In this captivating episode of “The Fire Inside Her,” we dive into the depths of grief, trauma, and healing. Our guest, Kimberly Lightley, shares her powerful journey of resilience and self-discovery after experiencing unimaginable loss during the South Canyon Fire. Join us as we explore the profound impact of grief on wildland firefighters, the importance of honoring our authentic selves, and the transformative power of finding purpose and passion. With heartfelt discussions on community support, mental health advocacy, and strategies for self-care, this episode challenges us to confront our own traumas and embrace the fire within us. Embark on this emotional and inspiring journey with us as we delve into the untold stories behind the flames.
If you did not hear part of this series, be sure to listen to episode 28 to hear Kim’s full story.
The South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain claimed the lives of fourteen wildland firefighters in Glenwood Springs, Colorado on July 6th, 1994. Kimberly Lightley is a surviving crewmember of the U.S. Forest Service, Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew, from the 1994 tragedy. As an educator and advocate for first responder well-being, Kimberly has spoken in venues nationwide and internationally, delivering mechanisms of coping and well-being in preparation and mitigation of the stress associated with emergency response. She has a Master of Science in Risk Management from the Notre Dame of Maryland University and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from George Fox University. Kimberly has received training from the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation (NFFF), the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF), Duke University of Integrative Medicine, and the Mind Fitness Training Institute. As a fire peer, she has responded to numerous critical incidents, providing on-site peer support.
Kimberly is the former Risk Management Program Specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, Fire and Aviation Management, Washington Office, and the National Program Manager for Stress First Aid for Wildland Firefighters. She makes her home in Powell Butte, Oregon, with her family and two dogs. She currently has her own LLC and provides training in Crisis Leadership.
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Diane Schroeder [00:00:00]:
Welcome to The Fire Inside, her podcast, a safe space for leadership, self care, and community. I'm your host, Diane Schroeder, and it is my privilege to be your guide on the journey to authenticity. Hi, friend. We are back for part two of my conversation with Kimberly really lightly. If you have not already listened to episode 28, go ahead and stop right now and go back to episode 28 and listen to her story. This episode is about the rising. It is about how she handled the trauma and the grief and how she honors the memory of her 14 brothers and sisters who lost their lives that day in the South Canyon Fire. And how she continues to share her experience, her knowledge, her compassion, her humanness to help others learn and to provide support. It's another fantastic conversation, and I want to dive right into it. So without further ado, here is part two of my conversation with Kimberly Lightley. What you chose, if you don't mind, sharing what your choices were moving forward and how you have spent since that incident, advocating for wildland, firefighters and mental health and sharing your story. And I have so much respect for you because I can't imagine that it's easy and still be this incredible badass. That your legacy, and you carry the legacy of those that didn't make it that day. And I just think that's one of the most beautiful tributes you can give to someone is to honor them the way that you have.
Kim Lightley [00:02:24]:
Thank you. Those brothers and sisters that went before us on that day and then so many sense, I mean, it's your motivation, right? You get up in the morning and obviously there's not a day in my life that's gone by where they're not telling me to either put my chin up or they're yelling at me kindly. But anyway, after math was not kind for me. I didn't do good for a long I wasn't well in. I call it my decade of darkness. I'm not sure if it was a decade, but it was definitely a very dark place, and we don't need to go into too much depth there. But just where I found myself, I didn't know who I was anymore. That was my love. Firefighting was what put me through college, basically. My dorm room was just plastered with fire posters and everything, and I even wore my fire boots during the school year to keep my calluses. I mean, I was just like, that was who I was, right? And I loved it. Thinking back of who I was at the time when this happened, it was like this huge betrayal of something that I loved, and yet it killed me and it killed our crew. So, yeah, my spirit was very much dead for a long time, and choice wasn't even I couldn't even fathom. And so I ended up leaving the US. Forest Service. I tried to stay for a few years following the fire. But, you know, it's just those daily reminders. I still worked in Pineville and it was just like and so I thought, well, I ran away. I literally took another 180 turn. I made a choice to work and this is going to sound funny, but I made a choice to work as a pharmaceutical research chemist. And I worked in a laboratory, and I wore a white lab coat and goggles, and I worked with early stage drug development in the pharmaceutical. It was a respite, in a sense, because I had to focus on something entirely different and actually use different parts of my brain and just really focus on the micro level of something I really didn't enjoy that much. I liked the people that I worked with. Safe. Yeah, it