Wildland firefighting isn’t easily romanticized. It’s physically demanding, emotionally taxing, and riskier than most other jobs. It’s dirty and dude-dominated and asks you to work insanely long days in a wild variety of conditions. And yet it remains a popular choice for seasonal workers, a job that lets you use your body and your brain, and one with plenty of opportunity for growth. While many wildland firefighters come in for a few summers, plenty of others make a long-term career out of fighting fire. And though the job isn’t all sleeping under the stars, fighting to protect pristine wilderness, and being a hero, it’s rewarding, challenging, purpose-driven, and critically important work.
Amanda Monthei, a GS-4 firefighter, was drawn to fighting fire after meeting other women firefighters and becoming, as she puts it, “borderline infatuated with their lives.”
“I looked forward to seeing their photos and became kind of obsessed with the culture of fire,” Monthei says. The 25-year-old signed up for fire classes at her undergraduate university—”intro courses that explained fire behavior and the basic principles of fighting fire”— and took it from there. She’s been fighting fire for two seasons now, and we asked her about what it takes to make firefighting a reality.
Those classes Monthei took? Super helpful in making the decision to fight fire, but not necessary: Most districts will pay for that training once you’re hired. The best way to start is just to apply, and be sure to research the type of work you’ll be doing before you decide what type of position you want to apply for. Monthei ended up working on an engine her first season, but realized the work she’d hoped to be doing was more along the lines of what a hotshot or hand crew might do.
“I got maybe eight calls with potential job offers before my first season, most of them on engines because that was pretty much all I applied for, and I didn’t do a formal interview for any of them beyond a few simple questions about qualifications (i.e. wanting to know the extent of my medical response experience),” Monthei says. “From what I understand, this is similar for most crews if you’re applying for entry-level positions, though I did have a more in-depth interview this season for a GS-4 (which requires six months of fire experience to apply for) position. It could also depend on the crew — things might be different if you’re applying for a hotshot crew, for example.”
What are the different positions within a crew, and what kind of seniority, experience, and skill separates them?
“This season I’m a GS-4. That basically means I’m able to take the classes and opportunities necessary to be a squad boss and am in a low-level leadership position on my crew. Depending on size, hand crews (which is what I’m on this summer) seem to be about 70 percent GS-3s and GS-4s, maybe 20 percent GS-5 “senior” firefighters, with the remainder falling to supervisors. Senior positions are relatively hard to come by and generally come with the distinction of being a “perm” or a permanent employee with the Forest Service. This allows for a longer season, more pay and less time being laid off through the winter — hence why they’re tough to come by. It usually takes over four seasons of hard work and a lot of training to get one, sometimes a lot more.”
Run me through a season. When does training start and what does it look like (both in your personal life and training as a crew)? What shape does the season take after that? How long is the season?
A season: I’ve only done this for two seasons, so it’s hard to say what is “normal.” Ideally, you’d come on in early May, start training with your crew, have everyone “trained up” and red-carded (basically a card that says yes, I’m qualified to do this) by the first of June or so, and then go available nationally. What that means, as you might assume, is that your crew is available for assignments anywhere in the United States, depending on need and available resources. A good summer might be three or four off-district assignments, which last two to three weeks depending on need and can take you anywhere from Florida to California to Washington. The best would be if all of those assignments were “spike outs,” where you’re actually doing the things you expect firefighters to do: sleeping on the ground in the woods, eating MREs, not showering, working 16-hour days for 14 days while assigned to a specific fire. More than likely, though, you’ll be sleeping in a fire camp, eating catered food (which is usually pretty good), with access to scummy fire-camp showers if you so desire, and doing your business not in the woods but in a porta-pottie. You can imagine why spike outs are preferable. You also have the possibility of on-district “initial attacks,” which are usually small fires started by lightning strikes (or humans) that can be put out in a few days. The season generally ends in October or November, but last year my crew (I had left already) was out on Thanksgiving while working the fires in the Southeast.
