In Northern California, where I spent three fire seasons, the average fire season starts around Mid-May, and lasts till the end of October.
In Region 3 (Arizona & New Mexico), the season starts much earlier: Late-February or Early-March. Regardless of region or crew, everyone’s first couple of weeks will be the same. Lots of classroom time, and lots of PT. Think of this time as “Firefighting 101”. if you’re curious, here are the curious you’ll be taking:
- I-100 Introduction to ICS
- S-130 Wildland Firefighting (30 Hours)
- S-190 Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior (6-8 hours)
- L-180 Human Factors in the Wildland Fire Service (4-6 hours)
- IS-700a NIMS An Introduction to the National Incident Management System
Technically, it’s called “Annual Critical Refresher Training”, and it covers basic fire behavior, fire weather, firefighting strategy, tactics, etc. And at some point during this time, you and your crew will head down to a high school track to take the Work Capacity Test (aka the Pack Test). If you’re working on the Plumas National Forest, you might take it on the Oroville Dam (at least one year that happened!). But back to the classroom training. The first time through it’s pretty fascinating. By the third year, I’ll be honest – you’re a little over it. But it’s important to stay sharp. And like it or not, you’re gonna take it every year.
While all crews have there on spin on it, there will DEFINITELY be PT every morning. Most crews alternate hiking one day, running the next. But again – every crew has their system. And some days might be ‘field days’, where you go out and perform simulated fire line construction. If you’re on an engine, you might practice building hose lays, and familiarizing yourself with the engine’s capabilities, setting up portable pumps, etc.
Usually, after about a month, there’s a simulated exercise that all resources from the ranger district will participate in. There will be a lot of overhead (Divisions and Battalion Chiefs), who will oversee the training. During this test, they will be walking the line, making sure that everyone is operating safely. While they will spend most of their time grilling the Superintendent, Captains, and Squad Bosses, it’s not uncommon for them to grab a firefighter at random, and ask questions about where the nearest safety zone, what are some watch out situations, what’s the fire doing at this moment, what are the crew’s orders, etc. If you paid attention during the initial briefing, and have kept up your situational awareness, you’ll be fine. Also, it would be worth your time to memorize the 10 Standard Firefighter Orders and the 18 Watchout Situations.
Once the crew passes this test, it will be considered ready for deployment. Inevitably, everyone will get all excited, and talk will turn about where the first assignment will be. And then a week will go, and no assignment comes. And otherwise optimistic people suddenly transform overnight into Eeyore’s.
“We’re never going to catch a fire.”
“This season is going to suck.”
“I should have joined crew XYZ, they have already hit 3 fires, and have over 100 hours of OT!”
You need to accept the simple fact that staffing is a decision that lies well beyond your control. The sooner you stop worrying about it, the happier you will be. You’re going to hit some fires. I promise.
Usually by late June, early July, you’ll hit your first fire. It might be a 1,000 acre inferno, or a 10’ x 10’ smoldering lightning strike with no active flames. The latter was my introduction to fire. A thoroughly underwhelming experience that led me to question my decision. And then a few days later, we hit an awesome 20+ acre fire that we IA’ed all night. Hands-down, one of my favorite fires of my career. The point is – on any given day, you never know what you’re going to get. Keep your spirits high, and don’t jelly-fish.
Once you get into late July, you’re busy. The west is burning, and you’re all over the place. Fourteen day assignments go by in a snap, and your two days off dissolve into a blur of laundry and booze.
Next thing you know, it’s Labor Day, and you suddenly realize that the season will be over in just eight weeks. And you haven’t thought at all about where you’re going to live, or what you’re going to do next. Before you can organize around a plan, the next fire pops, and you’re gone for another week or two. At some point during the season, there will be “THE BIG ONE”. It could be a fire like the 500,000 acre Biscuit Fire in Oregon in 2002, or the Cedar Fire that scorched San Diego in 2003. Or maybe like the 450,000+ acre Wallow Fire of 2011 that ran fast through Arizona and New Mexico, or most recently the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara or the awful Camp Fire that devastated Paradise, CA in November 2018. Or it could be a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina. I was working for the Forest Service during the Cedar Fire in 2003, and during Katrina in 2005. I vividly recall watching San Diego burning and thinking “Why aren’t they sending us down? We’re just up here in the woods, playing volleyball. Give us the order!” And then when we did get an assignment, and it was a weak sauce 40 acre fire, skunking around, with minimal fire activity. No big flames. Just a lot of smoke and a lot of poison oak to cut through. We were pissed. We were missing that year’s BIG ONE for the lamest fire of the year. Once we finally put it to bed, we were pumped to hear that we were heading down to SoCal. FINALLY! By the time we got there…the fire was out. We spent a couple days mopping up and patrolling. But not a single shift of hotline, unfortunately.
That’s how it goes. You can’t pick where you go. Or when you go. That’s what you sign up for. But if you spend enough time in the game, you’ll get your turn.
September is usually when the pace slows. 14 day assignments get rarer. Truthfully, usually most seasons finish with a whimper (2017 and 2018 being major exceptions to this norm). October for most crews is slow. Lots of time spent mulling around the station, toiling away on ‘project work’, which can be anything from taking inventory of the supply cache to raking pine needles. After a few weeks of that, you’ll be happy when the snows come.
And after that, you can proudly say you’re not a rookie any more!