Get the inside scoop on becoming a wildland firefighter

You may be intrigued by the prospect of becoming a wildland firefighter but not quite sure what else you need to know to get started. To help you get oriented, we’ve come up with some answers to questions you might have.

Q: What are the physical requirements for the job?

A: Every U.S. firefighting agency or bureau, including DNR, requires the completion of a Work Capacity Test (WCT), aka the “pack test.” It’s called the pack test because it requires an applicant to hike 3 miles on level ground with a 45-pound pack. This is to measure aerobic capacity, muscular strength and muscular endurance, which are important to ensure the safety of yourself and coworkers. Every fire fighter is expected to perform arduous work and must complete the hike within 45 minutes using a fast walking gait – no running. If you don’t meet the test requirements initially you have two weeks to take it again and pass.

Q: How should I prepare for the pack test?

A: If you don’t think you are in shape for the test, adopt a training routine at least 4-6 weeks before you take it. You could also contact the agency you’re applying with or local fire programs to see if there are group training programs for a pack test in your area. Remember to allow your body to rest a day or two before the test.

Q: How well does firefighting pay?

A: Pay for a firefighter starts on par with other summer jobs but quickly outpaces them when a busy fire season creates the need for firefighters to work overtime. At the same time, firefighters often won’t need to buy food or pay for lodging because you pitch a tent at the fire camp, where meals are provided, while working on a fireline.

Washington also ranks high in terms of average income for firefighters across the United States.

Source: https://www.recruiter.com/salaries/forest-firefighters-salary/?id=forest-firefighters&statewages=Washington

Q: What is the lodging situation?

A: Between incidents, DNR firefighters work a regular shift or of a work center and can return home every evening. You’re chances of being hired increase if you’re willing to be based out of the state’s more remote regions. Therefore, firefighters further from home may use a trailer or simply pitch a tent between incidents.

While attending a training academy or assigned to a fire incident, you live in a “camp setting” which entails morning briefings, tents, showers and meals. The camps include first aid and supply stations for every day necessities, charging outlets (usually),  lost and found, mail delivery and, of course, coffee and hydrating beverages.

Q: What will DNR provide on a fireline?

A: When you report to work, you’ll be issued gear that you will maintain throughout the season. This equipment includes flame-resistant Nomex shirts and pants, a hard-hat, leather gloves, safety glasses and an emergency fire shelter. To protect your feet, you must be able to buy lace-up boots with Vibram soles and constructed entirely of heavy leather (no metal) that extends a minimum of 8 inches above the heel cup (from the inside of the boot). DNR will reimburse up to $350 (with original receipt) for the cost of pre-approved boots.

Q: What about safety and training?

A: Fire is dangerous and safety is always our top priority. Quality training is a key part of remaining safe on any job, including wildland fire fighting. Basic training includes classroom learning and hands-on practice. Before working with a crew, you get training on:

  • Driving engines
  • Operating a chainsaw
  • Maintaining your situational awareness
  • Operating within the incident command system
  • Wildland fire behavior
  • Using equipment
  • How to respond in an emergency

Once working with a crew you continue to learn from more experienced members of your team every day. At the same time, every firefighter is empowered to assess situations and make decisions based on maintaining their own personal safety.

An important part of DNR’s firefighter training are annual training academies. See this video for a more detailed look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3-R2jChkQw 

Q: How will working as a firefighter help me grow?

A: The work is hard but rewarding, and the tenacity you develop working as a firefighter will serve you no matter where you go or what you decide to do. Fighting wildfires is the kind of work that inspires a sense of pride and accomplishment and leads to more confidence in yourself and your capabilities. It can also be a stepping stone to a career.  You will develop a network of agency firefighters that may be interested in recruiting you if you do a good job.

Firefighters who wish to pursue a career can acquire additional training and education on subjects like advanced techniques in fire and fuel management, land management, public affairs, forest health or rangeland ecology. Other fire training can include learning about prescribed burns, incident command, fire investigations, tactical decision-making or dispatch. Firefighters can even move into specialty programs like aviation fire training that can lead to becoming a “smoke-jumper,” a nickname for firefighters who parachute into remote locations.