what to expect
Wildland firefighting is inherently dangerous work,
but Looking at wildland fire job postings, the descriptions sound like something out of the early days of the wild, wild west:
Work Environment: The work is primarily performed in forest and range environments in steep terrain where surfaces may be extremely uneven, rocky, covered with vegetation, and in smoky conditions, etc. Temperatures vary from above 100 degrees F to below freezing. Risks include smoke inhalation, fire entrapment, snake or insect bites and stings, exposure to excessive machinery noise, and falling and rolling materials.
Physical Demands: Duties involve rigorous fieldwork requiring above average physical performance, endurance and superior conditioning. Work requires prolonged standing, walking over uneven ground, and recurring bending, reaching, lifting and carrying of items weighing over 50 pounds and shared lifting and carrying of heavier items, and similar strenuous activities requiring at least average agility and dexterity. Excerpted from a current BLM fire position announcement
All of the above is true in my experience. Days are long and can be exhausting.
There are different types of wildland firefighters. You generally start on an engine or hand crew and work up to a helitack (helicopter) crew, hotshot crew, heli-rappeling, or smoke jumping. All these positions are important in fire. If you don’t want to be out in the ash and dirt and smoke you can be in wildland fire in a dispatch position, manning a radio and coordinating fire resources in a central dispatch center.
The following sections will have lots of information that may not entirely make sense to you until you fight fire, but I hope they will give you a comprehensive overview of what it’s like to be a wildland firefighter. The sections came from the most asked questions I received as a mentor.
Wildland firefighters can work 14 days straight (called a roll) with 16-hour days and possibly up to three days travel before and after the official 14. Night shifts and longer shifts of 16-24 hours are possible depending on the fire and area you are in, but not super common. My record is 29 hours straight.
During a regular work week when there is little fire danger we do a lot of project work. This can include cutting down trees with chainsaws and piling it into burn piles or scattering it, prepping and digging line for prescribed burns, station and tool maintenance, engine maintenance, patrolling high use areas to ensure campfire regulation compliance, paperwork, and general readiness to be prepared when fires happen.
When not on a roll, firefighters work a standard 40 hour work week. It’s very important to be flexible! You may start a workday thinking you’ll make it to that concert you bought tickets for that night and then find yourself hiking up to a fire that just started at 4 pm. Anything can happen.
Being available to work overtime is expected. Some weeks may be 40 hours and some can be 112 hours or more.
You won’t get lots of time off so don’t expect to get a week or even a weekend off in peak fire season. You’re a member of the team and it’s a quick way to not get hired back if you’re not committed to the job.
I’ve missed countless weddings and had to cancel plans at the last minute because of a fire or leaving suddenly to travel to another fire. It’s an ongoing joke that if someone makes plans something will usually happen that day or get called to go out on a roll.
Depending on what the day is like and the work needed, you will get an unpaid lunch break of 30 minutes. Sometimes that doesn’t happen and you eat whenever you can sneak a short break or eat while you hike and you will usually get paid for that time.
The Arduous Work Capacity Test (commonly called the Pack Test) that every wildland firefighter needs to take every year to stay current and fight fire, is not a big deal. You have to hike carrying 45 pounds 3 miles in under 45 minutes (some high elevation duty stations will have an adjusted time. Usually no more than 46:30). You have to walk, no running is allowed, and the course is generally flat. I’ve done it on tracks, gravel trails, and dirt roads. None had anything more than slight elevation changes.
When I first heard about the fitness test I assumed it had to be in fire boots (more on these in the What I Wear/PPE section on this page), but it’s not. I’ve worn running/hiking shoes every time.
I’m 5 feet tall and 110 pounds so I had never carried weight that far in such a fast time before and I was stressed about passing. So I trained on a rolling hill course with 45 pounds of dumb bells in a giant backpacking backpack. This was awkward and probably hilarious to anyone who passed me huffing and puffing up the trail in shorts and tall leather boots with an enormous, poorly packed backpack. I did what I thought was 3 miles a few times and always came really close to 45 minutes.
When it came time to actually do the test, I was by myself with no one to pace off of and it was dead flat. I finished in 42 minutes and change. I was so excited! This isn’t particularly fast. In the years since, I’ve had coworkers blow me away in the pack test, finishing in 35 minutes or less. However, few people can out hike me on any crew I’ve been on. Tests don’t determine how good of a firefighter you are and as long as you pass the test easily, no one really cares how fast you did it.
