Let’s get one thing straight: your mom’s not going to like this.
Deciding to be a firefighter is a tough decision, made even tougher by the look your mom will inevitably give you when you first tell her about it. I spent years conditioning my mother for this moment — extended climbing/skiing/backpacking trips without cell phone service, cross-country road trips with people she’d never met or heard me talk about, childhood shenanigans involving concussions and scraped knees and outdoor forts made out of her favorite blankets.
But all my training was in vain, apparently, when I told her that I’d enrolled in fire classes and that I hoped to get on a fire crew as soon as possible.
To start firefighting, there are some barriers you’re going to have to get over. Your mom not liking it is only the beginning — many will assume you haven’t considered that firefighting is difficult, reminding you that it’s ”backbreaking” and “hard.” People will tell you you need to “put some meat on your bones,” or remind you how small you are, and also that you better start working out, and through a fake smile you will assure them that you do, in fact, understand that firefighting is difficult and will require hard work.
If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t really know what you’re getting into, but the good news is that I don’t think anyone really knows what wildland firefighting entails until they’ve had a few seasons to figure it out. After only a single season, I’m certain I’ve only seen about 10 percent of what firefighting is. Only when you get on a 200, 1000, 10,000 or 50,000 acre for the first time will you know what all of those things mean. Only when you fly in a helicopter for the first time, or sleep in a fire camp for the first time, or feel legitimate fear on the fire line for the first time will you know what firefighting entails. You will only be able to guess until then. And you have to rely on yourself to know if that guess is going to get you in danger or pave the way to the best job of your life.
The most helpful thing I can tell you is to pick the brains of other women who have done it and kicked ass — it’s empowering to know that if they can do it, you can do it. I was lucky to have had a few of these women in my life when I couldn’t get my mind off fire; they answered my endless questions and insisted that I at least try it out for a season. Firefighting hadn’t crossed my mind as a potential career option, so seeing women close to me doing it was enough to turn on the light bulb. That’s your starting point. Here’s how to proceed once you decide you want to breathe smoke for a few months:
This is easier than you might think — for an entry-level wildland firefighting position, previous experience on a farm or a trail crew or even in a greenhouse is enough to get you a leg up. Being a Wilderness First Responder (or, even better, an EMT) will also give you a huge advantage; firefighting is dangerous, and the more medically-qualified personnel a crew has, the better.
Experience with chainsaws, machinery and various kinds of tools (axes, shovels etc) is also worth mentioning when applying. In fact, any manual labor experience you have should be on there.
Only 10-13 percent of wildland firefighters are females, and federal agencies (including the Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management) are making a concerted effort to further diversify their workforce.
For women interested (but perhaps slightly intimidated) by firefighting, the Forest Service’s Women in Wildland Fire Boot Camp is an opportunity for women to garner the knowledge and skills necessary to become an entry-level firefighter, while also meeting other ladies interested in fire. Unfortunately, the deadline for registering for bootcamp has already passed for 2016, but those interested should keep an eye open next year. More information can be found here: (http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd489383.pdf)
If you’re unable to attend the bootcamp and still want to get a little training before jumping into the fire world, some agencies and colleges offer the basic fire classes like S-130 (firefighter training), S-190 (intro to wildland fire behavior) and S-211/212 (wildland pumps and chainsaws) for anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to a couple thousand. These classes aren’t totally necessary — you can get an entry-level position without the training — but it doesn’t hurt to know what you’re getting into and boost your resume a bit with actual fire-specific training. However, most districts provide this training once you’re hired on.
Get prepared (mentally and physically)
Even considering a job in fire next summer? Start working out now. I’d suggest hiking in altitude (if possible) with increasing weight as often as possible, as well as running and lifting weights 2-3 times a week. However, most supervisors and firefighting veterans will tell you that hiking speed and ability is of utmost importance in firefighting — a supervisor once told me that it really won’t matter how much you can bench press if you ever have to run for your life.
Another practice that helped me as a first-year firefighter was the mental preparation I did in the months leading up to my start date. I watched videos and read stories about firefighters and their experiences on the fireline. I read forums about what kind of gear I should buy and what kind of boots I should get and how I could prepare for the season. I considered all the things I might experience in the coming summer, so that when those things eventually happened, I was prepared. I hardly had any reason to complain this summer because I’d told myself that I was going to spend six months sleeping on the ground everyday, working 16 hour days and eating only dehydrated government meals — it ended up being far less intense than I expected, but I never felt ill-prepared for the situations I found myself in.
The actual application process is arguably the hardest part of getting into firefighting (seriously, I’d take a 10-mile uphill slog with a 50 lb pack over applying for jobs online any day). You’ll have to hang out on USAjobs.com a lot in the late fall and winter months, depending on what region you’d like to work for (hiring deadlines range from November to March and are very strict, meaning that if you miss them, you don’t get a job in that region. Period.)
Additionally, you’ll have to commit some time to creating a resume on USAjobs. If you make an account on USAjobs, you’ll see that there’s an option to build a resume right on the site or upload your own. Many of the jobs you apply for won’t accept uploaded resumes, so don’t waste your time with them if you don’t have to.
The people/robots in charge of getting your resume to the right supervisors will look for specific keywords and phrases. In fact, they will vet your resume based on the words in it. So if you don’t say phrases included in the job’s description (teamwork, strong work ethic, manual labor, positive attitude etc.), your resume may not even make it past the mean dream-destroying resume robot, let alone to the desk of the people that will hire you.
If you’re able to visit the stations or forests you’re most interested in, you should. Otherwise, make a phone call. As with any job, talking to a supervisor (or more specifically to fire, a fire management officer or engine boss) is a good way of making them remember you once hiring comes around.
Once you get a job, remember: work hard, don’t be late, NEVER complain, learn as much as possible, forge good relationships with your co-workers and embrace your rookie status. Everyone has to go through it. (But if it borders on hazing or harassment, talk to a supervisor about it.)
Amanda Monthei is a writer and wildland firefighter in the Northern Rockies, where the air is just a bit thinner and the trees just a bit bigger than in Michigan, her Great Lakes homeland.