The images splashed across newspapers, TVs and computer screens are compelling.
Sooty-faced heroes dragging heavy equipment around a raging wildfire. Risking their lives in an effort to contain the blaze and protect the rest of us.
These striking visuals rouse the fighter in some of us and we might ask: “Do I have what it takes to fight wildfires?”
The answer is, “Well, that depends.”
If you want to fight wildfires, you have to meet both federal and state agency requirements, earning a Wildfire Qualification Card. Like a driver’s license, this card says you’re certified to fight wildfires.
So how do you get one? Aside from hours of online testing, you’ll have to enroll in “fire training boot camp.” This is a week-long affair, where you’ll take more tests and be issued a large, spiral-bound handbook (the contents of which you’ll be expected to learn).
And then, of course, there are the physical requirements.
Such as clearing a fireline using 20-lb specialized tools. (In case you don’t know, a fireline is a long path which firefighters clear to remove all burnable vegetation.) This line can sometimes be miles long.
It’s back-breaking work, but digging a fireline is the best and most efficient way to control a fire.
It’s also very dangerous business. An extreme fire can jump these lines whenever hot embers are picked up by winds. The result is spot fires outside the fireline.
After building your fireline, you’ll next learn how to light controlled fires using a drip torch. A drip torch resembles a watering can, but contains a combination of gasoline and diesel fuel. As you drip it, streams of flaming fuel ignite fires—which you must quickly learn to properly extinguish!
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Next, you must learn to manage the fire hoses. When empty, a 100-foot section of five-inch fire hose weighs about 110 pounds. And fire hose lines can stretch for more than a thousand feet. After use, the hoses must be rolled back up. Needless to say, correctly rolling up hundreds of feet of thick and cumbersome fire hose presents its own challenges.
The final physical qualification is the pack test. This is where you’ll be equipped with a 45-lb backpack and sent on a three-mile hike, which you must complete in less than 45 minutes.
If you’ve really got the right stuff, you could qualify to become a “hotshot.” They’re the firefighter equivalent to the military’s Special Forces. They’re highly trained and must meet the toughest physical requirements. Hotshots are routinely exposed to extreme environmental conditions, long hours working and traveling, and the most demanding of fireline tasks.
The hotshot’s job is to respond to fires in remote regions with little or no logistical support. In the U.S., the 2,000 or so firefighters who comprise the elite hotshot crews work in groups of 20, scattered across the country. During peak wildfire season, these crews are on call 24/7.
The training is grueling.
Frank Carroll, a former hotshot squad boss explained it this way:
“You run for miles and you put on all of your gear—it’s about 40 pounds—and you walk straight up the side of a mountain until you get to the top and then you come back down and do it again. You do push-ups and pull-ups, and you run some more.”
Hotshots don’t use bulldozers or other big equipment, because they’re often dropped onto steep terrain. Instead, they learn how to fight fires using whatever equipment they can carry with their hands.
“They use chainsaws and teamwork to get the job done,” Carroll said. “They act like a machine.”
Working in tandem, the teams construct firelines and clear brush away from encroaching blazes. It’s demanding and physically exhausting. And by the end of each very long day, their muscles ache all over.
According to retired wildland firefighter Dick Smith, “At night, you’re basically eating and sleeping.” For 38 years, Smith spent his summers fighting wildfires in Wyoming and Idaho.
“You’re putting in a long, difficult day and you know that tomorrow, you’re going to be facing the same thing again.”
It’s a job that sometimes turns deadly. In 2013, an out-of-control wildfire northwest of Phoenix, Ariz., resulted in the deaths of an entire crew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Their story is featured in a Sony motion picture, scheduled for release this fall. Here’s the trailer:
Featured Image: Air Force Photo by: Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock, Public Domain