During fire season, every crew I’ve been on makes time for physical training (called PT). We do hikes with our packs and extra weight, long runs, sprints, calisthenics, weight training, body weight exercises, and wildland specific training like line digs and hose lays (putting hose out from a water source to get it to a fire).
Fitness is incredibly important because a crew can only move as fast as its slowest member and you don’t want to be that person when fire is coming at you over a ridge or you need to get to a safe area NOW.
In order to stay fire fit, I do a lot of work in the off-season. I frequently skin and backcountry ski, cross country ski, do body weight and weight training, yoga for flexibility and core strength, downhill ski, and run.
I’ve found that there will always be someone who is a faster runner or stronger hiker, but as long as you can hold your own you will find your place on your fire crew and be a valuable and contributing crew member.
Some crews use the following US Hotshots Association Standards for their minimum fitness standards and each crew member has to do these tests in addition to the pack test at the beginning of fire season. They are a good place to start to get a base fitness level.
1.5 mile run in a time of 10:35 minutes or less
25 push-ups in 1 minute
40 sit-ups in 1 minute
Chin-ups based on body weight:
Greater than 170 lbs. = 4 chin-up
135-169 lbs. = 5 chin-ups
110-134 lbs. = 6 chin-ups
Less than 109 lbs. = 7 chin-up
It may sound extreme, but I have absolutely had days when I worked 16 hours straight with only a short 5 minute break to eat. We can cover lots of miles in a day and that wears on you. Once I did a 15 mile day and I have done countless 8-10 mile days. Those days you have to really dig deep and find ways to break through mental and physical barriers.
Digging line can be exhausting and a little mind-numbing. You swing a hand tool, which generally weighs 7 pounds, over and over again to remove soil and debris down to mineral soil that no longer has combustible material in it. We are basically creating what look like a single-track trail that act as fuel breaks and hopefully stop the fire from progressing.
I’ve woken up with my hands curled into claws and spotted with open blisters from digging line and my feet aching and so bone tired I didn’t think I could possibly walk another step or swing my tool, but I did, that day and many days after.
Keeping a good attitude is really important. You can be happy and satisfied doing the work or you can get mad and annoyed about it. It’s up to you. Find the fun and camaraderie with your crew members. You can get close really fast with the people you work with because you rely on each other for so much. It’s a really special thing. Don’t be the person who can never be happy and creates a bad mood that takes over the crew.
I’ve been freezing cold getting out of my sleeping bag in the morning and sweating profusely on the fireline just hours later. Temperatures can be wildly different throughout a shift. It’s important to find what works for you and what you need to be comfortable while you work. Being prepared and having what you need with you in your pack will make all the difference. I treat myself by buying my favorite portable snacks and good instant coffee for when I really need it on the fireline.
Generally we walk off trail to get around fires, and also along dirt roads or lines cut by hand or bulldozers. This can make for very uneven, side slope or rocky walking with a heavy pack on your back at all times.
what i carry
My fireline pack weighs around 25-40 pounds depending on how far we have to walk away from vehicles and what we need to accomplish that day.
We always carry:
A fire shelter, which weighs about 5 pounds
Food for 24 hours
Water (minimum 4 quarts and a quart of water weighs a little more than 2 pounds. (I carry a 100-oz CamelBak with an insulated hose and a 40-oz HydroFlask insulated water bottle. More on this type of water bottle in the GEAR LIST page under the RESOURCES tab.)
Personal first aid kit
Headlamp with extra batteries (I like the one linked because it doesn’t turn on in my pack and is super bright and had red light mode for nighttime)
Compass with signal mirror
Flagging (colorful thin plastic tape that you can use to mark an area or path)
A large file (for sharpening hand tools)
Fusees (firestarters that look like road flares).
Additionally I carry a radio, spare batteries for the radio, rain jacket, multitool, repair kit, spare boot laces, parachute cord, a bandana for cleaning and wrapping a wound or just wiping my face off, weather kit, marking panels for helicopters to see from the air, a small tarp, a spanner and hose clamp to use on fire hoses, extra medical items, and spare regular glasses (I wear prescription sunglasses during the day and switch them out with glasses if I’m working at night).
