The Origin Story of Wildland Fire Jobs

There are no wildfires in Massachusetts. At least as far I could tell, growing up in the suburbs outside of Boston. Everything I knew about fire started and ended with Smokey the Bear commercials. If someone had told me that someday, I would travel out west and scratch out a living for a few seasons on a US Forest Service handcrew, I doubt I would have believed him. But that’s exactly what happened.

The first wildland fire I ever saw was from the rooftop bar of K’s China in Boulder, Colorado and I was mesmerized. We drank cheap beer and watched as the foothills outside of town began to burn. The fire seemed to have life, pulsing with each passing wind gust, the glow going stronger with each gulp of fresh air. From our perch, we could see the flashing lights of the emergency responders, and I remember thinking what a crazy way to make a living that must be. I mean, how the hell do you put out a forest fire?  Where the hell are the fire hydrants? It all just seemed so exotic and exciting. The rest of the table soon turned their attention to other topics, but I couldn’t turn away. It was the wildest thing I had ever seen.

The following summer, my mother picked up a copy of “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean. A lion of outdoor writing, Maclean is most famous for his book “A River Runs Through It”. In Young Men and Fire, he turned his attention to the courageous young men who risk their lives every summer to fight wild fires out west. He looked specifically at the Mann Gulch Fire, one of the great tragedies in wildland fire. Then I read “Hellroaring” by Peter Leschak. His adventures of fighting fires in Minnesota were outstanding, and I finished his book within two days. Hot on the heels of those two reads, I snatched up Sebastian Junger’s “Fire” and that’s officially when I crossed the Rubicon. I was hooked.

Towards the end of the summer, I was in Ely, Minnesota at a family reunion, deep in the north woods, in the Boundary Waters where Peter Leschak had surely had some close calls with fate. Every other year, we would go up north and spend a week fishing. I was sharing a boat with my cousin Mike. A few years younger than me, he was a sophomore at the University of Illinois and like me, itching for adventure. That day, the fishing wasn’t particularly great, and we got to talking. Cold beer and calm lakes can cause otherwise rational men to get some wild ideas into their minds, and somehow the conversation turned to fighting wildland fires.  It was the summer of 2002, and the memory of 9/11 was still fresh in our minds. Firefighters and police were national heroes. And with the start of the war in Iraq, a strong sense of national pride was swelling in the county, especially among young able-bodied men like ourselves with an itch on their ass for adventure. I remember feeling at the time that I should be doing something to serve, but the thought of joining the military scared the ever living shit out of me. Firefighting didn’t involve killing, seemed much safer than working a beat as a cop, and best yet, enjoyed the same level of sex appeal with the ladies.

“Let’s do it.” My cousin said. “Let’s go to California and let’s just do it.”

And we did it.

That following spring, we both got on with handcrews in Northern California. He landed on the Klamath National Forest and I landed on the Plumas National Forest.

It was the best decision I ever made.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easy to romanticize things in the past. We all too often fondly recall the good memories and casually let the others slip away. I’m sure I’m guilty of that. But my decision to head west and pursue a dream was the best decision I ever made. Working as a wildland firefighter was the dirtiest, hardest, and at times, most miserable job I have ever had. With the rest of my crew, I worked 16 hours a day for weeks on end. There were times when I was so tired, so utterly spent that had I not been so severely dehydrated, I probably would have cried. When I tell people about the rigors of the profession, they often look puzzled and ask “Why would you want to do that?” It’s not worth trying to explain it to those people. They’ll never understand it. But you do. You’re reading this blog post because you’re different. Because you want to hike in on a fire while every sane person is grabbing their stuff and fleeing.   You want to see if you have the guts to hold your ground while 200 foot tall Sugar Pine trees torch out around you. You won’t admit this out loud, but deep down, you want to be a badass, and this seems like the type of job that a badass would do.

And you’re right.

Now I want to help you land that job.  Working as a firefighter changed my life. It pushed me physically, and mentally, to places I didn’t think I was capable of going. I learned that my body and my heart were  a lot tougher than I ever knew, and I learned that no matter how many fires you see, you’re always going to be a little scared. I worked with three amazing crews, made up of some of the hardest working, fun-loving knuckleheads I’ve ever had the pleasure of cutting down trees with. We worked hard and we played hard, and we packed as much living into those six months as the criminal code of California and Quantum Physics would allow.

I’ve spent the last decade helping people figure out what they want to do with their lives, and how to land their dream job. I remembered how hard it was to figure out how to break into this job. I didn’t know anyone who did this. I didn’t know who hired wildland firefighters. I didn’t know how to physically prepare for the job. I didn’t know anything. But I got lucky, I had the support of my cousin Mike, and it all just worked out. But it very well could have turned out a lot differently.

I once interviewed a wild caricature of a man named Dave McCarville for a profile piece in Boy’s Life Magazine on hotshots. Known by all those on his crew as “The Captain” for his outlandish mustache, when I asked “The Captain” what he loved about fighting fire, he just laughed and said something that perfectly summed it all up. “You get to see Mother Nature at her angriest. How awesome is that?” If you’re the kind of guy or gal that reads that quote and gets a devilish grin on your face…then I hate to be the one to tell you this, but I have a feeling you might already know… You were born to fight fires.

-Michael Kennard
December 31, 2018
Mountain View, California