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Snohomish’s Sammie Davis fights forest fires nationally

Sammie Davis assists the Bitterroot Hotshots with a backburn on the Cameron Peak Fire in Colorado in August.

SNOHOMISH — “Seeing 12-foot flames around you, it’s like your body wants to hold up in a corner by the house, but the thing is, there’s nowhere to go, and I cannot describe that feeling to you where all your body wants to do is just try to find a little place to hide and find shelter and there isn’t anywhere to go, you just have to sit and wait and try to stay calm,” Snohomish’s Sammie Davis said as she remembered one of the scariest moments of her life.
Davis has spent the last four fire seasons traveling across the country fighting fires, often for weeks at a time. 2020 was her longest season to date, spending 45 days in the field.
Forest fires have gotten considerably worse in the last decade, every year seeming more destructive than the last. 2020 again broke records for forest fires, breaking the records set in 2019. From the start of the year to Oct. 16, over 46,000 fires across the western US blazed through 8.3 million acres, destroying homes, towns and claiming many lives.
Davis has lived in Boise for the last 5 years and got into wildland fire fighting out of boredom. Although a successful sous chef, Davis wasn’t content with that lifestyle.
“I liked it but I wanted something more, I’m kind of like an adrenaline junkie in that way,” Davis said.
In 2016, Davis joined the PatRick Corporation, a private company out of Boise that deploys crews to fires based on contracts. In her first year, she was on a hand-crew of about 20 to 30 people fighting fires in Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah.
It’s hard not to notice the environment changing around you, the seasons are getting crazier and the fires are more intense, Davis said.
While working on the hand-crew she set fire lines, digging into the ground and removing brush and debris to stop the fire from spreading further. Hand-crews also do mop-up’s and cold trailing, which is walking the “black” or already burned areas to suppress hot spots. 
After her first season, she joined an engine crew and has been on it ever since, adding Colorado, Nevada and California to the list of states she’s fought fires in. Davis said working on an engine crew is more enjoyable because instead of 20 people, it’s five or six. 
“It’s like a family, you’re relying on your brothers and sisters next to you,” she said.
A wildland engine crew does many of the same things that a hand-crew does but because they have water and an engine they have more responsibilities. Engine crews also assist backburns; controlled burns lit in the path of a forest fire to eliminate combustible material. 
While working on the Cameron Peak Fire, Colorado’s second largest wildfire in history, Davis and her crew were assisting with a backburn near some houses, putting out spot fires and setting firelines. Davis said all of a sudden the wind changed direction and the crew lost control of the fire.
“When we lose control of a fire our main concern becomes protecting structures,” Davis said. “At that point, it’s kind of like cowboy firefighting, you know, you have no plan. It’s when you’re training and your skills kind of take over.”
“So we jump on the structure, and we’re doing everything we can. And we have like 60 mph winds coming through. And that is just probably the worst situation you could ask for,” she said.
Fires are unpredictable and things can turn life-threatening in a matter of minutes, which was exactly the situation Davis found herself in only a few months ago.
“We’re trying to hold the house, the trees are torching and the fire is spreading from the trees down (the) tall grass. And we had to immediately get out of it, we felt that our engine could make it out, so we go down to the next structure below us to try to hold that. Well, we’re there. We’re putting line down, we’re wetting the grass, anything we can do. We did become surrounded by flames, and if the house caught fire, we were going to be out of luck.”
Davis said the crew had to backburn beside the house to burn a path away from it. “Yeah, once you’re at that point, and there’s fire all around you, you just have to hunker down and wait for the fire to pass,” she added.
Situations like this are what wildland firefighters train for but hope they never find themselves in.
“My eyes looked like they were bleeding,” she said. “I couldn’t, I mean there’s so much smoke that you can barely breathe and you cannot see because your eyes just will not stop watering. And there’s nothing, nothing is going to stop that from messing with your body. So not only are your insides just kind of churning, you lose your senses. It’s truly terrifying.”
Davis said she had to keep her composure for her crew next to her while being on the verge of death.
“You know, your instincts are going nuts, fire is very primitive to us, and normals kind of freak out and want to run away. It takes everything in you to remain calm,” she said.
Luckily the water laid down by the crew and the backburn helped hold the fire. Davis said the flames were probably 20 yards away, and if there were more tall trees in the area it would have got too hot and she probably would have not made it out.
Despite a handful of scary moments, the majority of the job is rewarding according to Davis. The bonds she has made with her crew, the satisfaction of serving the community and preserving the wilderness she cares so much about, makes the job worth it for her. She added that the job pays pretty well too.
“Don’t get me wrong, the views are great but the money is fantastic,” Davis said as she laughed.

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