If you’re a member of a saw team, which means you are cutting down trees with a chainsaw, you will have a saw repair kit with extra parts and have to carry fuel and oil for the chainsaw. Other crew members will also carry additional fuel and oil, drinking water, or medical supplies (if they are an Emergency Medical Technician or EMT) for the crew, which is why your pack can vary in weight so much day to day.
On my person at all times I have a pocket knife and what’s called a Man Purse, which keeps my pens and Sharpie, my “Smokey Calendar” (a tiny calendar issued by you home station (where you normally work) to track fires I’ve been on and my hours so I can get paid accurately), waterproof paper for notes, my Red Card (your card saying you’re wildfire qualified, more on it in the APPLYING section), and my Incident Response Pocket Guide. The IRPG, (as it’s known) is a reference guide for wildland fire operations that includes checklists and best practices. A wildland firefighting reference guide, if you will. It’s also issued by your home station.
Fire Camp/sleeping conditions
When out on a fire you will be sleeping on the ground in most cases. Your home station will issue you a tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and usually a space blanket to protect your sleeping pad from punctures.
I’m super lazy and never set up a tent unless lots of rain will fall during the night and I have nothing to roll under to keep dry. I also use my personal bivy sack (basically a sleeping bag that is a one man tent) because it saves space in my red bag and it’s way easier and faster to set up and put away.
I don’t like setting up tents because I love falling asleep while looking at the stars. I’ve seen incredible shooting stars and the Milky Way is usually bright because I’m out in the middle of nowhere and it’s dark sky territory with no light pollution. Also, when you wake up at 5:30ish to be packed and starting work at 6, every minute of sleep counts.
That being said, I’ve worked with people who set up a tent every night no matter the weather because they like the privacy.
Fire camps at large fires are like mini towns. There’s bathrooms, food tents, logistical tents, a medical unit, communications tent, showers, water, and areas for each crew to sleep. They can be very loud and hard to sleep in with generators and bright lights on all the time because people are working night shifts. They can be in open areas like fields or in a large building like a high school.
Sometimes you will be “spiked out” at a spike camp, which means that your crew is needed on an area of the fire that is too far for your crew to drive into the main fire camp to eat and get supplies before and after you work. So, a mini fire camp is set up for those crews that are far away and you all sleep there. Meals and supplies are driven from the main camp to spike camp or flown in by helicopter if you are way out in the woods.
I enjoy spike camps because it feels more communal with everyone helping set up and put away the food and sometimes you get to eat around a fire sitting on logs and it feels like a proper camp out. It’s way quieter and I can easily get away from crew members who snore.
Your crew will do everything together when out on a roll. You work together, eat together, sleep together. It’s difficult to get alone time. I’m an introvert so I like alone time to recharge. It’s draining for me to be around people so much, let alone the same 5-20 people for weeks on end. I get that in the evenings by going to bed a little earlier and reading or texting loved ones.
There may be crew members who drive you crazy, but you just have to find ways to keep your sanity and get away every once in awhile. It’s also a good way to deal with working with lots of different types of people. I’ve worked with people who have very different views than me but because they are my coworkers we end up having really good conversations about topics that are generally polarizing among strangers or casual friends. I’ve mentioned it before, but the camaraderie on fire crews is really special and something I love the most about the job.
Cell phone service can vary wildly on fires. I’ve been up high seemingly in the middle of nowhere and had full service while other times you’ll be right outside a town and not have any. I try to keep my husband, family and friends aware of where I am, but they know that if they don’t hear from me that no news is good news.
Crew bosses will try their hardest to get their crew members into phone service every few days so they can check in, but that’s not always possible. One roll I literally had no service for 12 days because we were spiked out. It can be nice to not rely on your phone for entertainment and truly unplug during these times. We always have better conversations when there’s no phone service.
I’ve also found that Verizon Wireless has the best coverage in the places we go. Nine out of 10 times I’ll be able to send a text while coworkers with other carriers have no service.
I like to eat healthy as much as possible, so the food provided to me on fires can make it difficult for me to feel good and have lots of energy to work. Like I’ve already mentioned, treat yourself! There’s no reason not to since you’ll get $5 a day on top of your pay for incidentals while away from your home station. The Federal Government is thoughtful like that. Get the good stuff that you love to eat and drink to have in your pack so you are well fueled and have things to look forward to during the day.
