A JOB AS A wildland firefighter with the US Forest Service sounds like the perfect fit, but how do you get into this elite corps? It may not be as hard, or as easy as you think.
Four-year veteran and “Hotshot” Dan Pool says the most difficult part of becoming a wildland firefighter is the application process. For most, this means logging on to the Forest Service’s AVUE Digital Services (ADS) website to create a personnel profile.
“The AVUE is a huge pain in the you know where,” says Pool, “but it is useful for people who want to get a job and can’t make a personal appearance before they get hired.”
No experience is necessary for the job, but accuracy is key as the ADS matrix will narrow down the applicants. Then they send paper applications tailored to the specific location you have applied for and whether you’re applying for Type 2 (regular fire crew) or Type 1 (smoke jumper or “hotshot.”) Pool suggests prospective applicants also contact the administrators in charge of fire crews in that location non-stop until they get a response.
Once the Forest Service selects you as a candidate you must complete the pack test–the only universal requirement to fight fire–carrying a 45 pound pack three miles in under forty-five minutes. “It doesn’t sound too tough, but you have to keep a pretty brisk pace,” Pool says. Type 1 minimums are higher: 7 pull ups, 25 push-ups, and 45 sit-ups, and running a mile and a half in under 11 min.
The “pack test” has no gender bias, and neither, it seems, does the Forest Service. Pool says the women firefighters do the same work as the men. “Don’t be intimidated,” Pool says to female applicants. “If you want to do it, you can, but don’t expect special treatment. The most consistent rule for everyone is that you always do as much as you possibly can so no one else is carrying your load of work.”
After the pack test, the reality of firefighting settles in. “I was pushed to my physical limits a few times but I didn’t expect that the hardest part of “Fire” would be getting along with 19 other crew members in extremely close and stressful situations.” Pool goes on to say, “We shortly became family with an unconditional ability to love and hate the person next to you and have your life in their hands and theirs in yours. The friends I have made through “Fire” are the strongest and deepest you can make.”
Social burdens come up again when asked about what expectations other people had before working on fire crews.
“Many people think that fighting fire is a glamorous job,” Pool says, “fighting the evil fire, saving babies from burning cabins and other Hollywood images and they become disenfranchised by the huge slow moving machine of the government and disappointed by not being pushed hard enough physically and pushed too hard socially.”
To work well as a firefighter, one has to lose all of his or her expectations. “Some days you will work 16 hours non-stop without any breaks, eating your lunch on the go and ‘runnin’ and gunnin” with fire actively pushing you at every moment, hiking up and down steep and dangerous slopes while carrying all your gear (any where from 30 -60 lb) while trees are falling around you, helicopters and planes are dropping retardant and water all around you, while you are trying to accomplish the day’s task.
Then the next day the fire will be too hot to work near, or some other issue will make your entire crew wait all day to get to work, sitting in the hot sun for 16 hours with nothing to do but guess when they will be called to work. Sometimes you don’t get called. Sitting for 18 hours is much worse than working for 16 hours.”
The working conditions are intense and dangerous. “I was surrounded by fire with no way out; we got lucky and found an area that wasn’t burning so hot and we ran through it to safety,” Pool says.
Fear plays an active role. “Being scared is a life-saving feeling. I would feel scared most of the day on a big fire. It’s ok to feel scared but you have to have situational awareness, to know what kind of danger you are in and if you can mitigate the danger and if you can’t, then know what you can do to stay alive.”
For more information:
This was one of the original posts at the Traveler’s Notebook. Since this post was up we’ve moved travel and adventure jobs to Matador Abroad
www.wildlandfirefighter.com is a magazine for and by wildland firefighters.
Women in the Fire Service or WFS has a particularly informative website for those interested in becoming wildland firefighters.
In the Matador Community, Andris Bjornson has worked as a Wildland Firefighter.