was safe. It was safe. But what was weird is the body, the mind, those trauma pieces, I used to say it's like a tattoo. I mean, you just can't cover it up. It's like black leg. In the wildland fire community, we have PPE, we have personal protection equipment. But really, the soot, the ash, I mean, it gets in your pores, in your legs, arms and everything. And so I remember when I was little on the fire, I'd come home at night, my mom would look at me and give me a can of Comet and a toughie. It's like ghost. We'll get cleaned up. You can't get the black out of your pores. I mean, it's in there, right? And so trauma pieces, it's in there. I mean, it's in my pores. It's in my fiber of who I am and at the cellular level. And so just the grief component associated with losing brothers and sisters was outrageous. It was horrific. And then the trauma piece too, the sight, sound, smells, taste, touch, and how that embedded itself in me. And so even at the pharmaceutical place, there would be like these wind events and wind through the poplar trees outside the lab. And I'd go outside and I'd literally just start hyperventilating and all these things started happening. And of course the nightmares and the post traumatic stress, it was crippling. And so I finally went and I went through a lot of trauma therapy. We unpacked so much. And I did EMDR, which is the eye movement, desensitization and reprocessing, but really had an amazing therapist who was patient. And we went through not only the grief component, the trauma piece as well. And so when I was working as a chemist, I was also on their safety committee and response team. So we worked a lot with our local fire department and just SCBAs and hooking up to the oxygen, everything. And there was a training officer, training chief from the local fire department, ben Fire department, Mark Taylor. And he would come and this is after 911 occurred. And we got to talking one day, and he had gone back to New York City after 911 and had come back to Central Oregon after being out there right after the World Trade Centers came down. And he told us his story. This is probably in 2003 or something like that. And I remember talking to him about South Canyon and he told me that telling your story is very cathartic. And I'm like, oh boy, what is that word? And I remember running back and it up in the dictionary. It's like what's cathartic? Anyway, he invited me to speak November of 2006 to his rookie structural class here in Central Oregon. And up until that time I had never told my story, never out loud. This is like twelve years afterwards and I get to tell my story to a classroom full of young firefighters. I went in and it was just a gush. All of the stuff I had kept inside of me and it just came out. And I say those poor guys. It was like 2 hours later. I'm like, oh, do you guys need a break? Oh my goodness. So that kind of was the ball that started things. And I wrote a letter to at the time the assistant chief of the US forest Service back in the Washington DC office and wrote this letter to her. And you know, we did a really good job taking care of our families after South Canyon Fire. I said, but the you know, and obviously I was talking myself, I'm like, I didn't do so know and I'm still know and what do we have to take care of our people? And so that was like pivotal moments. Not only the structural training chief that gave me a chance to tell my story, but also going to that. I don't know what possessed me to write a letter, but the chief actually listened and put me in contact with some really amazing people and then just started to talk. And I discovered the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation and their fire programs and taking care of our own and just started speaking and doing peer support and getting connected with the Wildland Firefighter Foundation and just more peer support and the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation and doing the individual and group peer stuff and stress management. I mean it was just like this talk about one snowball. It was just like a multitude of snowball, an avalanche. It was opportunities. When the door opened was like hole. We're ready. We're ready.
Diane Schroeder [00:10:32]:
It's almost like the universe had to wait for you to be ready, for you to process everything. And I think the one huge takeaway is that you can't rush grief, you can't rush healing, and you also can't outrun it, you can't hide from dealing with it. And it's so vulnerable and profound because we all carry different kinds of trauma. There's no comparison. And for you to be this example of yes, you can experience an absolute horrible, life changing experience, carry it for quite some time and then heal from it and take that experience to make it better for everyone else so it doesn't have to happen again. So you can look out for other wildland firefighters. And I know that after South Canyon, the US Fire Service made some pretty big strides in safety and communication. And that was a sentinel fire for you, clearly. It was also a sentinel fire for the US Fire Service and Forest Service. As we're talking, I'm reminded that it was just last week that we honored the ten year anniversary of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, another sentinel fire sentinel event. And I guess my question is, how has the healing and this process over the last 29 years, really, how has that helped you find your authentic self after kind of breaking up with the identity that maybe I'm not? A firefighter. Or I was a long time ago. And now it's different because things happened. And processing all that trauma and the experience how has it helped you to become more authentic? And how has it changed you in how you look at the world every day?
