Submitted by Eric Daniel
An interesting thing happened this year. As a National Guardsman I was activated on three separate occasions for firefighting related activities. What made this unusual was the fact that it was actually the first time I've been activated and I wasn't already fighting fire with the USFS.
Fortunately, those three activations were for support and security roles, and didn't actually involve firefighting duties (this was because in order to go on the line you have to go through mandatory, annual, fire fighting training, and we didn't have time to get the class in; we've scheduled one for next year.)
I say fortunately because when I got the call, I suddenly realized how ill prepared I was for cutting line. The neat new uniforms the Army issued us might make us excellent soldiers (or is it strong soldiers now, I can never keep up with the marketing adjectives) but they make for poor firefighting duds. The biggest issue is boots. According to NFPA (National Fire Protection Agency) 1977, Standard on Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Fire Fighting, 2005 Edition guidelines, firefighting boots must be all leather construction with ten-inch tops. Those high speed GORTEX lined cordura mesh issue boots are a big NOGO. Unfortunatly, I still see troops on the line wearing them. The common answers are, "They told us they were ok", "These are all I've got", "We're just doing mop up, so I'm fine" or, my personal favorites, "We're not authorized to wear the old black speed-lace boots with ACUs" or, "Not everyone has black boots and we all need to be uniform." Being a slave to fashion (or Army uniformity in this case) is one thing, but having a nylon boot melt around your foot because you stepped into a smouldering stump hole is a whole new world of pain.
When I started firefighting in 1993 I was wearing my old speed-lace issue boots. Unfortunately, they just weren't up to the challenges and abuses that wildland firefighting places on footwear. In a four month period I destroyed (and by destroyed I mean rendered unrepairable and completely unservicable) three pairs of boots. At the end of the season my Engine Boss told me, "You've got some money now. Get your self some White's. They'll be the last pair of boots you ever buy."
So I did, and I have to agree, they were the last firefighting boots I ever bought (ok, that's technically not true; I bought a second pair of White's in 1998 and had cork soles put on my original pair for logging and spring/fall burning operations.)
White's Smokejumpers (the ones I have) are of all leather construction, with some serious arch support. You can purchase them either "skin out" or "rough out" which refers to either the smooth side of the leather or the rough side of the leather on the surface. Me, I prefer skin out as I believe the rough interior helps grip my foot better, and the smooth exterior surface is easier to clean. They can be purchased in standard 8" or 10" tops, in black or brown leather. They come standard with leather laces (I've seen some folk use 550 cord but I'd counsel against that; the leather is more fire resistant, but I'd recommend packing two pair of extra laces in your redbag as well) and are completely rebuildable. As long as there's some leather left to stich them back together, you'll get your boots back (after 8 years of annual rebuilds my second pair of White's finally gave up the ghost and they couldn't be rebuilt, which is why I was worried when I got the call this year. I have since ordered new boots.)
It used to be that you could just call White's and order boots. Things have gotten a little more complicated and now they ask for physical measurements (to the point of asking you to trace your foot on a piece of paper) but that's probably a good thing because the end result is a thing of beauty.