The summer of 2020 has been a busy season for wildland firefighters, a career some people pursue for the views, the hard work, and the people met along the way. But when the off-season is 4-6 months, and your activity of choice is flyfishing, wildland fire offers another benefit: finding new water.
For Brianna Proctor—a lead helicopter crewmember based in Swan Valley, Idaho—learning about and working near rivers all over the country has become a major benefit of her firefighting career. She’s been a wildland firefighter for 15 years, working primarily in the air attack and helicopter realm as a member of what’s called a “helitack” crew—a group that works alongside helicopters to facilitate water drops, fire recons, and the shuttling of crews into remote areas of the fire. When she first started fishing about seven years ago, it didn’t take long for these two interests to weave themselves together, whether through off-season trips to rivers where she’d previously fought fires, or through a new interest in how wildfires were affecting the rivers themselves.
When we spoke in early October, Proctor was assigned to the East Fork Fire near Duchesne, Utah. As a former wildland firefighter myself, it didn’t take long for us to realize we’d both worked on the Dollar Ridge Fire in Duchesne in 2018, which decimated the legendary “Pinnacles” area of the Strawberry River, killing almost every trout in a five-mile stretch due to ash runoff. Being back in the area for another fire, Proctor mentioned that she might go check on the Strawberry to see how it was recovering—something she wishes she could do more often with other rivers she’s experienced while fighting fire. This is the other way that fishing and fire have interwoven themselves for Proctor—by helping her develop an interest in the long-term effects of fire on fish and their habitat.
“We bounce around so much, and there’s always something cool about each area, fisheries-wise,” Proctor says. “When I’m in California, for example, in the High Sierras, it’s the golden trout at high elevations that I dream about fishing for.”
“I’ve thought a lot about how fires are going to impact different ecosystems, and watersheds are one of those,” Proctor says. “If you think about high-intensity fires, those do create habitat for some fish, but they also destroy habitat for other fish. Like, with bull trout, they have to have cooler water temps to live, but if too many trees burn, that means more radiation from the sun, and higher water temps, so they have to push farther upstream where it’s cooler. Whereas, for cutthroat, more trees [burning and] falling over means more habitat creation.” This interest in fire’s impact on fish habitat is also deeply rooted in the work that Proctor does after a fire burns an area.
“We’re not done when the fire is done,” she says. “As an aviation crew, we do a lot of the restoration and rehabilitation stuff, like laying down hay bales and dispersing it. We’re essentially creating water bars to divert water and reduce the impact of landslides.”
Firefighting can be exhausting and dangerous, but alongside the hard work and tough shifts is the rare opportunity to see rivers before, during, and after wildfires—a special privilege for people like Proctor. “Going to these different ecosystems after a fire and seeing where these fish survive—you’d be surprised,” she says. “It shows you how resilient they really are. We should still do what we can to help them, but it’s amazing to see what they’re capable of surviving.”