How to Become a Wildland Firefighter

Wildland firefighting agencies operate at the federal level (National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs), the state level (Dept. of Forestry, Dept. of Natural Resources), and at the local level where forest lands tie in with the incorporated area (Fire Science Online, n.d.). Although each agency has its own hiring processes, the following is a general guide to becoming a wildland firefighter.

 

photo of firefighter walking through smoking woodsTraining:

Physical:

  • Firefighters are held to rigorous fitness standards as much of the job occurs in the outdoors. The Work Capacity Test is a series of tests used to determine the capabilities of an individual and ensure he/she is physically able to perform the duties of wildland firefighting. This test is required by every federal agency/bureau before an Incident Qualification Card (red card) can be issued.
  • It is also recommended that an individual find out if there are any additional standards required of a position and what they are so as to prepare in the off season. This can be done by contacting the specific location of potential employment (i.e. local land management office).

Educational:

  • Specific educational requirements are set by each agency. There are multiple areas of academic study that provide credible coursework that is related to various positions within wildland fire. The following are examples of these areas of study:

    • Forestry
    • Agriculture
    • Crop or Plant Science
    • Wildlife Management
    • Range Management or Conservation
    • Watershed Management
    • Natural Resources (except marine fisheries and oceanography)
    • Outdoor Recreation Management
    • Civil or Forest Engineering
    • Wildland Fire Science
    • Soil Science

 

Employment:

  • Wildland firefighter positions are generally advertised in the off-season (Oct-Dec) and hired as fire season approaches (Jan-Mar).
  • Individuals seeking employment should think about applying by Sept/Oct as many announcements close in January.
  • Learn more about job openings by visiting https://www.usajobs.gov/; keyword: wildland fire or use the link https://www.usajobs.gov/Search/?k=wildland+fire.
  • Contact the location of potential employment (i.e. local land management office) with additional questions regarding qualifications or standards of a specific position.

photo of wildland firefighter with drip torch

 

Helpful Links

Agency Websites:

Training:

Additional Links:

 

FAQs

Additional FAQs available at https://www.nifc.gov/aboutNIFC/about_faq.html

Seasonal Firefighter

People interested in a job as a seasonal firefighter must apply to the agency they are interested in working for. Each agency (Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, State of Idaho, etc.) has its own process for hiring seasonal employees. You may want to consider applying to more than one agency.

To become a wildland firefighter, you must be between the 18 and 35 years old and pass a physical fitness test. The average firefighter is paid $8.00/hour. They sometimes earn time and a half or "hazard duty" pay.

Most agencies hire a fair number of employees on a seasonal basis (generally from May to September). Almost without exception, regardless of the type of work seasonal employees are hired to do, everyone receives basic firefighter training. During seasons where there are a lot of fires, people who have had basic fire training are called upon to help organized fire crews. If you do an outstanding job, regardless of what function you are in, you will be noticed and your chances of getting a "fire job" next season will be greatly increased.

Professional Full-time Firefighter

Check with the agency you are interested in and obtain an information package on how to apply for these types of jobs.

These highly trained, skilled and experienced crews are made up of firefighters who have had at least one season of experience as a wildland firefighter. There are 68 hotshot crews nationwide - a total of 1,360 firefighters. These firefighters are generally given assignments on the toughest part of a fire and use a variety of specialized hand tools, including chainsaws and fireline explosives. The crew members serve in all phases of wildland firefighting - building firelines, burning out, setting backfires and mopping up. Hotshot crew members are employed for a minimum of 130 days.

Smokejumpers are airborne firefighters that parachute from planes to attack wildland fires in remote and inaccessible areas. Generally, smokejumpers are the initial attack on remote, inaccessible fires. To become a smokejumper, you need one year of general outdoor experience. Included in this one year of experience must be three months of wildland fire experience on an organized crew. Competition for smokejumper jobs in recent years is resulting in applicants with four to five seasons of wildland firefighting experience competing for the very limited number of jobs that become available each year.

Engine crews are made up of 3-5 wildland firefighters. A typical wildland fire engine is a heavy-duty off road vehicle able to carry up to 800 gallons of water. Engines also carry foam to use on wildland fuels. The foam can also be used to protect the exterior walls of a structure.

These crews consist of about 20 individuals who have been organized and trained and are supervised principally for operational assignments on an incident. Generally, these crews are made up of people who have been trained to fire fight, but whose everyday job is something other than fire, i.e., timber, wilderness rangers, recreation, range. There are approximately 500 hand crews in the United States.

