FRENCHTOWN — Of all the firefighters I've met this past year, none will stick in my mind like the Frenchtown woman who's become a legend in the wildland firefighting community for her hard work and dedication to keeping others safe — others far younger than her 75-years.
At an age when people tire of retirement, Dynah Geissal is fighting fires with the vigor of people half a century younger, probably making her the oldest female wildland firefighter in the U.S.
"I have to be, I haven't seen anybody that was my age in at least 10 years, maybe longer than that," Geissal tells me as we talk on a windswept mountainside west of Three Forks. "When I first was in the department in my 50s, there were other women in."
"In that age, but I haven't seen any in years and years. I wanted to ask that Saint Regis guy how old he was, but it seemed rude," breaking into her trademark laugh.
It wasn't always that way. On her first out-of-Montana assignment more than 20 years ago she had lots to learn from her first supervisor.
"'Do you know what you're doing?' he asked me and I said 'no.' And so he sat me down and told me everything he thought I needed to know and he said, 'did you bring a sleeping bag?' And we were supposedly staying in motels and I didn't. And he said, "what if you're on a fire overnight?' And I'm like, 'I don't know. Nobody told me to bring one.' So he gave me his." - Dynah Geissal
"We cut down a lot of trees in those days. They'd just say, 'do you think you can handle that tree?' And I'd go, 'yep' and take it down'," she continued.
Learning frightening lessens over those two decades too. Like the time in New Mexico when she noticed the wall of flame chasing the trucks but her engine boss didn't.
"Finally we stop, and he goes, 'oh my God, why didn't you tell me? Get in!' And then he says, 'how do you think we got in here?' And I'm like 'I don't know.' So I always tell my guys if you see something and I don't say something because that was horrible," Geissal said. "He was freaking out. And that was probably the scariest because I didn't know anything."
The biggest lesson of keeping firefighters safe. "I don't care if you can't get ahold of your division, get ahold of somebody else. It doesn't matter, you know. Save some lives."
For those younger firefighters, like Frenchtown Fire Department trainee Seth Borher, just keeping up with Dynah is a day's work. "Yeah, I just don't think that I'll be able to be like as physically active as Dynah is."
I got a laugh from him when I asked how hard it was to keep up, "it's rough every day."
Training is her passion. Even on this day, mopping up on an early season fire hours away from home base, it was collecting pay and then back to Frenchtown to conduct a class that evening. As much as she likes firefighting, training new firefighters is high on her list.
"I really like bringing the guys that I work with as a duty officer. Come out and teach, teaching them and working with them. I've been offered other jobs. Not with other departments but contract engines that promise me this and that. And no, I'm loyal to Frenchtown and because it's a community. And I like it that way." - Dynah Geissal
A community feeling she carries everywhere, even to the massive California fires, where people send cards and letters back with heartfelt thanks. Seeing that she's still having a good time, I had to ask how long she'll stay on the fire lines, seeing how much she still enjoys the job.
"I am. I feel really good. I'm always aerobically fit 'cause I run a lot and I'm a subsistence farmer, so to speak, and we live off the grid. So we carry water and I'm the woodchopper in our family, so that part is easy," Geissal explained. "It's more how long can I carry the weight I need to carry? That's the thing, so we'll see. I mean, I don't have any medical problems. And whoever asked me if I'd had any knee replacements? No, I've never had anything. I'm just good to go."