Wildland Firefighters


Exploring this Job

Read Wildfire Magazine (https://www.iawfonline.org/wildfire-magazine) and the International Journal of Wildland Fire (https://www.iawfonline.org/international-journal-wildland-fire-ijwf) to learn more about the field. Talk to wildland firefighters to learn more about educational requirements, training, and job responsibilities, among other topics. Perhaps your school’s career services department could organize a career day in which firefighters discuss their work. Participate in fire science camps that are offered by fire departments, government agencies, and technical colleges to obtain experience. Visit https://www.womeninfire.org/firefighters/fire-camps for a list of fire camps for young women.

The Job

Wildland firefighters are dedicated firefighting professionals who work to prevent and fight fires in forests, grasslands, and any other natural areas that are not protected by traditional fire departments. When a fire is detected, they either hike into the area over often demanding terrain amidst high heat and dense smoke, or they rappel from a helicopter or jump from an airplane to reach remote areas.

Once they arrive at the site, the incident commander assesses weather conditions, topography, fire size/behavior, the presence of fuels (dead trees and groundcover, potentially flammable and combustible non-natural materials, etc.), and other factors to determine the projected path of the fire and develop a strategy to fight it. Their goal is to control the fire’s spread or put it out (in a best-case scenario) be removing one or more of three ingredients that sustain fires: fuel, heat, and oxygen. They frequently use hand tools to create fire lines—an area of cut-down trees and dug-up grass in the path of a fire—to deprive it of fuel. Hand tools used include shovels, axes, Pulaski’s (a tool that features both an axe and a digging device), mattocks (for digging, prying, and chopping), Mcleods (a heavy duty rake and hoe tool), drip torches (to ignite backfires and burnouts), and backpack pumps (which firefighters use to apply water to cool hotspots). Wildland firefighters also carefully burn areas around the fire in order to stem its spread, if possible. They wet unburned fuels to reduce the chances that they will catch on fire. At the same time, other firefighters apply water to the fire using hoses attached to the fire engine or other water sources. Airplanes are also used to drop large amounts of water or dirt on a fire, or flame retardant ahead of the fire to stop it from spreading. Fire suppression activities for a large blaze can take days and even weeks—especially if the fire is fueled by high winds, drought conditions, and abundant burnable groundcover.

After the fire is struck (or put out), the “mopping up” phase begins. Firefighters dig in and rake burned areas to identify any hotspots that are still smoldering, and then put out these fires. In some areas of the fire, they use a tactic called cold trailing, which involves careful inspection of and touching ground areas with their hands to detect hidden heat sources. Hand-held infrared scanning technology—or those that are deployed from planes and helicopters—are also used to locate hot-spots that are invisible to the naked eye or not detectable by touch.

It takes many different types of firefighters to put out a wildland blaze. Each firefighting agency has different job titles, but you can get a general idea of the various specialties by reviewing those offered by the U.S. Forest Service, a major employer of wildland firefighters. The agency employs approximately 10,000 wildland fire fighting professionals. Specialized positions include:

  • engine crew members, who drive fire engines to the locations of fires—often on steep, winding roads. These fire engines can carry up to 800 gallons of water and firefighting foam.
  • fire equipment/dozer operators, who operate specialized equipment (such as dozers, tracked vehicles that can operate in rugged conditions)
  • smokejumpers, who are specially trained to parachute from airplanes to quickly arrive at the scene of a wildfire in a remote area.
  • rappelers, who have received advanced training to lower themselves from a hovering helicopter amidst heat and dense smoke to fight wildland fires.

Wildland firefighters are also responsible for preventing fires. After a particular area of forest or grassland is identified as being at high risk for fire, wildland firefighters travel to the area to conduct prescribed burns, which are controlled fires that burn potential fire fuel in order to reduce the risk of fire.

In addition to firefighting and fire prevention, wildland firefighters also inspect and clean fire vehicles and equipment to ensure that they are in top working order and participate in frequent professional development classes and seminars to keep their skills up to date and acquire new ones.