Work This Job While You Figure Out Your Life
I have received quite a few questions about the job of Wildland Firefighting and everything it entails so here is the quick fact sheet for all interested in flying in helicopters and lighting forests on fire. Let us begin our fiery quest with some easily-digestible numbered lists because we all have the attention span of a goldfish.
But first, here is a quick video to get you warmed up. Shot in Northern California with my crew in the summer of 2015
Pro’s of the Job
- Only having to work for 6 months at a time!
- Leaves you with two amazing things for the other 6 months depending on your personal life: money AND time
- Constant sense of adventure and excitement, never knowing what you will be doing in the next hour
- Get paid to fly around in helicopters
- Meet amazing, hardworking people
- Get paid to travel (and work) in unique places such as the backcountry of Alaska, Wyoming, and beautiful Indian Reservations in Oregon
- Live in remote areas of the country and be able to explore them without any commitment or long term plans
- Once you gain some experience in Wildland Firefighting, it becomes relatively easy to move around the country to different stations depending on your interests and needs
Con’s of the Job
- Working/eating/sleeping next to the same people for weeks at a time. The average time allocated to working throughout the summer was 80-90 hours/week for me
- Relinquishing your life to the job for the majority of the summer. That means making plans is extremely difficult and the rule of thumb is “if you make plans, there will be a fire.” That turned out to be accurate many frustrating times, especially for my friends who had families
- Can be straining and stressful on your body especially if you have pre-existing back, knee, or ankle problems.
- On a more esoteric and personal note, this job can develop and grow notions of commitment-phobia
- Dealing with bureaucratic inefficiencies along with unnecessary risk for little benefit. Will post more about this later
It’s all about me me me
On a personal note, I never even considered or knew about Wildland Firefighting until I did AmeriCorps (basically the Peace Corps for the US) after college for a year. In fact, I never considered myself tough enough to be a “firefighter” and that fear almost stopped me from attempting to be one. It became necessary to silence the 10 year-old boy and listen to the 23 year-old man which lead to a breakthrough moment where I realized what a dumbass I was being by letting the thought of something create fear and dictate how I was acting in actual reality. Still working on that one…
Out of the four projects I worked on that year for the Americorps program, two of them were dedicated to training and working as a 10-person firefighting crew in Colorado.
Once it ended, I moved home for a few months and bided my time through the cold dark winter working at a storage space in Northern California. The good news is that the job was so lame that it motivated me to be constantly working towards getting the fire job I desired.
*Highlight of the storage unit job: picking up human shit from people that were trying to live in the units!*
During that winter I applied to approximately 100 stations across the country. Out of those 100 I called about 75, interviewed with 10, and got 5 offers. I eventually took a job on a type 2IA (Initial Attack) crew on the Coronado National Forest in Nogales, Arizona, a border town and the place that sounded the most exciting (Mexico! Scorpions! The Desert!). I had the time of my life for three seasons down there and am extremely grateful for everything the job let me experience while giving me precious time in the offseason to do whatever I felt like.
Wildland Firefighting is a seasonal job that lasts anywhere from 3-7 months during the Spring/Summer depending on where you are stationed. A place like Oregon or Washington won’t have many fires burning until June or July while a place like southern arizona where I was had fires starting in April. During your “season” you are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week unless you take approved vacation time. This job is not like the stereotypical structure firefighting schedule of working 3 days on, 4 days off or some variant thereof. If fires are in low supply, you will simply be working a 40-hour work week and most likely doing some type of project work like repairing fencing on the district or cutting fuels in high-risk areas to prevent large fires. The real money and excitement comes from fires baby, and all the associated hazard and overtime pay that comes with it.
The two main jobs to have in the Wildland Firefighting community is to be on a “crew” or an “engine”. A crew is comprised of 10-20 people and are used as the backbone of the labor for any incident. Need some people to hike in 3 miles to check and see if that smoke is something to worry about? Send the crew. Need a two mile stretch of forest prepped for a potential burn? Get me a crew. Need to cause a disturbance at the local watering hole? Ya the crew is great for that too.
Type 2 crews are typically smaller crews with more rookies and inexperienced firefighters. Type 2IA stands for Type 2 Initial Attack crews and have 20 people with much more experience. Type 1 crews are “hotshot” crews and usually have the most qualified personnel and will be a more militaristic experience. While these are the rough standards, every crew has different leaders and styles of management making the overall experience extremely variable. Ask lots of questions about the program during phone calls and interviews!
The engine is usually a group of 4-8 people that are in command of an “engine” or what most people would agree is a more typical fire truck. A type 6 engine is the size of a large pickup truck while a type 3 is a giant monstrosity that could be very useful in a zombie situation. Engine life is definitely seen as more relaxed, easy, and boring. I am generalizing here so take it with a grain of salt, but the name “engine slug” isn’t around for nothing. With that being said, I have friends who went from the crew to an engine and vice versa. Depending on what they were looking for, time constraints, age, and lifestyle desire, they all liked the crew or engine in different ways. It truly is a personal preference and you can start your Wildland Firefighting career on either one.
Compared to the relatively high barriers to entry for a structure firefighting job, Wildland offers a simple alternative. The two classes you must have before applying to jobs are S-130 and S-190. They are usually offered together and once completed, qualify you to meet the minimum requirements for any entry level wildland job. Find them at your local community college OR fire departments. Structure guys are always offering these classes and doing refreshers to stay up to date. Most of them will be free or very low cost.
