Many – though not all – stations will have barracks available for rent. I wold highly, highly recommend that if the opportunity presents itself, to live in the barracks. Take note that it isn’t for everyone. You’re going to be living AND working with the same group of people for six months. In the woods. That’s a lot of together time. If that’s not your jam, then maybe it’s worth spending the extra money to find an apartment or house near the station.
There are three main benefits to living in the barracks:
Cost of living (it’s super cheap)
Commute (there is none)
Camaraderie (you’re hanging out with your fire bros and gals)
The rent payment is, in most cases, quite reasonable. Bedrooms are usually shared, and are about the size of an average dorm room. There will be a common area with a TV and couches, as well as a shared kitchen. Furnishings are inevitability a motley collection of donated items, and it is almost guaranteed that there will be at least one poster of Smokey the Bear hanging on a wall.
It is the responsibility of all those living in the barracks to keep it tidy. Barracks will be inspected regularly by your overhead, and depending on your leaders, a poor inspection could lead to a crew browbeating or an extra PT session. Remember – you’re living on property owned by Uncle Sam. Treat it accordingly.
Most barracks will have a full kitchen setup. Refrigerator, oven / stovetop, microwave, and maybe a dishwasher. Often times, there’s an outdoor grill available. Arrive prepared to cook your own meals. Most meals are ‘On Your Own”, with each person preparing their own food. Each barrack is different, but every barracks I was, we always determined that the logistics of trying to prepare group meals was more trouble than it was worth. That being said, if you’re cooking pasta, ask around and see if anyone else would like some. People always appreciate the person who shares.
One of the biggest challenges you’ll discover is food shopping during the season. Because you can literally be assigned to a fire anytime, at some point in your fire career, you will return to the barracks one night with steaks, milk, fresh fruit, and the next morning you’ll be called out for a 14 day off-forest roll. It’s the nature of the job. The standing rule is to offer whatever will spoil to those who will remain at the station. By the end of the season, you’ll have benefited from this as much as you’ve suffered.
But a good practice is to go big on frozen items, canned goods, and non-perishable dry goods. Stock up on those, and be a bit more judicious in the fresh foods you purchase. While not as delicious as a fresh cut of Salmon, a can of tuna will get the job done.
At the two stations I was at, alcohol was technically forbidden. However, there was definitely an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality. If you’re going to keep booze in the barracks, don’t misbehave and draw attention to it. Get wild and crazy, and guess what – your leaders will have no other option but to crack down. Fly under the radar, and you’ll be fine. Your personal closet is technically one of the few areas in the barracks that are off-limits to inspections. You can always stash a bottle of medicinal whiskey there. But you didn’t hear that from me…
But also remember, that you’re sharing a living space with others. At the end of the day, the alcohol policy for your barracks will be one that is negotiated among the people living there. Don’t be a jerk, respect your fellow crew members. If you don’t, it will be a long season.
Depending on the size of the barracks, expect to find a standard house bathroom (1 shower, 1 toilet, 1 sink) or a dorm-style bathroom (multiple toilets, multiple showers, multiple sinks). Bathroom facilities are usually separated by gender. It is the responsibility of everyone living in the barracks to clean the bathrooms. It might not be a bad idea to pick up a pair of cheap plastic shower sandals as well.
Most stations will have an office, workout facilities and easily accessible running / hiking trails. I’ve seen horseshoe pits and disc golf courses as well. Folks who were living in the barracks were usually allowed to use the computers in the office during off-hours as well. Of course, poor decisions or unwise web browsing choices often times led to this privilege being suspended. But other than a gym, an office, and engine bays, there’s not much else. You’re on your own. And you’re usually literally in the middle of the woods. As you’re preparing for the season, think about packing some entertainment options as well.
If you have ever lived with roommates, expect similar issues to arise. People will leave dishes in the sink. People will not police their leftovers and the fridge will stink. People will eat food that isn’t theirs. The only suggestion I have would be to sit down everyone in the barracks at the beginning of the season, and lay out the ground rules. Create a schedule for chores, etc. And enforce it. If it’s clearly spelled out, and everyone agrees to it, there’s no debate, and thus, no argument. You have enough to worry about during the season. Who’s supposed to take out the trash shouldn’t be one.
Final Thoughts on the Barracks
If you can live in the Barracks, I would highly recommend it. For starters, if it’s a good fire season, you won’t be spending very much time there. So why pay for a place that you’re never at? Not only does it makes sense financially, but the commute is amazing. Being able to wake up, throw your boots on, and walk out the door and be at work is a nice perk. Also, throughout the season, you’ll have a handful of local fires where you’ll get back to the station late, and be expected to be ready to go by 0600 the next morning. Driving down a mountain road after 16 hours of firefighting, when you’re exhausted, is dangerous. Plus, the time spent commuting back and forth cuts into your recuperation time. When you have less than eight hours to eat, shower, and prepare for the next shift, wasting an hour in the car has an enormous impact.
Also, it’s a great way to build closer relationships with both your crewmembers, and other firefighters. Each year, we had a few guys from the engines living in the barracks as well. I got to know them well because we shared living space.
Good Times, Good Times
Some of my best memories from firefighting aren’t from the fireline. They’re from hanging out in the barracks and the shenanigans that ensued.. And I’ll leave it at that.