In a way, you do have to be slightly nuts to become a wildland firefighter. It’s not an easy job by any stretch of the imagination. Just qualifying to be eligible to travel out of state to fight fires is a challenge in and of itself.
You must complete the PA-130, S-190, National Incident Management Systems, IS-700 and S-130 training. Additionally, each wildland firefighter is required to complete the Arduous-level Work Capacity Test, where you must carry 45 pounds for three miles in 45 minutes or less every year.
Even after all this classroom and physical training is complete, each wildland firefighter must attend basic training at Crew Camp. It’s a two-day, real-life training to prepare for the day to be called to fight a real wildfire, thousands of miles away from home.
Following basic training, each firefighter must attend Crew Camp at least once every three years. Many firefighters attend every year in order to advance their skills.
Once fire season hits, it’s a waiting game. Pennsylvania deploys firefighters from each of the 20 forestry districts by rotation. Which district you’re from and where it falls in the rotation are what determines your likelihood of being deployed that year.
It was a typical Thursday morning when I got the call saying I was being deployed to fight fires in Wyoming. I had to report to the District 9 forestry office in four hours.
Luckily for me, I had my bags packed for months. Each firefighter has a bag for all their personal gear, called a “red bag” or a “campaign bag.” Inside is everything you will need for the next 14-plus days.
Wildland firefighters also carry a “line pack,” a specially-designed backpack that contains tools for work on the fireline, enough water to get you through a 16-hour day of work and a fire shelter.
The red bag and line pack together cannot weigh more than 55 pounds. With limited space and weight, it’s important to make sure everything in your bag is something you will need and that you’re able to carry around on your back.
From the forestry office, we traveled to the Lower Swatara Fire Department in Harrisburg for crew assignments and mobilization. Pennsylvania was sending two, 20-person crews in this module. New Jersey, Ohio and West Virginia each sent one. The crews are led by a crew boss and broken down into squads of five firefighters and a squad boss.
These 20 people would start out as strangers, but by the end of our deployment, they become your family. Everything you do, you do as a crew. You work together, you eat together, you laugh together and you watch each other’s back. Early Friday morning, we all boarded a NICCJet for the flight to Wyoming.
When we landed, we reported to Camp Guernsey, a National Guard training center. At first, we had been assigned to the Sawmill Creek fire in the Medicine Bow National Forest.
Our crew had just sat down to dinner when we were told to load up and get ready to go. I was nervous but I was also excited. I had been training for two years for this and now it was time to see what I’m made of. Unfortunately, we ended up getting pulled off Sawmill Creek and reassigned to the Whit Fire near Cody, Wyo.
As we traveled into Cody, we could see smoke from the fire rising above the mountain range. The base camp was set up near the Buffalo Bill Reservoir, where fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters were re-filling after dumping water on the fire.
Watching those planes and copters flying made things real. Wildland firefighting is no game. It’s not some fun vacation with friends. You’re there to work. It’s hard, dirty work and people die doing it every year.
It was too late for us to report to the fireline when we arrived in Cody, so we set up camp for a good night’s sleep and prepared for an early start the next morning.
The accommodations at camp vary depending on how big the incident is. At the Whit Fire, a fairly large base camp had been established. All the crews were camping in individual tents. There were shower-trailers, bathroom facilities and a dining hall.
Depending on your assignment, the crew will either stay at base camp and travel to their assignment each day, or in some cases, the crews “spike out” in a separate campsite away from the amenities of the base camp. Some crews have “spiked out” for the entire 14 days of their trip.
After breakfast each morning, the crews would pick up water, Gatorade and bag lunches to take out to the job site to begin their 16-hour day.
Our first assignment was to provide structure protection for several cabins in the mountains. While the fire was still a good distance from this area, our job was to provide a secure area around the buildings that can be easily defended if the fire changed direction.
The crew divided into squads and each squad started working around the cabins. The chain-saw operators cut dead snags and brush while the rest of the squad moved the brush away from the cabin and dug firelines around each building.
A fireline removes grass and decayed plant materials. With nothing to burn, the fire will hit a well-constructed fireline and stop.
After a few days of structure protection, we were assigned to do some “cold trailing” along the burned-out area. We worked in a grid-pattern to search for any spots that may still be hot and could re-ignite.
The elevation was about 7,000 feet above sea-level, which made the air a lot thinner than we were used to back in Pennsylvania. We were climbing rocky slopes carrying our tools and our line packs, but the crew held up very well.
Our next assignment was at the Lava Mountain Fire near DuBois, Wyo. The crew traveled to the base camp and we were quickly put to work cold trailing.
This assignment proved to be a bit more difficult than at the Whit Fire. We were working at 9,000 feet above sea-level and in addition to searching for hot spots, we also had to pack up unused hose from a portable pump set up. We packed up some of the smaller hose but kept the main set up in case we found any hot spots.
I was particularly pleased with this assignment, as I had just earned my portable pumps certification and got to work with a more experienced operator to get a little hands-on training.
The elevation was definitely a challenge this time. I do my best to keep myself in shape during the year, but it took time to get adjusted to the thin air.
My pumps mentor and I had to make several trips up and down a hill from the main water source to two portable water tanks, and an additional pump to be sure the hoses had enough water volume and pressure.
After another few days of structure protection and tearing down the pump site, it was time to head back to Guernsey to prepare for our journey home.
It was an amazing, exhausting adventure. I was fortunate to have traveled to different fires and I was able to utilize several different skills.
Although we were working in Wyoming, everything we experience and learn can be applied to firefighting efforts in Pennsylvania.
While our state doesn’t usually see the scope of fires of the western states, on the occasions we have a large incident, these out-of-state trips provide the training needed to contain and extinguish wildfires before they can spread and destroy homes and property.
It’s also important to remember that every trip is different. You could spend the entire trip doing one job on one fire, you could travel to several different fires, you could be at base camp or spiked out with no showers, eating MREs. You may be able to contact your family each night or you could go days with no cellphone signal.
However, the one constant of every trip is the gratitude of the people whose homes, properties and livelihood you’re working to protect.
Everywhere we went, we saw signs from the residents thanking us and showing appreciation for the difficult work we were performing.
As we traveled and stopped for fuel, people would come up and shake our hands, telling us how happy they were that we were there to help them.
I had two women hold my hands in theirs and pray for my safety. There was a couple who told us how firefighters saved the cabin that had been in their family for four generations.
There were young children who looked at us like we were super-heroes in a movie, just because we were there to do our job.
No matter how hot, dirty and tired I was, seeing these people walking up to a group of total strangers to say “thank you” made it all worthwhile.