How To Become A Wildland Firefighter
Wildland firefighting can be a demanding and exciting career. If you are interested in becoming a wildland firefighter, there are a number of agencies to seek firefighting employment through, including the Oregon Department of Forestry, United States Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management (to name a few). If you have no previous experience with wildfires, then your best and most likely bet is to try and get hired on in a seasonal (temporary) capacity and go from there.
Although there are a number of agencies that employ firefighters, they all share basically the same employment requirements. Firefighters must first pass a work capacity fitness test, also known as the “pack test.” During this test, firefighters must hike three miles in forty-five minutes—all while carrying a forty-five pound back-pack. The pack test ensures that individuals have at least a minimum level of physical fitness required to perform the duties expected of wildland fire-fighters.
Fire seasons vary time-wise from region to region, and it is a good idea to apply early (give yourself at least 3 months or more before the start of fire season in your area). It is also prudent to call your local agency to find out more about how to apply for seasonal/temporary work. The Forest Service, Parks Service, BLM and others all have online application systems—but there may be other ways to apply, as well. Once again, call your local agency to find out specific details concerning employment.
Another available employment option is to go through a private contracting agency. There are a number of private organizations that accept seasonal firefighter applications yearly. Again, all firefighters must pass certain physical work capacity tests and receive adequate training in the methods and science of firefighting.
It is also useful for you to know about student employment opportunities. If you are a student at a college/university, it may be easier for you to find seasonal/temporary employment in a firefighting capacity. The US Forest Service, for example, has two such programs that allow easier access to seasonal firefighting jobs (the Student Temporary Employment Program (or STEP program) and the Student Career Experience Program (or SCEP program). For certain programs (such as the STEP program), your area of study need not be forestry-related. Others, such as the SCEP program, may require a focus area in some aspect of forestry.
Entry-level seasonal wildland firefighters usually start out making around $10 an hour, and often have plenty of opportunities for overtime work (at time-and-a-half pay rates). Certain agencies also offer an additional 25% (of base pay) when operating with what is called “hazard pay” (this usually only occurs when on an active fire assignment). Working hours can be as little as 8 a day or as many as 16. Fire assignments usually entail camping out for two-week periods (or longer). Being that you will be working closely with fellow crew-members for extended periods of time, the ability to work well with others becomes an important skill for success in this job.