it’s my job and I’m happy to help. I can tell you that he doesn’t do it for the money. He does it because he truly cares for people. He does it because it’s who he is and he knows no other way.

I can tell you that his kids miss him very much. I can you tell you that telling them he isn’t coming home each time they ask if hard. I can tell you that when they cry because they miss him it breaks my heart because I feel the very same way. I can tell you that even though they miss him they are very proud of their daddy. I can tell you they tell everyone my daddy is a fireman with the biggest smile on their face. I can tell you that managing the disasters that happen while he’s gone is rough. I can tell you that I would not have survived these past ten years without a few certain people who know who they are. I can tell you that there are sometimes when I told him not to go on the fire because I didn’t think I could do it. I can tell you that it’s just as hard for them to be gone as it is for you. I can tell you there are times I am a part-time single mom. I can tell you I’m an incredibly proud wife. Watching him grow over these last ten years has been incredible. I can tell you that I’m not perfect and I don’t always have it together. I am human and I do my best to be the most supportive wife I can be for him. I can tell you that my emotions get in the way sometimes. I can tell you that every fire wife goes through the ups and downs in their relationship to find a balance. We all have strains on our marriages. We are all just looking for how to support them. We all have things that happen at home while they are gone. We all feel alone and that’s ok. It’s an adjustment that does get easier with time. I can tell you that even though sometimes you feel like you can’t do it, YOU CAN!

I can tell you that it takes a village.

This is the life of a Fire Wife. 

Published in featured, memoirs
2 Comments
  1. TK Dennis 3 months ago

    You’re amazing Courtney. This is a fantastic post. I never knew the half of it. Thanks for sharing all this. Stay tough!

    • Author
      Courtney Sanford 3 months ago

      Thank you so much!
      None of this would be possible without you ❤️ Forever grateful!

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