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Hot Shot: How Garrett Balen Balances Life as a Skier and a Firefighter

Last summer, this Flylow athlete fought the second biggest fire in California’s history. This winter, he’ll be out skiing.

Garrett Balen spent 38 days fighting the second-biggest fire in California’s history, the devastating Dixie Fire. The wildfire, which started in July and burned well into September, spanned nearly a million acres, scorching a swath of land larger than the state of Rhode Island. This winter, Balen will be taking a much-needed break.

“This year, we haven’t stopped rolling since early June. We’ve been on 14-day assignments, one after another,” says 29-year-old Balen, who lives in the Lake Tahoe area. “I’ve been gone basically the whole summer. I have over a thousand hours of overtime.”

This fall, Balen put out a new short film, called “Equinox,” about his dual life as a skier in the wintertime and a hotshot firefighter in the summer. The film, which premiered in October at an event in South Lake Tahoe, includes footage from Balen’s winter skiing in the Tahoe backcountry last year, coupled with on-the-ground footage of the fires he’s worked on. Most of the fire footage in the film is captured by Balen, and some of his crew, from their phones. “It would be me taking my phone out of my pocket and saying, ‘Whoa, this is crazy,’” he says.

 

The goal of the film, he says, is to showcase both aspects of his dual life. “Most people don’t get to see fire footage up close, and it’s a pretty impressive aspect of Mother Nature,” he says. “I thought it’d be cool to showcase the yin and yang of my life.”

An Alaskan native, Balen got his start as a hotshot firefighter in 2014, after moving from Alaska to Reno, Nevada. That was his rookie season with a hotshot crew based out of Beckwourth, California. Hotshots got their name back in the 1940s in southern California because these hard-working, highly trained handcrews were known to fight the hottest parts of the fire.

 

Balen on the Dixie Fire

Balen on the Dixie Fire

He’s been with the same crew for the last eight years. “I need adrenaline and excitement in my life and working on fires in the summer definitely fills that for me,” Balen says. “Also, the camaraderie that you have on the crew, it’s like one big family. Everyone looks out for each other.”

 

He was drawn to the line of work, initially, for the schedule. “You do all of your work in the summer,” he says. “Then in late October, you get laid off and you have no commitments until May. As a skier, that sounded pretty good to me.” He liked that he could have a legitimate job—with retirement plans and benefits—and still have total freedom come winter. “I don’t really know of too many professions that allow that,” he says.

 

But things have changed a lot since he first started fighting fires. The fire season has gotten more intense, and longer. “Now, you have ripping fires in November and December. It doesn’t really stop,” he says. “Winters are getting shorter; fire seasons are getting longer.”

In the film, “Equinox,” which was edited by Balen’s friend Sam Armanino, you can see the two seasons of Balen’s life: fighting raging fires, in the thick heat of summer, and climbing and skiing snow-covered peaks in the backcountry, during the cold stillness of winter. He says the two aren’t as different as you may think. 

“You get that same adrenaline, like ‘OK, let’s go,’” he says. “Whether it’s fighting fires or doing what we call having one foot in the black, on the fire’s edge, you’re running chainsaws and you have these chaotic shifts, where a ton of stuff is happening. It’s super-fast paced. You’ve got to be on your toes and aware of your surroundings. Skiing is the same. You’ve got to be aware of where you’re going, what you’re doing. If you’re not paying attention, it can be easy to put yourself in a bad spot.” 

This winter, you can find Balen enjoying the quietness of his off-season. “I’m just out in the woods, in the mountains. That’s where I feel good and comfortable,” he says. “I go to cool places, see cool things. In the winter, I don’t have anyone telling me what to do, or where to go. It’s just, ‘Who wants to go skiing today?”


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