Question: Can you give us a brief background on yourself before we jump into the interview?
Answer: I am currently on a hotshot crew in Region 3, on my first season, with some military (reserve) experience before I applied.
Question: What made you decide to look at becoming a wildland FF?
Answer: I originally saw a Vice News documentary in high school about wildland firefighters but never knew how to get started since agencies don’t actively recruit like the military or structure fire departments. Since I didn’t know how to get into this career, I ended up joining the army first.
Question: How did you initially start applying for different agencies?
Answer: My hiring process into Wildland was untraditional. The traditional way involves going onto USAJOBS, finding openings under “forestry technician/aid” and submitting your resume. I didn’t know that was the process, so I went on a local forest website and started emailing people. Eventually, after knocking on so many doors, one opened for me and I had an interview set up.
Question: How many different agencies did you apply for before getting an interview?
Answer: On the wildland side I only had one actual in-person interview but had numerous phone calls and e-mails with people pointing me in other directions. If we include structure firefighting, I applied for around 7-8 departments, only got an interview at one, and didn’t do so hot since I didn’t know what to expect.
Question: What does the average application process look like?
Answer: Since I got hired the non-traditional way, I can’t talk from experience but wildland firefighting job applications typically open about 6-8 months prior to the start of the fire season. One would have to go into USAJOBS and make an account and look for “forestry technician/aid” positions. (That may change soon to “wildland firefighter” since a new bill may pass and Wildland firefighters may get the title they deserve instead of “forestry technicians”) typically you would also include a cover letter, references, and dd214 for vets. You will receive a call during the off-season from overhead asking more about you and to set up an interview.
Question: What does your resume look like for other people seeking to get into this world?
Answer: Resumes for USAJOBS must pass the “review”. That means for the overhead of the crew/engine you’re applying for to even see your resume; it has to get past someone at HR who is looking for specific items on your resume. You must go really into depth with prior jobs, what you did, how much you worked a week, how much you made, how long you worked if you did community service, education, etc. Most “regular” resumes people use are about 1-2 pages long, short, and sweet. For USAJOBS it’s the opposite. A good average 6-10 pages long for most people, depending on how much you’ve done. You also want to include at least one reference from each Job.
Question: Assuming someone gets picked up what does the onboarding process look like from your perspective?
Question: Again, I went a very non-traditional route, so I didn’t have to go through USAJOBS so admin wise I don’t know much other than basic emergency contact information, I9, W2s, etc. but once you get picked up on a crew/engine, you go through 1- 2 weeks of training called “criticals” as well as a drug test, physical (med) test, background check, and fingerprints. During this time, for someone who is brand new, you will be pushed to your limits. It’s 1-2 weeks of PT, hikes, Pack test (which will be the easiest thing you do), hand out gear, assign seats in the buggies, make squads, and refresher courses on wildfire behavior, chainsaws, SOPs, etc.
Questions: What are the benefits and pay scale for a new hire and is there a pay cap for seasonal workers?
Answer: From my understanding temps/seasonal employees are offered medical/health insurance but most people usually use their own insurance. The current base pay is roughly $19/hr (which is under attack again since the federal government doesn’t want to pay us what we are worth) but you receive a lot of overtime, hazard pay if you work a fire, double pay for working holidays/ days off, travel/per diem. Those $19 add up a lot. Every temp/seasonal is capped at 1039hrs per season which is roughly 6 months' worth of work. Once those 1039hrs are up or the season comes to an end, people can become administratively determined (AD) or casual hires who get paid $21/hr but receive no overtime, hazard pay, double pay, etc. you just receive your base pay of $21/hr but aren’t capped off on hours.
Question: Is there a training or adjustment period for new hires?
Answer: So, before you even think about applying it’s best you get your red card which is the s190/130 classes and FEMA courses. I don’t remember all the classes off the top of my head, but you can find them online. You can do all those classes for free online on the FEMA website and the national wildfire coordinating group website (https://www.nwcg.gov/). Sometimes the Forest Service holds events to do these together in about a week or two. I completed mine during a recent deployment through a local Forest Service via Zoom calls and those websites mentioned. And as far as training you have criticals which I talked about above but as a rookie on a hotshot crew, I keep being told “The best training is on-the-job training” which I find true since there’s a lot that goes into wildland fire that death by PowerPoint ruins. I sat through so many PowerPoints and online courses, but it didn’t make sense until I got on the fireline.
Question: What was your first fire like?
Answer: My first fire was a shit show. I didn’t know what I got myself into. Since I started about a week late due to my non-traditional route, I had to complete my critical training with fire engines instead of with the crew. During that training, the crew went on their first roll (14-day fire assignment) of the season. It was a preposition assignment, so they were just staging near another forest for fires. Once I was done with criticals with the engines, one of the overheads from the crew picked me up at the station and drove me to meet up with the rest of the crew. They were about 3 hours from the station but as we got closer the radio traffic grew as the crew was responding to a fire. It was a simple fire on the side of a 2-lane hwy. A vehicle was likely dragging chain but we got there just as the crew was arriving on the scene, that’s when I saw the big forest green buggies for the first time. I got told to gear up, so I threw on my bright, new Nomex yellow, my hard hat, and my pack and make my way over to the buggies to tie in with the rest of the crew. That’s when I get handed a tool and a bladder bag (5-gallon water bag) thrown on my back on top of my pack. So, I already had about 80-90lbs on my back, my adrenaline was running high, and I didn’t know what to expect. It was a steep slope on the side of that Hwy at one point I guess I had a minor panic attack because I got shortness of breath and super dizzy as everyone was just in go mode, and I had no clue what I was doing. I was a brand new out-of-shape rookie trying to keep up with seasoned hotshots. But after almost falling out I got the hang of things. After all the fire was only about an acre or two it was just my first fire ever and I had multiple “oh shit/ what did I sign up for” moments. But after that fire, I got the firebug and never turned back.
