So, what are you signing up for?
The overwhelming majority of wildland firefighting jobs are seasonal. Which means you’re guaranteed 1,040 paid hours. You make your money on overtime and hazard pay. How much overtime varies widely, and is determined by a variety of factors including the type of crew you’re on, and the intensity of the fire season. 200 – 1,000 hours of overtime. 1,000 hour seasons are quite rare.
Let’s be clear: there is no work-life balance during the fire season. If it’s a busy season, and you’re on an active crew, you’re a vagabond. You bounce from assignment to assignment, from one glorious fire camp to another. While your friends are taking off from work early for drinks at happy hour, you’ll be out in the middle of nowhere, grubbing on a MRE, stinking like week-old road kill. You’ll miss birthdays, little league games, and all the other things that people with regular 9-5, Monday – Friday jobs enjoy. Not feeling too great one day and want to call in sick? Well, if you’re coyote camping on a fire and your crew is counting on you, good luck with that. See how many friends you’ll have when you get back to the station. Truthfully, I don’t care how sick you are. Swinging a tool all day is a far better alternative than lying in your sleeping bag, baking in a tent.
Make no mistake about it, for six months, you’re committed to the job. Even on your days off, you might be called out on assignment. And if you’re not at the station within two hours of the call, you’ll miss the roll. If the roll lasts for 14 days, you could conceivably miss out on 112 hours of overtime pay, plus 25% hazard pay premium. So if you enjoy spending Memorial Day, July 4th, or Labor Day on vacation, camping out with friends, you might want to reconsider this career path.
The potential toll this lifestyle can take on a relationship can’t be understated. On every crew I was on, there was always someone whose relationship fell apart during the season. Granted, most of the guys I worked with were hard-living lads in their twenties, so it’s certainly unfair to say that the job was the sole factor, but if you’re relationship is going through some dark times, disappearing for a week or two doesn’t help matters. It doesn’t matter if you ask Ann Landers, Dr. Drew, or any other relationship expert what the most important thing in a relationship is: they’re all going to say that it’s communication. Working long shifts, away from home, with limited access to internet or phone service can quickly put distance in a relationship.
I will be the first one to say that it’s grossly inaccurate to assume that you’re doomed to a life of bachelorhood if you become a firefighter. I worked with guys and gals who had some of the strongest marriages I’ve ever seen. But both parties need to know what they’re getting into. So before you grab a Pulaski and head off on this great adventure called firefighting, take a moment and think about how this lifestyle might affect some of the most important relationships you have. It might not have any impact, but I’d be remiss to not suggest that you think through potential consequences.