Kim Lightley [00:12:36]:
That's a very good question. 29 years ago I thought I was very authentic, right? But looking back to my little me, I was very crew centric. That was my family, that's who I was, my identity. When those things went away, my identity, my nerve, my brothers and my sisters, everything was gone. I was left with a shell and it's like, how do I fill this shell up? And it was a very empty shell for quite a few years as time goes on. And I've had these amazing rich experiences with the fire service and we're talking both structural and wildland and everything in between and all these amazing public servants and meeting folks on all different levels and then experiencing these events that just shake our core again and again and again. I have had the privilege of serving at the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial Weekend every year. And so you see the families and you see the little children and you see the fire service and how we carry the heartache and the events and really been focusing on purpose and passion and what fills the shell, right? What fills me and what brings me joy, because we're all on a timeline and we don't know when that timeline is going to cease. And so therefore, really every single day it's like, okay, what's my purpose and passion for today? And the last few years, I've really focused more on the inner self in the sense like I've been giving a lot, but then it's like, okay, what is it that I need as well? And with the purpose piece, I had the amazing opportunity to further my education recently in risk management and I took a course. Obviously there's lots of courses with a graduate program, but there was some coursework that really challenged me as an individual in looking at what is my vision statement and what is my purpose and what is the passion piece? And this is hours spent writing these essays of, like, blah challenging. It was gut wrenching. It was like, oh, I want to be so true to myself here. And coming out the other side, I feel like more than ever right now, I feel like I've been fulfilling that purpose piece. And I've had these amazing opportunities to work with individuals. And as you well know, Diane, the Omna International with the staff, and we've been able to be in our Wildland Fire apprenticeship programs. And I get to speak, and I get to be with and educate and pass on knowledge and some wisdom and receive it as well from our young firefighters of today and being with them as they traverse their own journeys and face the hardships and face that. But to be able to be in person and be that, just sit around and we have these discussions, like, I don't have all the answers for you guys, but this worked for me. Maybe it'll work for you. As far as dealing with stress and dealing with what I call stress injuries, things that come our way in life that really rock our boat, and it's like, how do we navigate these new waters that we've never been and just trial and error sometimes. But giving yourself some forgiveness and giving others forgiveness and sitting with that. So the authentic self, it's choice as well. It's like just being able to be honest with yourself and sitting and identifying what brings you that purpose passion thing. Yeah.
Diane Schroeder [00:17:01]:
That is magical to hear. And it's so true, and it seems easy to say, and it's a little more challenging in practice. And that sitting with yourself. Right. Even that simple. Just sitting with yourself and really listening can be scary because I think sometimes we have our security detail that's in your head, telling you all these things to protect you, but then really, what brings you joy and your purpose and your passion may conflict with that. And it's scary sometimes to listen to that. How do you take care of yourself? Like, what have you learned to do to take care of yourself? I'm sure it's evolved over time. My guess is the tools that you use to take care of yourself during that dark period may have evolved as well know, really nurture your soul and find that joy.
Kim Lightley [00:17:53]:
Yes. So it's been an evolution. Let's just say this is not my idea. I have a friend who worked in the counseling unit for the FDNY, captain Frank Lido. And after 911, I asked New York City firefighters, how did you take care of your people? And he said, we just made our rounds to all the firehouses. And we'd sit at their kitchen table, and we'd give them a menu of options. Right. Because we're all individuals, and what helps one person may or may not help another. Right? And so just having menu of options, I look back on my life and the menu of options. Thank goodness my parents, they took a lot of effort and time, and we spent a lot of time in the great outdoors growing up. And so as far as creating my own safety zone after South Canyon, the forest has always been my safety zone. And so the serenity to this day provides me that respite and taking care of myself. And so there's skill sets that I have cultivated along the way. In the fire service, we talk a lot about situational awareness. And to me, being out in the great outdoors, there's a lot of situational awareness that I take to heart, and one of those is curiosity. And so curiosity and getting really into the details of your surrounding. And one of my favorite summer jobs I had before I was a hotshot, I did a stent with botany and just learning the genus and species of all the little Forbes and the vegetation that we have in the forest. And so to this day, I have all my botany books, right? And I go out and I just sit. Like, for example, tomorrow is July 6. It's the 29th anniversary of South Canyon. Well, I'm going out in the woods, and I'm going to take my botany book sit, and I'm going to identify flowers. And there again, it's giving your mind a break from all that's going on, all the stresses of life, right? And really focusing into a microenvironment of, like, hi, what are you? Oh, you're looping, but what kind of loop in are you? Or what kind of penstement are you? Or whatever. And I think of it, I met a firefighter, a wildland firefighter at the apprentice academy years ago, and we were talking about how to release stress, and he was from the Angeles National Forest, which is down by La, right? And I'm like, oh, my know. And he had all this stress in his life, be it relationships or work or whatever. And he goes, well, I go home and I put together model airplanes, and he has thousands of little pieces, and he goes, I could go into the zone and go into that micro zone and just putting all these little pieces together. He goes, after a while, all the stress just goes away, right, because he's so focused on that task at hand. And so I've always taken that heart. It's like how the brain is amazing, but how we need to give it rest. And obviously some people pray or whatever. I just love to get out in the woods, but that too, has evolved. There's been a lot of strategies I've had along the way. I took up taekwondo for many years, really loved the discipline of it, as well as just the humility, I guess the courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self control, indominal spirit. Those tenets were always important. There's been a lot yeah, I have my dogs. You have to have a menu, a menu of strategies.
