We are beyond happy to welcome Matt, aka “Pretzel”, back to Mountain Crossings after his first season as Wildland Firefighter out in Idaho. He was on a US Forest Service hand crew from May to October doing the incredibly hard work of keeping wildfires under control and contained. Here is what Pretzel had to say after his first season the fire lines.
What gave you the idea to become a Wilderness Firefighter?
I had always thought it sounded like a cool way to spend the summer. It wasn’t until I met a hiker here at Mountain Crossings who had worked on a fire crew, and got me thinking a little more seriously about the job. The following summer I hiked the PCT and met a woman that was a burn boss for the State of Florida. Thanks Dirty Harry, and Blazing Star for inspiring me to become a Wildland Firefighter!
Can you tell us your official title and what your job included?
The entry level firefighting position is called a Forestry Aid. I was on a Type 2 Initial Attack Hand Crew. Initial attack means we had the training to be at a fire as the first resource on scene. My first and foremost duty, was to suppress wildfire. I am a sawyer, which means I am certified to run chainsaws. This was important to work on the fireline. The fireline consists of removing all brush and material in a 20 foot swath with chainsaws, then digging a 2 foot wide trench down to mineral soil. This prevents the fire from crossing the line. My saw partner and I spent most of our 16 hour days on the fireline within a couple feet of each other. My partner and I would truly work together. When he was running the saw I would swamp for him, meaning I helped remove the material he would cut. At times I’d hold back material so he could cut it and move to the next cut faster. Efficiency is very important.
When we weren’t fighting fire we spend a lot of time cutting out forest service roads in our district. We lived in a remote duty station 17 miles from a paved road. The duty station was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, so we spent a lot of the summer replacing historic fences around the station. We would also spend a good hour or two of physical training, or PT. This could be everything from push ups, sit ups, to running a few miles wearing a weighted vest. Being in peak physical condition at all times is crucial. We had a saying on our crew, “There is safety in fitness.”
How did you feel the first time you were walking up against a wildfire?
My first experience on a fire was nothing short of exhilarating. There’s nothing like seeing the smoke column build from miles away, and driving toward it knowing soon you’ll have your pack, chaps, and saw slung over your shoulder hiking toward it!
What sort of training proceeded your first fire event?
There are federal standards everyone must meet to be on the fireline, regardless of their role. Everyone must go through basic fire school. This even includes the reporters that cover fires in the news. I sat next to a local celebrity from a Boise news station during fire school. In addition to the basic fire school, the crews need to go through additional training. I had to pass the S212 – Wildland firefighting chainsaw certification. I had a fair amount of time running saw for fire food and leading and working on trail crews, so this helped me obtain my certification. There were other great sawyers on my crew that didn’t pass the certification because they couldn’t hike in the saw and the gear that comes with it. Being a sawyer requires you to carry the saw , fuel, saw kit, and an extra tool which was around 40 lbs — in addition to 45 lbs of firefighting gear. So being a sawyer isn’t just about who can cut the best — you have to be able to hike the best. My captain said, we can teach people to run a saw, we can’t teach people how to hike. Thanks thru-hiking!
What was the most rewarding part of your job?
The product at the end of the day was extremely rewarding. We would finish the assignment and leave feeling as though we performed quality work for our Division Captain. The camaraderie, and group suffering is another rewarding part of the job. I spent the entire summer working and living with the same 20 people. In a lot of ways thru-hiking and being on a fire crew are very similar!
What advice would you give someone thinking of taking up a career in wilderness firefighting?
It can be hard to break into the wildland firefighting world. My captain told me my background in thru-hiking, trail running, and trail maintenance was what got me the job. All federal fire jobs can be found at usajobs.gov. Jobs are usually posted October to March for the following summer fire season.