Want to Get Paid to Fight Wildland Fires?

Every summer, thousands of people leave the city behind to take part in a time-honored American tradition: wildland firefighting. This seasonal profession is ideal for men and women who enjoy spending (a lot of) time outdoors, are in reasonable shape and are willing to work long, hot hours in exchange for pretty decent pay. If you’ve never worked as a wildland firefighter (but always thought the job sounded fun), here are a few tips to point you in the right direction.

Important considerations
This is a physically demanding job. Conditions that may hinder your ability to perform the necessary functions of wildland firefighting include:

  • Immune system/allergenic disorder (including severe bee allergy)
  • Artificial limb, transplant, implant, or electrical device (all types)
  • Conjunctivitis, night blindness, or other visual disorder
  • Dysrhythmia, angina, or other cardiovascular disorder
  • Asthma, lung abscess, or other disease that affects the respiratory system
  • Gland disorder (including thyroid disease); hemophilia or sickle cell anemia
  • Arthritis, muscular dystrophy, sciatica or other condition that causes chronic pain to the musculoskeletal system
  • Ataxia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, or other condition of the nervous system
  • Hepatitis

All wildland firefighters must undergo a physical examination at the start of the season (though some are less extensive than others). If you suffer from one or more of these conditions, consult your physician prior to submitting your job application; the medical standards for wildland firefighting can be found online. A previous injury or condition will not necessarily ruin your chances of getting a fire job; if you can still perform the necessary work functions, it’s usually as simple as obraining a physician’s signature.

In addition to physical demands, another consideration to make is the required time commitment. Fire season in the United States typically lasts between late spring and mid-fall, peaking between early July and mid-September. If you’re a member of an initial attack (IA) or engine crew, then you can expect to spend at least six to eight weeks fighting fire in the field. That’s great news for your bank account, but bad news for your pet dog, part-time barista job, or any other commitments waiting for you back at home. And just so we’re clear, that’s six to eight weeks with spotty cell coverage and next to no web access (though this has improved significantly in recent years, thanks to smartphone technology).

Finally, it is important to understand the nature of your firefighting job in terms of structure and hierarchy. Wildland firefighting units are more relaxed than the military, but probably much stricter than any other job you’ve had. Every individual who participates in a firefighting operation falls somewhere along the chain of command — and if it’s your first summer, then just about everyone else outranks you. This means you’ll be ordered around and expected to follow protocol at all times. And if you screw up, expect to be yelled at by at least one person (and probably more). That’s the nature of hierarchy. Just keep in mind that everyone who fights fire starts at the bottom and works the way up the chain.

Finding a Job
If you go the government route, there are several federal agencies that employ wildland firefighters. These include the National Park service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of Natural Resources, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Minor variations aside, all of these agencies generally adhere to the same list of requirements for firefighter applicants. For a comprehensive list of all available firefighting positions offered through the U.S. government, you can conduct a nationwide (or state-specific) search on usajobs.gov. The listings on this site will include all of the specific requirements for each opening.

Outreach goes a long way when it comes to landing a wildland firefighting gig. Do some research and make a list of states and regions where you’d be willing to travel for the summer; regardless of where firefighting takes you during the course of the summer, every crew reports to a home base, and this is where you’ll initially report and work when not on assignment. Once you have a few locations nailed down, call the office and try to speak with someone who’s involved with the local fire program (the higher up, the better). Just a quick introduction, followed by a brief inquiry about job openings and how to apply, will suffice. When the fire supervisors are sorting through stacks of applications later on, there’s a good chance they’ll remember you.

It’s your first season, so that smokejumper position might be a little out of your league — but there are plenty of entry-level opportunities for wildland firefighters. Most forests have at least one initial attack crew, which is usually comprised of 20 crew members and a few supervisors. These crews handle the grunt work of wildland fire prevention; they dig fire lines, patrol sensitive areas, and haul materials from place to place. Turnover rates vary for these crews, but there are usually at least one or two openings per season. Rookie firefighters might also be able to land a job on a fire engine; these crews typically consist of four or five people per engine. If you can’t get an actual fire crew job, then consider any other federal seasonal job (such as trail maintenance or forest patrol). You’ll almost certainly be red-carded (see below), and (depending on the severity of that particular season) you will probably be dispatched to at least one or two fires during the course of the summer.