Diane Schroeder [00:21:59]:
I love that. And if you're okay with it, I'm going to use that. I love that menu of strategies because it's not a one size fits all. And I think sometimes in my experience when I've been in a really dark place, it's like, okay, well, I just give me the XYZ to do and if it doesn't feel right, it's never going to work. And I think sometimes that gets left out like, well, here's A through Z. Just pick a couple of different things and there's no judgment and just find what works for you to, like you said, give your mind a break and you're talking about the model thing. And for me, I love to build things. Like, I have a miter saw, so I'll build chairs or shelves or I have to build or create something with my hands when I'm super anxious and just kind of out of sorts or trying to process big transitions in my life.
Kim Lightley [00:22:55]:
Wow, that's cool.That's awesome.
Diane Schroeder [00:23:00]:
Yeah. To your point, everyone has something. And I would say that also you giving back and you taking that and sharing your story. Has it been cathartic?
Kim Lightley [00:23:14]:
Yes. And what's really cool about telling your story is it gives people permission to tell theirs. It's such a full circle. It's empowerment. There's a lot of story left to know. A lot of folks just have it.
Diane Schroeder [00:23:34]:
Well, and we tend to see snapshots of people's lives. And I would say that the South Canyon Fire does not define who you are as a person. It definitely changed your life and it's part of your story, but it's not your entire find. And maybe part of it is wisdom. I believe that as we get older, we realize that that when you're in the middle of it and it's really hard and messy, you think, this is my story or what am I going to do next? How am I going to get through this? And then after time and getting through it, you realize it's part of the story. There's a lot more to the story. And I always encourage and hope that people can give that grace to everyone else, that everyone's going through different things that we have no idea about, and it's just a snapshot of who they are in that moment in time.
Kim Lightley [00:24:31]:
Definitely contributed to who I am today. However, definition of who I was then and now is so different.
Diane Schroeder [00:24:40]:
Oh, I'm sure. Well, and I think also, and you haven't said it specifically, but the community aspect of this, how you have crew community is unlike anything else. And I will tell you, I miss that more than anything else. Now that I'm retired from the fire service, that is what I miss. I miss the crew and the people. And to have that taken away is awful. And you have built more community around that and I think that's beautiful, too, because that's another choice, right, to open yourself up and build another community or not.
Kim Lightley [00:25:26]:
Yeah. So it took many years for the surviving crew members to get together. It actually occurred 17 years after we got together, after the Falcon Fire. And now that's the tribe, right? It's such a beautiful support group we have with the benefits of cell phones. We have this text group, and there's some of us that go back to the South Canyon Fire multiple times a year, in fact, to do staff rides up on the mountain. And so, I mean, we're together and it's such an intimate group of us, obviously, but that's your tribe. That's your support. But then, like you were saying, the community. So the community of the fire service, right? And so regardless structural or wildland, it's like I remember years ago, I was speaking at the Boston Metro Fire Department Safety Conference, and it's like, why am I here in Boston? This didn't make sense, right? But I'll go. Sure. I love Boston. And so I spoke on this platform and afterwards, this crusty old fire dog, right, 40 whatever, years in the service in Boston. And he came up to me and he pointed a finger at me and he goes, you get it. You get it. That was like the biggest compliment ever, right? And here I am from Oregon. Boston metro fire. I mean, it's like worlds apart. It's like we are a big family. We may not know each other, but it's just that part of you get it. You get it.
Diane Schroeder [00:27:13]:
Well, and that's one of the best parts of it. And you're right. When I met you in May at the L 580 staff ride in Gettysburg, I didn't really know anyone. And it was a really kind of bizarro time because I'm getting ready to retire and here I am surrounded by these incredible people, humans from the wildland and the Omna group. And I'm like, I don't want to leave. Maybe I shouldn't leave. This is a terrible idea because that energy, that love of shared experience through being a first responder, being on the front lines, whether it's wildland or EMS or structure or law enforcement, there's a bond there that is really hard to explain. But you know it when you have it and you feel it.