On fires, as mentioned above, you will be provided with meals, but that can mean anything from a catered boxed up meal from a great local restaurant to a sack lunch with a less than ideal ham sandwich and other snacks to Meals Ready to Eat (MRE), a military ration that you heat up in a little bag and eat out of a pouch with a plastic spoon. Many of the MREs are really gross to me, but when it’s the only thing provided I eat it just like everyone else.
Vegetables and fresh foods can be scarce so know what you need and make sure to get it every chance you get.
People with dietary restrictions, food intolerances, etc will need to be especially diligent in keeping food they can eat in their packs and being prepared.
In fire camps it’s easy to get sick with so many people around so wash your hands before and after you eat because you will be touching things in the food area like condiments and salad bar utensils that everyone touches.
A lot of things fall by the wayside when you’re tired and running on little sleep, but everyone has different standards for what good hygiene means to them. Do what you need to keep yourself happy. Everyone generally smells horrible by day 2 or 3 of a roll so you’ll get over being around people’s BO and dirty clothes real quick.
I’ll happily go without a shower on a roll, but if I can’t brush my teeth twice a day I don’t feel human. It’s rare to get access to a shower unless you are in a large fire camp, but even then I usually prioritize sleep over getting clean when I know I’ll be back sweating in the ash and dirt the next day.
I like to keep face wipes in my personal bag (called a red bag because the government issued ones are big red bags, see the list of what’s in my red bag on the GEAR LIST page under the RESOURCES tab) so I can “wash” my face at the end of the day even when I don’t have access to water. This helps me feel a little clean and keeps my face from breaking out in zits.
Taking care of your feet is really important. I change my socks most days and put Gold Bond powder (a classic wildland firefighter favorite) on my feet and in my boots every night. A thick lotion or salve like Burt’s Bees Res Q can help heal little cuts on hands and feet and keep them from getting infected.
What i wear/PPE
PPE also known as Personal Protective Equipment is what we wear on the fireline or doing project work. It includes:
8-inch high leather or approved fire resistant boots (boot brands are a hot topic, read my thoughts on the WILDLAND FIRE BOOTS page under the RESOURCES tab for more info)
Socks (duh) I wear tall cotton athletic socks, but other people love wool hiking socks or one thin pair of sock liners under another pair
Nomex pants (also called “greens” because of the common color) Nomex is a brand name synthetic textile that is tough and heat and flame resistant up to about 500 degrees.
A belt is nice, but not required. I bought this Bison Designs Belt my first year and have used it since. It’s indestructible. Some people wear leather belts.
Cotton or wool short or long sleeve t-shirt (Synthetic materials can melt onto your skin and cause worse burns if you are caught on fire)
For the ladies out there, I wear cotton sports bras and cotton underwear for the same reason as cotton shirts above (read the WOMEN IN WILDLAND FIRE page under the RESOURCES tab for more info/tips on lady-specific things)
Nomex button-down shirt (also known as a “yellow” because of the common color) Nomex pants and shirts will be issued to you, you don’t buy them personally.
Leather gloves (I keep them together with a carabiner on my pack so they aren’t easily lost)
Eye protection (sunglasses or clear safety glasses)
Hard hat with chin strap (used when around helicopters or strong wind) and shroud (to protect your neck from heat and flames)
Ear protection (ear plugs) if you are running a chainsaw or around one or other machinery
I was really worried at first about wearing two shirts, long pants, and hiking in leather boots instead of the tank top, shorts, and trail running shoes I would prefer to hike long distances in. I get really hot, but honestly being covered from the sun makes a huge difference and the Nomex clothing is really soft and a little oversized which provides for pretty good airflow.
Falling trees, fire entrapments, searing hot ash pits, embers, snakes, spiders, scorpions, bees, wasps, moose, bears, aircraft, helicopters, driving, rolling debris, tripping, falling, giant blisters, chainsaws, axes, lightning, wind, fire whirls, I could go on and on. There are literally a million ways to harm yourself or others during normal daily work or out on the fireline. It’s important to always keep this in the back of your mind and keep your situational awareness up at all times. If you see something dangerous and can prevent something bad from happening, say something!