There are tens of thousands of wildland fires in the United States each year. Although the number and size of these fires vary each year, they are clearly on an upward trend when viewed on a longer timeline. Last year, in 2020, there were 52,113 wildland fires in our country, and together they burned almost nine million acres of our nation’s lands. The reasons for these fires are numerous. There are many men and women who work in the field of wildland firefighting.
The losses in these wildland fires are massive, but they would be far, far worse without their bravery and dedication to their jobs. Wildland firefighting is dangerous and exhausting, and it takes a special kind of person to work in this challenging field.
If you’re curious about what it’s like to be a wildland firefighter, read on. In this informative post, you’ll learn a bit more about this career and you’ll develop an even greater respect for the people who choose to take it on.
A Demanding Environment
Many people realize and understand that a job in the wildland firefighting field is difficult and demanding, but few truly grasp it to its full extent.
Wildland firefighters work in wild, often uncleared areas in intense heat for days at a time. Often, the terrain is steep and uneven. They have to fight their way through smoke while wearing and carrying the heavy equipment required to combat the flames. They may spend hours digging firelines to slow the spread of the blaze, yet they need to be alert, agile, responsive, and dexterous at any moment no matter what dangers they may face.
At night, the temperatures may drop to below freezing. When the time comes to rest or sleep, wildland firefighters often sleep in tents or outside on the ground before starting another day of more of the same hard work.
Wildland firefighting is very demanding. The people who do this sort of work love what they do, but it’s not for everyone.
A Busy Schedule
Not only do wildland firefighters work harder and in more dangerous conditions than most, but they also work longer hours and more days than people in most other fields. When fighting a fire, they often work for fourteen days straight and must travel to and from the site before and after their two-week shift. Furthermore, each of those fourteen days is long and arduous; it’s not uncommon for wildland firefighters to work sixteen-hour days for many days in a row.
When there isn’t a fire, wildland firefighters generally work a normal, forty-hour workweek. However, even during those weeks, their days are filled from beginning to end. They may spend time taking down dead trees, doing equipment maintenance, and practicing drills so they are ready for the next fire.
Clearly, everyone who works on a wildland firefighting team has to prove that he or she is physically fit enough to perform the job. If they’re not, they will be more of a liability than an asset.
In order to prove their fitness, wildland firefighters need to pass the Arduous Work Capacity Test each year. In order to pass, they need to demonstrate that they are able to carry a forty-five-pound pack three miles in less than forty-five minutes at a walking pace. Once they pass, they’re on the team, but the team will also do physical training throughout the fire season to stay in shape. Weight training, long runs, sprints, and calisthenics are all part of an average workout.
Because wildland firefighting takes place in remote areas, wildland firefighters need to carry all of the equipment they need along with them. Each firefighter will have their own personal equipment, while other group items will be divided amongst the team.
In most cases, a wildland firefighter’s pack will weigh between twenty-five and forty pounds. This will include food for twenty-four hours, at least four quarts of water, a personal first aid kit, a headlamp, a fire shelter, a compass, a wildland fire radio, and a few other items. Members of the team who cut down trees will also need to carry a chainsaw. On any given day, a wildland firefighting team may walk up to ten miles while carrying all of these items.
Additionally, they’ll all be wearing heavy equipment as well. Because this gear is designed to protect firefighters from injury, it’s thick and durable. Most teams wear fire-resistant boots and pants and shirts that are made of Nomex, a fire-resistant fabric. They also wear leather gloves, eye protection, and a hard hat with a chin-strap as well.
Although the days are long and hard, the time does eventually come to set up camp or return to a previously pitched campsite. As mentioned above, some wildland firefighters are so tired after a long day’s work that they simply sleep on a tarp on the ground; others choose to set up and sleep inside tents.
A fire camp for a large fire will include bathrooms, water, showers, medical staff, logistical tents, a radio base station, and food provided by outside sources. However, wildland firefighters often need to set up camp while they’re out in the field and stay there overnight. In those cases, the food is often brought to the group in the field, but sometimes they need to prepare their own meals if they are in a very remote location.
Wildland Firefighting Is Intense
As you can see, the job of a wildland firefighter is a lot more difficult than most jobs and it is probably far more challenging and intense than whatever job you have now. Again, it’s not for everyone, but the people who choose this career path love what they do.
Furthermore, these brave men and women do not get enough credit. We hear about wildfires being contained and we cheer for victory, but we often don’t take time to reflect on the hard work of the individuals and teams that got us there.
Next time you hear about wildland firefighting, take a moment to think about this post and to give a silent thanks to the people who protect our lands in this way. It would be a much more tragic world without them!
If you’re interested in learning more about the high-tech fire radios these teams use in the field, check out our catalog of portable fire radios on our site.