Helitack crews are specially trained in the tactical and logistical use of helicopters for fire suppression. These crews can be rapidly deployed and are often the first to respond to a wildland fire. Helitack crews are also trained to "rappel" from a hovering helicopter in areas where the terrain or vegetation does not allow the helicopter to land. A primary job for the crew is to load and unload "slings" of equipment and supplies needed for firefighting.

photo of helicopter with flames in the backgroundHelicopters

In a typical year, there are 15-20 "heavy" and "medium" helicopters under contract in the United States for wildland firefighting purposes. Also, there are an additional 175 under contract on a "call when needed" basis. Helicopters support firefighters on the ground by dropping water, foam or retardant on flaming trees, brush and even structures to cool hotspots and prevent a fire from spreading.

Airtankers

Airtankers are large planes fitted with tanks for transporting and dropping fire retardant or water. Their capability ranges from 2,000 gallons to the larger aircraft that are capable of delivering 3,000 gallons. Airtankers drop their load in a long string, creating a line of retardant. The purpose of the retardant is to slow the fire down in order to give ground support forces the opportunity to build firelines. A pink dye is added to give the pilot an idea of where the drop landed. In a typical year, 40-50 airtankers are under contract to state and federal agencies for wildland firefighting purposes.

Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS)

A MAFFS unit is a pressurized 3,000 gallon tank system containing either water or a water-based retardant designed to fit into a C-130 aircraft. MAFFS units can only be utilized when there is imminent danger to life and property and other aerial resources are exhausted or committed.

Lead Planes

These planes are used to "lead" the airtankers to and through their retardant drops and are also used for aerial reconnaissance of fire areas.

Infrared Aircraft

These are aircraft equipped with highly specialized infrared mapping systems. The Infrared scanners locate hotspots inside and outside a fire's perimeter. Infrared scanners can pinpoint a 6-inch hotspot from an altitude of 8,000 feet (1.5 miles) above ground level and can cover almost one million acres in one hour. Flights are generally flown after sunset and before sunrise when temperatures between the terrain and the fire differ the most, making it easier to pinpoint heat sources.

Remote Automated Weather Stations (RAWS)

RAWS units collect, store and forward six critical weather elements hourly, via a Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) 22,300 miles above the equator, to a computer system located at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. There are approximately 1,150 RAWS strategically positioned throughout the United States. The types of weather information involved include wind speed and direction, wind gusts, precipitation, air temperature, relative humidity and fuel moisture. Resource managers also use RAWS to monitor environmental conditions and air quality. Some RAWS units are used as early-alert warning systems for things such as floods, mud slides or hazardous material levels.

Incident Management Teams

This is a team of highly trained, experienced individuals who are organized to manage large and/or complex incidents.

Firefighter Handtools

Most of the handtools used by firefighters are combination tools. Throughout the years, wildland firefighters have "invented" handtools that serve more than just one function. Handtools used by firefighters must be effective, efficient, versatile, portable, simple, easy to maintain and repair and standardized so they can be pooled, traded and transported quickly.

  • Pulaski - This is a combination tool, ax and mattock invented by Ed Pulaski in 1910. This tool enables firefighters to cut trees and limbs with the ax side and to dig and scrape with the mattock side.
  • McLeod - This combination heavy duty rake and hoe tool is named after Ranter Malcolm McLeod. Firefighters use this tool to cut through matted litter and duff and clearing loose surface materials.
  • Ax - The most common one being the double-bitted, which is used for cutting trees and limbs. the single-bitted or poleax is common in the east and is used for cutting trees, limbs and for driving wedges.
  • Shovel - This is a combination tool - the edges are sharpened so that the user can chop down small trees, cut limbs and roots. Firefighters also use shovels to scape away needles and other duff as they construct firelines down to mineral soil. They are specifically designed for fire use and are the lightest, yet most effective shovel or all-around use.
  • Drip Torch - Firefighters use this device for igniting backfires or burnouts.
  • Backpack Pump - Firefighters carry these backpacks, usually made from collapsible neoprene, during mop up operations. They are effective for cooling down hotspots.

How agencies respond to a reported incident is well organized and planned in advance. As the incident requires, additional resources are dispatched from the local agency. Once the incident goes beyond the local agency's ability to continue supplying resources, requests for additional resources are forwarded to the nearest Geographical Area Coordination Center (GACC).

There is a total of 10 GACCs across the United States, including Alaska. These centers will locate and dispatch additional firefighters and support personnel throughout the geographic area. The GACCs are as follows:

When the resource needs for an incident, or incidents, exceed the capability of the GACC, resource orders are then forwarded to the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) located at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho. The NICC is an interagency operation that provides logistic support and intelligence reporting to all wildland management agencies. NICC dispatches crews, overhead personnel, aircraft, supplies and services across the U.S. and Canada and to other foreign countries based upon requests from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). These requests are facilitated and coordinated by the USFS, International Programs, Disaster Assistance Support Program (DASP). DASP is a cooperative program between OFDA and the USFS.

Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
2017-10-12