Kim Lightley [00:28:04]:
Diane Schroeder [00:28:05]:
I would love to talk to you forever, and I'm so grateful that you have shared so much of your story. I think what I want to know, if you don't mind, I'm curious, what are the things that you're most grateful for today?
Kim Lightley [00:28:23]:
Well, it would be obviously family, just with ebbs and flow and the circles of grief and trauma, those who have stuck with you the whole way. You're good and your bad and your ugly and your joy, those types. And when I say family, yes, it's immediate family as well as those family of friends as well. So human connection, even though I love to escape and be by myself and be in the woods or wherever I go, but really knowing that those connections to others, it's the greatest gift. We could say the word love too. I'm grateful for that and I'm grateful for my foundation and my beliefs and the ability to find hope and cling on to hope when things get or have gotten really rough in life. I have a place in my heart for people who struggle deeply. So I'm just thankful that I didn't lose the grip. I am thankful for the ability for movement every time I go out on a walk, run, bike ride, ever hike, it's like, thank you for the ability to move and breathe and just live life in its fullest. It's a gift, and I don't want to take it for granted.
Diane Schroeder [00:30:13]:
Kim Lightley [00:30:15]:
Thank you. I think there was a long time that I had a lot of survivors guilt and I believed I should have died up on that mountain. And I was actually not very happy that my assistant superintendent got me off the mountain and so I didn't want to be here. And so the fact is, I'm thankful that that has shifted to the words. I'm thankful to be here.
Diane Schroeder [00:30:45]:
That's really powerful along with really beautiful, and that takes a lot of courage. And to be so vulnerable and sharing all of this is such an honor. So thank you again. You are a badass. I'm just going to keep saying it over and over, not in like a creepy stalker fangirl way, but yes, you are a badass. How can people work with you? And I will put all the information in the show notes, but how do you like to work with people and organizations?
Kim Lightley [00:31:20]:
So after the pharmaceutical chemist, thank goodness, I'm not that anymore. I did go back to the US. Forest Service in 2014 and I did work in the Washington office. I worked out of Oregon, but in fire and aviation, and I was a risk management program specialist and just last August left the Forest Service and started my own LLC. So I'm Kimberly Lightley LLC, and I just contract with different entities that fulfill my purpose and passion. I'm very much in tune with what makes me tick. And so just working with, like you've mentioned, the Omni International and working staff rides and being with the fire community one on one. Just last week, I did a new employee orientation, and I got to talk to, like, 45 new Wildland Firefighter type folks and just not only integrating my story, but I've been the national program manager for Stress first Aid for Wildland firefighters. It's another program area that we brought into the agency from the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation and the National Center for, you know, just working with just that mental health component and then integrating story in that. I do love to talk about crisis leadership, how we as leaders. So not only the preparation and getting our resources and coordination and all that, but during the critical incident, making those acute decisions and those finite moments of time and then the aftermath, what is the long term approach? It's crisis leadership moving forward after a critical incident, how do we take care of our people? So there's a lot of different things like that, but people there's interest in that. You'll have my Gmail address, and I'd be happy to engage in conversation. But, yeah, I like being a speaker. I've done everything from international to World Congress to a lot of different safety venues. So, yeah, there's a lot of eclectic type of things.
Diane Schroeder [00:33:44]:
Kim Lightley [00:33:46]:
Multi passionate. Yes.
Diane Schroeder [00:33:48]:
That's what I say, because I'm like well, I like to do a little bit of everything because it all is really cool. So I think that's awesome. And I've started saying, I quit working for the fire service, but I'm not done working with the fire service. And I feel like that's a similar sentiment that taking your experience and your wisdom and who you are as a leader and as a badass and sharing that with a bigger audience is really amazing. And I wish you nothing but the best of luck.
Kim Lightley [00:34:27]:
Thank you, Diane. And likewise.
Diane Schroeder [00:34:30]:
Thank you so much. I will put all this information in the show, and I look forward to seeing you in the future at different events and staying in touch.
Kim Lightley [00:34:39]:
Absolutely. All right, thank you guys for listening.
Diane Schroeder [00:34:43]:
Thank you for giving the valuable gift of your time and listening to the Fire inside her podcast. Speaking of value, one of the most common potholes we fall into on the journey to authenticity is not recognizing our value. So I created a workbook, it's all about value. Head on over to thefireinsideher.com/value to get your free workbook that will help you remember your value. Until next time, my friend.