While researching articles for this site, I found myself pouring over documents of all kinds, in search of any information that I thought my readers would find valuable. While reading the 2020 Budgets for the five federal agencies involved with fire, I was surprised to see that they had no plans to scale up their personnel over the next two years. The budgets they submitted called for little change in headcount or for additional funds to procure new equipment like engines or tenders. This surprised me because unless you've been living under a rock for the last 3 years, you've undoubtedly heard the following:
- Fire Seasons are running longer
- Fire Seasons are more destructive than ever before
- Fires are burning more acreage than ever before
And yet, these budgets didn't make any significant requests for additional resources. Why? Well, cost for one.
So what happens when you have an increased demand for fire services and limited options for adding resources? You contract out those for services on an as-needed basis. Which is exactly what's happening. And one of the reasons why we're seeing a dramatic rise in contract crews and contract engines.
In fact, according to the National Wildfire Suppression Association, their 150+ members can field 130 contract fire crews and over 400 engines and tenders for national dispatch.
If you were to combine those crews and engines together, you'd have an agency with about the same amount of personnel and equipment as the National Park Service or the Bureau of Land Management. That's a SIZABLE force.
And for someone looking for a job in fire, getting on with a contract crew could be the answer. Here are some things to consider when exploring opportunities with contract crews.
- Flexible Schedule
- MUCH simpler and faster hiring process
- Very welcoming to entry-level candidates (for instance, Firestorm out of Chico, CA hires 30-40% of its seasonal hires without fire experience)
- Not limited to one work station. (Firestorm travels regularly for project work in Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon Nation Park, and national forests like the Plumas, the Lassen, and Shasta-Trinity)
- Great opportunity to gain fire experience and qualifications for future roles with a federal or state crew
- Same work assignments as a federal or state crew
- Same opportunities to travel as a federal or state crew
- Limited opportunities for advancement (e.g. no Battalion Chief, Division, or Fire Management Officer roles available.)
- No access to "elite" level crews such as hotshot crews, smokejumpers, or rappel crews.
- Uncertain work schedule. Most folks are hired on to contract crews on an as-needed basis. Many crews keep their crew members busy all season, even when not on fires with project work. However, that's dependent on the specific company, and the contracts they hold. With most federal and state crews, you're guaranteed a 40 hour week for the duration of your contract.