I start training for the season in about January with light hikes and runs. I work up to longer runs (six to eight miles), hill workouts, and medium-length hikes with weight (maybe 30 pounds) and lots of elevation gain (ex: five miles round trip, 1,200 feet gained) at a pretty good clip by April. Also, lots of skiing and ski touring. The extent of my upper body work is climbing and doing pushups and pull-ups. It should be noted, though, that I’m on a hand crew on one of the steepest districts in the country, so their fitness requirements were much higher than most districts. In most places, for an engine or even hand crew position, you only need to pass the pack test, which is hiking three miles in 45 minutes with 45 pounds on flat ground. It’s easier than it sounds!
What are your hours? And what’s the pay like—are you able to save much money throughout the summer? What does day-to-day life once you’re in the swing of things look like?
Hours are generally 40 hours a week unless you’re on fire and then you’re looking at 16-hour days (sometimes longer) for 14 days straight. People gauge how busy their summer was based on overtime hours — for example, I had a pretty mellow summer last year with only 300 hours of overtime, while I’ve heard hotshot crews regularly see over 1,000 in a season. Pay depends on grade, of course, but entry level firefighters usually make just over $12 an hour. Doesn’t sound like much until you add in 300 to 800 hours of overtime and hazard pay (which you get when you’re on active fire.)
What about fighting fire surprised you? What ideas did you have about wildland fire fighting that have been disproven? What ideas turned out to be true?
I was surprised by how un-intense it is most of the time. Only about 10 percent of my summer last year was actually working on fires. The rest was a lot of driving, project work, sawing, training, hurrying up and waiting, etc. It was just a slow season on our district, and I didn’t get many off-district assignments. Which happens, and it was a great summer nonetheless. I had mentally prepared for all sorts of crazy shit — being in the woods the entire summer, sleeping on the ground, eating dehydrated government meals every day, not showering, working my ass off all day every day, but what I got in my first season especially was much more mellow than what I’d expected.
What certifications are required of wildland firefighters?
No certs are required to start working in fire. Districts will usually provide everything you need once you’re hired. That said, to get red-carded, you’ll need S-130/190 which is intro to fire and fire behavior. It’s also nice to get the S-211/212 certs, which teach you how to use portable pumps and a chainsaw. Knowing how to use a saw safely and efficiently will make you a huge asset to any wildland fire crew. It also doesn’t hurt to have some sort of medical training (WFR, EMT, OEC etc).
What character traits have you had to draw on to get through tough days?
Positivity is the thing I find myself falling back on the most. Having a sense of humor when things are literally the worst is always good, and I am grateful for the simple ability to look at something hard and tell myself I can do it — and to then put my head down and work/hike/whatever and not think about how much is sucks or how bad my legs hurt or how hungry or tired I am. I don’t know what to call that, but it makes me think of the Finnish concept of sisu, which is best described as unwavering perseverance in the face of sometimes overwhelming difficulty.
What have you learned about yourself through working this job?
I’ve learned to not complain, to always be on time, to be more assertive in largely male-dominated situations and to always speak up if something doesn’t feel quite right — things that are beneficial in pretty much any pursuit I could ever find myself in. I’ve also learned that I’m both tougher than I thought and also not tough at all. I do things on a daily basis that challenge me and make me sweat and swear and wonder why the hell I chose to pursue fire. But I finish those things, whether a hike or a day of digging line, and I usually feel pretty good about it when I’m done. I’ve learned that I’m capable of more than I thought, but I’m also humbled so often by this job. I’m humbled when I’m dragging ass up a hill on a training hike, wondering if I can even continue to put one foot in front of the other. I’m humbled when I see the immensity of what we’re dealing with — massive fires, massive trees, massive smoke columns, and massive amounts of coordination to get it all under the best control we can within our means. I’m humbled by the fact that we can never fully mitigate all risk, that what we do is inherently risky no matter how much training or experience we have. Those things all make me feel less tough, for sure.
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