If you’d prefer to forego the government route and check out firefighting jobs in the private sector, check out the National Wildfire Suppression Association, the country’s largest representative of wildland fire services contractors.

Beginning of the season
You’ve applied, landed a firefighting job, and reported for duty to your home station. Now what? Well, the first few weeks of your season — otherwise known as the training period — will probably be much less action-packed than the rest of the summer.

In order to fight fire, you must obtain a wallet-sized certificate known as a ‘red card’. This will require you to take the S-130 course, which covers the essentials of wildland firefighting; it typically consists of 12 online modules and one field day (full completion is mandatory). You’ll also take the S-190 course, which is an introduction to forest fire behavior. Depending on your position, you may also be required to complete the S-212 course, which covers wildland firefighting chainsaw operations. Finally, you’ll probably be required to obtain a government driver’s license; this involves a written exam and practicum driving test with your supervisor.

Then there’s the physical test, known affectionately as the ‘pack test’. This requires you to walk three miles in less than 45 minutes while carrying 45 pounds on your back. Anyone who is in reasonable shape will pass the pack test — but it’s still a decent workout, so get a good night’s sleep and drink plenty of water on the day of the test.

Expectations for the summer
With a few exceptions, your crew’s details will last two weeks apiece. During this time, you’ll work every one of those 14 days, and shifts last between 10 and 16 hours. You might wonder, how is it physically possible to fight fire for 16 hours? Well, since you brought it up, now’s a good time to mention that good chunk of your fire detail will be spent sitting or standing around, waiting to receive orders. You’ll usually report for duty between 6 and 7 a.m., but your crew may not actually leave the station (let alone fight fire) until the mid-afternoon. For this reason, your fire bag should contain a deck of cards, two or three books, and whatever else you need to entertain yourself during the lulls; however, you may want to leave tablets, portable music players, and other fragile devices at home. 

But also be prepared for long days of arduous firefighting under the summer sun. You’ll receive plenty of rest periods throughout the day, but the work is often physically exhausting — and chances are you’ll be sleeping in a tent that night. You’ll also get quite dirty and often have little or no access to a shower for days at a time, if that bothers you. It’s all part of the experience, so don’t complain — embrace it. By day five, you’ll barely notice the smell.

How much money do wildland firefighters make? It all depends on a) your GS pay rate, b) the location of your home base, c) the number of fire details you receive, and d) how long your season lasts, but this formula should help:

Say you make $15 per hour (which falls between a typical GS-4 and GS-5 pay rating) and you’re set to complete a full two-week detail that begins on a Monday. During the first 40 hours of work, you’ll earn $600; assuming you work 14 hours each day, that means you’ll hit the 40-hour mark near the end of your Wednesday shift. Everything from this point through the end of your Sunday shift will be considered overtime; since the government awards time-and-a-half for overtime, this means that you’re now earning $22.50 per hour for the rest of the week. Including the two remaining hours on Wednesday, you’ll work 58 more hours. Add that to the initial 40 hours, and you’ve just earned $1,905 (pre-tax) for a week of hard work. Double that to $3,810, and that’s how much you’ll earn for the full two-week detail.

In addition, every day spent on or near the fire will earn you hazard pay, which awards a bonus of 25 percent of your base pay; even if you only spend one hour fighting fire, hazard pay will be awarded for the entire day. You’ll also earn time-and-a-half for any holidays you work (July 4 and Labor Day are usually the only two that apply). So ostensibly, there could be days where you earn 2.25 times your normal pay rate; if your wage is $15 per hour, then that amounts to $33.75 an hour ($472.50 for a 14-hour shift).

Detail extensions may occur; standard procedure in these cases is to award one day off, and then begin a new two-week detail. It’s important to keep in mind that your detail could last well beyond two weeks, so plan ahead with rent, bills, etc.

Finally, a word to the wise: wildland fires are not the place to screw around. Illegal substance use is not tolerated, and with very few exceptions, neither is drinking. And if you break this rule, you’re not just shooting yourself in the foot. Standard procedure is to send home the entire crew if one of its members breaks this rule. This means you’ve just cost nearly two dozen people the chance to earn a fire paycheck.

A single article cannot cover every aspect of wildland firefighting, but hopefully this information will assist you in your fire season job search. February and March are excellent times to apply for these positions.

By Brad Nehring