These basic classes will get you to meet the minimum requirements but of course, you will want to stand out in the job search! I would recommend choosing a few other classes on the training list here and learning more. L-180 and S-110 are great beginner courses:
In addition, medical training is always an excellent choice and will give you an advantage on getting hired as well as giving you concrete skills to take to structure firefighting if you decide to go that route in the future. Standard EMT/Wilderness EMT are extensive and excellent courses, as well as becoming a Wilderness First Responder which is what I decided to do.
NOLS offers the Wilderness First Responder/EMT courses here: http://www.nols.edu/wmi/courses/wildfirstaid.shtml
The most important factor in Wildland Firefighting especially if you are going for a crew job is FITNESS. Get your ass in shape. While running fast is great, biking fast is great, doing lots of pull-ups can get you looking shredded for your V-neck, the main objective here is hiking. You will be judged, assessed, and validated based on your hiking ability. This does not mean that you have to be the fastest on the crew or be a superhuman at hiking right now. While each crew is run differently, you must be prepared to endure a “hell week” of sorts which could include two long-runs/hikes per day along with circuit/strength training and overall firefighting training. This will not be even remotely as intense as hell week for training such as Navy Seals but the goal of weeding out people unfit for the job is the same.
Get out and hike, preferably with weight on your back. Go for runs to build up your endurance. Do a lot of pushups and pullups and then hike some more. It is much better to be extremely over-prepared in this case then to be even slightly underprepared. With this job if you can hike and aren’t a complete dickhole, you basically have 90% of it in the bag.
My training regimen before my first season consisted of eating clean about 70% of the time (that’s what I tell myself now but as I am writing this, but I like ice cream way too much), lifting heavy weights with compound movements (squats, deadlift, bench, etc) about 3x a week for 30 minutes and running/hiking about 3x a week as well. Sprinkle some yoga on top and you have my exercise cake for about 5 months prior to the first day of work. I would say this regimen put me slightly above average compared to the rest of the guys (and girl) on the crew which allowed for me to progress during the workouts at the beginning of the season without dying. I AM NOT and never have been a crazy fast/strong strong hiker, weight lifter, chainsaw carrier, or runner. My goal in cross country in high school was to not be in the last 10 people of the entire race. Put in some solid effort for a few months and you will be able to keep up.
Where to Apply:
All jobs are posted on www.usajobs.gov From that site you can search the state, agency, or pay grade you wish to start at and begin your search!
There are a few federal agencies that hire seasonal Wildland Firefighters:
- BLM (Bureau of Land Management)
- Fish and Wildlife Service
- National Park Service
- US Forest Service: This is the largest employer and responsible for the majority of fires in the American West. I worked for them and all of my experience written about in this article is from this viewpoint
In addition to these, you can usually find paid or volunteer fire jobs at the state, county, or city level
Start in November/December and decide where you think you would like to work and what type of crew/engine you would like to be on. After applying, call the stations that you are most interested in and speak to the captain of the crew or engine. This cold calling may scare the shit out of you and be intimidating at first, and that’s because it is. It gets easier with time.If they are nearby, schedule some time to go in and meet with them face-to-face. During these phone calls and personal meet-ups, I kept a logbook of:
– who I called and what time/date it was
-when they suggested I should call back (a very good question to ask I found out)
– any information they gave me about life on their crew (overtime hours, culture, location, exercise regimen, expected duties and performance, on-site housing). Ask about all of these!
In the end it is very important to get your name out there as early as possible and to tread the line between persistent and annoying. Be respectful, be inquisitive, and get in shape. You’re hired.
I can’t talk highly enough about this job if it fits to your lifestyle or desired lifestyle like it did for me. It gave me the opportunity to light canyons on fire until 3AM on the Mexican border, be off the grid and get rides in helicopters in the Alaskan backcountry for 2 weeks, and get in a snowball fight in Idaho in September. I met people that have become brothers and sisters in my life that I will be friends with forever. And with all my time off I was able to accomplish long-held dreams of backpacking South America and training for a half-Ironman.
If uncertainty is a major factor in your life (as it is for everybody) and you don’t have many responsibilities, my humble opinion is to try this job out. It’s only 6 months. I’m not doing it as a career and nobody expects you to. You don’t like it after the season? Beautiful, now you know that and never have to do it again. In the meantime, I guarantee you found lifelong friends, stories for your grandkids (basically the point of doing anything), and made $20-40k.
Here are some useful sites for finding temporary yet awesome gigs around the country and the world. Meet interesting people, travel, and learn new skills all under the context of “I’m just doing this while I figure out my life Mom, damn!”
- Coolworks.com (seasonal jobs around the country, many are outdoors. This and usajobs.gov listed below have more stereotypical work which includes the much needed paycheck)
- Workaway.info (worldwide work exchange site I have used in Panama, Colombia, and Costa Rica. nanny, hostels, farms, bars, and other places are listed and are great options to begin a longer term trip and get a feel for the area)
- Helpx.net (similar to Workaway)
- Wwoof.org (get your hippy on and work on organic farms almost anywhere in the world in exchange for free room and board
- Usajobs.gov (find seasonal jobs at National Parks across the country doing countless jobs from the mundane to the extraordinary)
More questions about the job, the lifestyle, or how to get in shape for it? Leave a comment below, find me on social media, or drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org