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What it Takes to Become a Wildland Firefighter

Posted by Robert H. Westover, U.S. Forest Service in Forestry
Aug 29, 2012
Wildland firefighter trainees windup a hire hose.
Wildland firefighter trainees windup a fire hose.

With fires raging across the Western states dramatic images of wildland firefighters attempting to contain the flames are a regular visual in newspapers and on TV and computer devices across the country. These striking visuals rouse the fighter in some of us and we might ask: Can I fight a wildfire?

The answer is you can—if you meet certain criteria. Both federal and state agencies have varying requirements to award what is referred to as a Wildfire Qualification Card. Like a driver’s license, this card says you’re certified to fight wildland fires. So how do you get one? Aside from hours of online testing, you’ll have to enroll in a week long fire training-type boot camp where you’ll take more tests and be given a large spiral bound book called the Fireland Handbook.

In addition to the heavy knowledge component the firefighter trainee has to meet certain physical requirements. One of these is clearing a fireline using specialized tools, some of which weigh in excess of 20 lbs. For those of you who don’t know what a fireline is, it’s where firefighters clear a long path and remove all burnable vegetation, sometimes miles long, along the approaching front of a fire. As back breaking as it is, digging a fireline is the best and most efficient way to control a fire—and it’s dangerous business. A blaze can jump these lines when the fire is extreme and hot embers are picked up by winds and create spot fires outside the fireline.

After building your fireline, you’ll learn how to light controlled fires—and how to put them out—using something called a drip torch. A drip torch looks like a watering bucket but the liquid is, well, on fire. As you “drip it” globs of flaming stuff fall from the spout and starts fires—which you quickly learn how to properly put out!

And those who like a pleasant jog, you’ll get to experience setting up fire hose lines that can stretch for more than a thousand feet. And, what is unraveled must be rolled back up. So, learning how to correctly roll up hundreds of feet of thick and cumbersome fire hose is a challenge all on its own.

Then there’s the pack test. You’re loaded up with a 45lb backpack and then sent on a three mile hike, which you need to complete in less than 45 minutes.

Now that all the physical stuff is out of the way you get to study more firefighting knowledge and take more tests which ultimately culminate in your final exam.  If you complete your final, you’re awarded your certificate and face the final challenge—being assigned to a fire. This is perhaps the most difficult challenge the newly minted wildland firefighter faces. There’s only a few months’ window (from June to September) when fires are burning in such large numbers that a newly trained firefighter can get out on a fire, but don’t give up. If you stick with it, you’ll get that chance to fight one of nature’s most deadly and destructive forces—wildland fires.

Category/Topic: Forestry