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Career Day

Hiking into the wildfire

The captain of a U.S. Forest Service fire crew talks about long days, big choices, and the cities that spring up around fires.

By Jenni Gritters

Jon Freeman is the captain of a U.S. Forest Service fire crew in Durango, Colorado.

What does a wildland firefighter do?
We fight any fire started by humans — and some fires started by natural causes, like lightning.

Typically, we drive as close to a fire as we can get, then we hike in. We use hand tools and chainsaws to make a line around the fire. Then we starve it of its fuel until it eventually burns out. We also sometimes set planned fires during the off-season, because every acre we burn in a controlled way is one less acre that could burn in a wildfire.

What is the scene like around a huge wildfire?
There’s usually a big command center at a county fairground-like place. It’s a full-on city with yurts, generators, and semi-trucks. There are hoses, tools, and food being delivered. A cell tower will pop up in the middle of camp. You usually have up to 5,000 firefighters on the ground and another 1,000 working behind the scenes.

I’ve never had a close call or had to jump into a fire shelter. That said, there’s no stopping wildfires, so sometimes we just have to step back and let the fire do its thing.

What’s the workday like when a fire is burning?
We usually work 14 days in a row and then have two days off. Our days can be up to 16 hours long. We make a lot of money because of the overtime and hazardous duty pay; even the most entry-level wildland firefighters can make up to $50,000 in six months.

How did you get into this line of work?
I joined a fire crew during the summer of my sophomore year of college and I was immediately hooked. After college, I moved to Colorado and fought wildfires for three seasons. Then I got my Masters in Fire Sciences at Colorado State University. 

Have you ever been afraid for your safety?
In all of my years fighting fires, I’ve never had a close call or had to jump into a fire shelter. That said, there’s no stopping wildfires, so sometimes we just have to step back and let the fire do its thing. As a captain, every decision weighs heavily on me during big fires, so I do a lot more thinking and a lot less talking. I rely on my experience and on my gut. 

Are forest fires getting worse?
Yes. Every year, fires seem to get bigger and badder. In the past few years, we’ve even had to extend our working seasons because fires are starting earlier and lasting longer. Climate change has created new weather, and that weather means more days when wildfires are possible. 

What’s the hardest part of the job?
Hands down, managing real life. It’s almost impossible to have a normal relationship or family situation. We miss birthdays, anniversaries, concerts, everything. It’s like being from another planet. 

What’s great about the job?
I get paid more money than I know what to do with to be outdoors in America’s most beautiful places. I get to hike amazing trails, stay fit, and do something challenging. I also love that I can work a year’s-worth of hours in six months and then take the other six months off to relax. 

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Jenni Gritters is a writer based in Seattle.

 

Illustration by Verónica Grech

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