At the end of a season to remember, firefighters relax at last 

John Stevens can breathe. The past four months of his life are a blur—not a tidy list of named fires like on the commemorative pint glass beside him on Saturday, but a jumble of place names and sweat-streaked memories. His summer started in San Carlos, Ariz., on a June deployment with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' Mission Valley Helitack. Stevens didn't expect to return a month later to a Montana already in the throes of an historic fire year.

"When I left home, it was green and raining here," he said. "We got back and it was on."

Missoula Brewing Company's taproom was jam-packed with wildland firefighters Sept. 30, all of them reconnecting with friends, meeting each other's families and cheering the end of a long, fraught season. For some, it began back in April, when Shawn Faiella and his Lolo Hotshots started their 80 hours of training before shipping off briefly to Missouri for flood-relief work. For others, the season had only just ended. Paytyn Wheeler and Shyla Stevenson, both from the Ninemile Ranger District, were still working the Sheep Gap fire in mid-September when five pieces of equipment were burned over.

"We'd have still been there if we hadn't gotten called out earlier in the day to a different fire," Wheeler said.

Pilot Earl Longden, with Billings Flying Service, had flown Sheep Gap that day, the burnover prompting his reassignment from the Cub fire just 20 miles away. Technically, Longden's season wasn't over yet when the brewery's party started. His crew's contract wasn't set to end until Oct. 8. They started June 6.

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"We worked everywhere," Longden said. "Started out in Santa Fe, then went to Cedar City [Utah] on the Brian Head fire, which was a big fire. Then we went to Reno. I don't remember what fire that was."

Robert Lindig confessed he didn't have any harrowing tales from 2017. Just lingering fatigue. He'd cut his early deployment to the Southwest short to come back and take care of his kids. It's not easy balancing a major fire season with parenting, he said, single or otherwise. Firefighting takes its toll in ways the public doesn't see. He recalled the Ninemile district bringing in a physical therapist to talk to staff in September—"Snap-tember," as the firefighters call it, because "the end of fire season is close, but you've been running hard." The deaths of two firefighters on the Lolo National Forest brought an emotional weight to the past few months too.

"We all mourn when somebody dies," Lindig said, "but when there's a fatality on your forest, it's even more personal."

Those tragedies weren't far from Faiella's mind as he scanned the room, searching for thoughts on what it meant to be among the celebrated. "It's a huge risk that we take every day to go out and work in the environment we work in," he said. "That everyone's here and made it through the season, I think that for me is the most important thing."

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