Question: As someone who served in the military, how does the fire service compare regarding camaraderie?
Answer: Anyone who is prior service will have no trouble going into the forest service or fire service. It’s very militaristic (at least for shot crews) in the sense of the chain of command, SOPs, inspectable items, being 15 minutes early to hit times, etc. The brotherhood is also very similar. I mean you’re living with guys for the next 6 months on the fire line or the back of the buggy. Tight bonds get built just like how bonds get built during deployments.
Question: Now how does the Forrest Service compare to the military for tedious BS and red tape?
Answer: This is where every crew/engine is different. I’ve been told the crew I am on is one of the stricter/militaristic crew compared to others. There is your typical “bs” like punishments for missing hit times, giving out wrong info, missing items, etc. It’s all for good reason since it’s life or death just like in the military. Though it may not seem that way, if you let the little things slide then bigger things will slide. There are bs things like going to check the edge of a fire for the third shift in a row on a dead fire or having to dig a line in an area that wouldn’t need a line since there’s a road or cliffside. But that’s from everywhere. Typically, there isn’t much BS at the crew level since everyone on the crew has been through the same BS at some point. It’s usually when working a big fire where team members/division (the military equivalent of a Battalion Commander) have terrible ideas that are bullshit.
Question: If you could offer one piece of advice for someone thinking about pursuing this as a career, what would you tell them?
Answer: Getting in shape would be my biggest piece of advice. Don’t think going to the gym and lifting heaving is in shape for this job because it's not. I thought I was in shape but it’s a completely new ball game in the Wildland world. Focus on running and calisthenics more than the gym. The fire world is a lot of HIIT type of workouts with quick recovery times. I’m not saying to go out and join a CrossFit gym but aim to do workouts like CrossFit/circuits. Something that will keep you constantly moving, and your heart elevated since that’s how it’s going to be in the fireline. Also, go for hikes/rucks up steep slopes with weight so you don’t slow down the crew. You are only as fast as your slowest person. I would also start while you’re young if you can. Not to say this job is hard for older people, but easier to start while you’re young since you are constantly away from home.
Question: What are some big-ticket issues facing the US Forest Service right now?
The biggest thing currently is the pay cliff that’s going to happen if Congress doesn’t pass the Tim Hart Act or shutdowns before September. If this doesn’t go through pay will bump down to $15-$16/hr. These people deserve to get paid what they’re worth and currently, the government thinks they are worth the same as a barista. I think risking your life and protecting our forest is a little more important than making coffee. Other than that, I’m not high enough in the Chain to notice any other major issues other than the potential pay cutoff.
Question: Is this something you can see yourself doing long-term?
Answer: Currently, this is something I see myself doing for a while, for sure the next 3-5 years. I really like this career and lifestyle. Constantly outdoors with a good group of guys. The only thing that gets me is constantly being away from home. I’m still relatively young and I don’t have any major bills in my life and live at home with my parents. No girlfriend or kids so it’s perfect for me but I feel like once I’m about to have my first kid on the way I’m going to go ahead and transfer to a structure department (which seems to be common) since this job makes family life difficult and I want to be a family man. Sure, you are only working for 6-8 months a year but those are hard 6-8 months constantly being away from loved ones and many times without service so can’t really call every night. I give a shout-out to all the parents in the industry since they are the true rock stars fighting fire and still being a parent.
Friendly Advice from a New Guy
-for veterans, they get 10 preference points to get hired they just must provide a DD214 with an honorable or general discharge.
-this job is not for everyone. Anyone looking to get into this career will be tested and pushed past their limits. You’re going to fall down multiple times but all that matters is how quickly you get back up and keep pushing.
- get in shape and stay in shape. Don’t focus too much on the scale since your weight is going to fluctuate a lot. Typically, you are going to lose a lot of weight at first, but you should know your body and know what it needs if that’s more carbs, sodium, protein, etc.
-boots go a long way in this job. I’m already on my second pair of boots. Lots of guys use loggers like JKs or NICKS. I didn’t have the money to drop $600-$700 on a pair of loggers so I went for a cheaper pair of hiker-style boots and the rough terrain destroyed the soles.
- have a good support system. This job is hard enough, it’s harder not having someone holding the fort down at home.
-as a young guy with no major bills, the money is good so be good with your finances. Just like when you get deployed in the military, you’re making money and not spending any of it since there really aren't stores nearby.
-there will be slow times and it’s important just to stay positive. Hang out with the guys playing cards or pick up a book but don’t get complacent either.
-stretch. Your body is the money maker so take care of it.
-spending a pretty penny on nice Merino wool shirts, socks, and underwear will save you from a life of chafing and blisters. That goes for gear like a nice sleeping pad, personal sleeping bag, etc. It’s better to spend big in the start because it will pay off on its own. Plus, when you’re away from home you want to be comfortable. I think spent about $1000 (including boots) on personal items since I was testing out different options like an inflatable sleeping pad vs a regular foam pad. Your crew will/should issue you some gear like a cot, sleeping bag, or tent but sometimes it isn’t the best. For my military guys think about going to the field, personal chargers, jet boils, snacks, nice pillows, etc.
ALL THIS ADVICE IS COMING FROM A ROOKIE SO WHOEVER IS READING DONT THINK IM THE END ALL I'M STILL LEARNING AS WELL.