Besides piloting an air tanker or a helicopter on a fire, serving as a dozer operator requires the next amount of training and qualifications. It also requires nerves of steel. You’re operating an enormous piece of equipment, 30 tons or more, in unfamiliar terrain, often at night, right next to a raging wildfire, and oh yeah, you’re sitting on a 100+ gallons of fuel.
Still sound like a good job? Most of you are probably grinning ear-to-ear right now! "Of COURSE it sounds like a good job!"
On any given year in California, there might be some 200 dozer operators crawling through the mountains on CAL FIRE's 61 dozers. (note: if you’re working with a federal fire service, the job is formally titled “Engineering Equipment Operator.” The jobs are tough to get and competitive.
Building Fireline - Dozer Style
There simply are not enough air tankers and helicopters available to rely on slurry drops and bucket drops to contain wildfires. If you want to catch a fire, you need personnel on the ground, getting after it. Cutting line. And when it comes to cutting line, you only have two options: a handcrew or a bulldozer. A handcrew has the advantage of being able to get in to places where a bulldozer can't. They can hike over nasty terrain, or they can be inserted via helicopter. And, speaking from personal experience, a handcrew can cut line on some pretty damn steep terrain. But for situations where the fire is reasonably accessible by road, and the terrain is manageable, you can't beat the production of a bulldozer. According to CAL FIRE, a dozer can cut line at a rate of one to eight miles an hour. Eight miles of line in an hour?! Obviously, that sort of production only happens under ideal conditions (flat terrain and light fuels (like grass)). Needles to say, those conditions rarely exist, and line construction rates of between one and three miles an hour are more realistic. Still - that's a lot of line! For comparison, a Type 1 handcrew (such as a hotshot crew), in short grass, should be expected to cut 1,122' of handline per hour. That's considered optimal ouput according to national fireline production rates. Those rates decline in thicker vegetation.
The chart above visualizes how a hotshot crew's output compares against a dozer. And that chart is overly generous to the hotshot crew, and conservative to the dozer. As noted above, a dozer can cut between 1-8 miles/hr of fireline. But under most conditions, 1-3 miles/hr of fireline can be reasonably expected. So, we used 2 miles of line (the average of 1-3).
And that's just straight distance. It doesn't even account for the differences in width of fireline. Dozer blades vary, but a D6 (the most common CAL FIRE Dozer) has a blade width of about 10'. Standard hotshot line is 3'.
How They Work
Dozers operate with a swamper (technically an “Engineering Equipment Operator Helper”. A firefighter who acts as a scout for the dozer operator. It is the role of the swamper to be the eyes and ears of the dozer operator, to guide him or her through fireline cutting, and to remain vigilant of all potential hazards in the area. They also play a key role in watching the dozer's six, and making sure the line that they just put in is holding. Additionally, many dozers come equipped with winches, and it is the swamper's job to run the line out and secure it during winching operations. The swamper is constantly monitoring weather, and communicating regularly with the other units over the radio. Also, dozer operators can help keep handcrews safe by constructing escape routes and safety zones for crews to use as a areas of refuge.
Dozer operators truly need to be versatile heavy equipment operators, and not just specialize in the use of a specific make and model of dozer. For starters, they need to be able to get their machine on scene. Which means they need to be comfortable driving a ‘lowboy’ trailer with a 30,000lb dozer on it up mountain roads, often times in poor driving conditions. Once they arrive at the staging area, then they’ll hop in, drive the dozer off the trailer, and head out to fight the fire.
When not serving on an incident, operators are responsible for helping ensure the rest of their agencies fleet is in good repair. They will assist with general equipment repair, equipment safety inspections, and ensure annual service checks are completed.
Where are the Jobs?
- Enclosed Cabs / Protective cages
- Automatic plow-release levers
- Water protection systems
- GPS Locators (allows ICT to monitor progress and location in real time)
What are the minimum requirements?
This varies agency to agency, but to land a job with CAL FIRE as a heavy equipment operator, here’s the specific requirements that they outline::
- “Minimum Age: 18 years at the time of appointment.
Possession of the type of driver license required by law applicable to the types of heavy motorized vehicles operated on the job. (Applicants who do not possess the required license will be admitted to the examination, but must secure the license prior to the performance test.
- One year of over the highway experience operating Class 8 transport vehicles with multi-speed manual shift transmissions, with a gross vehicle weight of at least 60,000 pounds or greater;
- One year of experience operating D6 or D7 bulldozers or equivalent size bulldozers produced by other manufacturers. Qualifying bulldozer experience must include at least 500 hours of operation of the specified bulldozers in rugged terrain;
- Education equivalent to completion of the twelfth grade.”
Where to Start?
No experience? Search for Dozer Swamper roles. Landing a job as a swamper will give you experience working around heavy equipment, introduce you to other dozer operators and bosses in the community, and you might be afforded the opportunity to train as a relief operator for the dozer over time.
Also, look to the Southeast. Southern states like Florida leverage dozers and tractor plows more than just about any other state. And they can provide entry-level training. So keep an eye out for opportunities there.
Dozers & The Airforce?
Wildfire Today did a fascinating interview with the only dozer team in the Air Force. They’re stationed at Vandenberg Air Force base in Southern California. In between fire calls, the ten person team earns its keep by supporting construction and maintenance efforts on base, but when they pop a fire call, they drop everything to respond.
“A Dangerous, and coveted, job on the line” Paul Pringle. LA Times. October 25, 2007. http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-handcrew25oct25-story.html
“Cal Fire Bulldozer Operators Prepare for Fire Season.” Andre Byik. Red Bluff Daily News. May 1, 2014. http://www.chicoer.com/article/ZZ/20140501/NEWS/140509682
Part 1 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNz0xgw-1C0 National Wildfire Coordinating Group.
Youtube Videos of Dozers https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=dozers+firefighting
"Taming Wildfires" on Deere.com. Great read about how dozers are used to fight swamp fires in Florida.
Florida Forest Service. "Ground and Water Handling Equipment". Cool photos and descriptions of all the cool equipment used to fight fires in Florida.
Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. Dozer and Tractor Plow Lessons Learned A good collection of anecdotes and safety tips from experienced Dozer operators.