Wildland firefighters are tasked with combating wildfires and preventing future fires from starting. Wildland firefighting agencies operate at the federal level (National Park Service, Forest Service Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs), the state level (Fish and Game, Land Management, Emergency Services, Fire and Rescue) and at the local level where forest land lies within the incorporated area. While some wildland firefighters work year-round and some work only during the fire season, the work is always strenuous and positions are always highly competitive. Prospective workers can often increase their chances of securing a job by earning a certificate or degree in fire science. This guide gives a step-by-step look at how to become a wildland firefighter.
Prospective wildland firefighters should focus their pre-application efforts in two areas: physical and educational. On the physical side, fitness is key. Firefighters are held to rigorous fitness standards both during the hiring process — when they’ll be required to pass extensive strength and endurance tests — and throughout their careers. Cardio training like hiking and running — while carrying weight, if possible — will be especially useful, as it imitates wildfire working conditions. As much of the job occurs in the wilderness, basic outdoorsman and survival skills may also be of use.
Specific educational requirements are set by each agency. Applicants who wish to set themselves apart can enroll in fire science and emergency medical technician courses at local vocational schools and community colleges. Most of these programs will be entirely classroom based, but some may allow students to gain hands-on training in the field. Some of the areas of study which may be required are fire shelter training and ground cover fire training, and more advanced training may be required for specific branches of wildland firefighting like engine crews.
In addition to physical and educational requirements, all applicants must be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma or equivalent degree. Aspiring wildland firefighters may find that fire departments or other potential employers prefer to hire people with previous firefighting experience. Therefore, part of the early training may be working as a volunteer firefighter to get a foot in the door.
Another way to gain education and experience early is via a degree in fire science. Many fire science programs at both the associate and bachelor’s degree levels incorporate wildland firefighting into their curricula. In some cases, it’s a single course to introduce the student to the concept of wildland fighting, in other cases students can focus on it with the end goal of entering the profession upon graduation.
Fire departments will often hold recruitment fairs when they have positions to fill. Applicants complete written and physical tests. Because there are often hundreds of applicants for only a few positions, this first round of testing serves as an initial barrier to entry, weeding out the incapable and the unprepared. For those who pass the first round, the process has just begun.
To be admitted to departmental training programs, prospective wildland firefighters usually take at least two exams. The first, a written test, generally contains around 100 questions covering essential skills for the job such as spatial awareness, mechanical reasoning and logic. The second part, the Candidate Physical Ability test, is designed to test the applicant’s endurance and physical health. Candidates are often required to complete a three-mile hike through rough terrain while carrying nearly fifty pounds of gear. The hike must be completed in 45 minutes or less and running is not allowed.
If chosen for the position, applicants will be required to complete fire academy training. Candidates who wish to specialize in wildland firefighting may need to earn a certain credential to qualify. For example, in Colorado, a popular state for wildland firefighting, candidates must earn a “Red Card” (or Interagency Incident Qualification Card) by finishing the National Wildfire Coordinating Group Basic Firefighter course and the Introduction to Fire Behavior course.
In order for a firefighter to advance in the field, they may be required to pursue additional training and education. For those interested, there are many degree programs available in subjects such as advanced techniques in fire management, fuels, public affairs, rangeland ecology and more. While a college degree usually isn’t required for entry level jobs, firefighters pursuing leadership positions may need a bachelor’s or even a graduate degree in fire science.
Firefighting specialty programs are available as well. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offers courses in aviation fire training for those who want to become parachuting firefighters, or smoke jumpers as they’re colloquially known. Other fire training schools offer courses in prescribed fire modeling and management, smoke management techniques, dispatch, incident command, fire investigation and tactical decision making.