How can you get paid to spend time in the great outdoors for months, sometimes doing exciting work for long hours? Become a wildland firefighter! In the right position, you could make as much as $40,000 during a six-month season.
Can you really make a decent wage fighting forest fires? Pay does vary quite a bit depending on your experience, your employer and whether there are many fires to fight that year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t separate the types of firefighters in their numbers, but it’s safe to assume that those employed by the federal government are primarily wildland or forest firefighters, and they earn an average of $48,440 annually.
To make the most money, you’ll want to get on a “hotshot” crew. These are the people who get the most exciting (meaning dangerous) assignments. As “forest fire first responders,” they also work the most hours.
One forest firefighter says you can make $40,000 in less than six months as a hotshot (with overtime and hazard pay). In fact, his friend made $84,000 one year. He says “The Forest Service or BLM takes pretty good care of you.” Often you won’t have to buy food or pay rent, so you can save quite a bit of money, and then have six months off. He also mentions the potential downside: If it’s a rainy or snowy season with only a few fires, you might make almost nothing.
Could You Be a Forest Firefighter?
This can be dangerous work, and according to the Forest Service you’ll be engaged in “extraordinarily strenuous activities.” To get hired, you’ll need to complete a health screening questionnaire (HSQ) and a work capacity test (WCT). You must complete a 3-mile hike carrying a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes or less.
To know whether you’re ready to fight forest fires, Kelly Andersson, contributing editor of Wildland Firefighter Magazine, suggests you spend a week doing the following while carrying a 50-pound backpack:
Start hiking cross-country, and make sure you’re going at a good clip for at least 10 hours per day on steep slopes — and make sure you’re awake for at least 20 hours per day… Fall down a lot, and bang yourself up on rocks and roots as often as possible… and go without food and water as much as possible.
She also advises that you practice sleeping standing up and go without bathing during your week-long adventure. She says that after all of this, “…if you think you’re having a good time, you may just make it as a wildland firefighter.”
A high school diploma is sufficient for most wildland firefighting jobs. Apart from the health screening, paperwork and work capacity test, you’ll also need to learn job skills. The agency that hires you usually provides the training, though they may also refer you to an outside training program.
For example, the Colorado Firecamp does regular training in Salida, Colorado. They help you get a “red card,” which is “an agency-issued document that certifies that an individual has the training, experience and physical fitness to perform the tasks of a specified position on a wildland or prescribed fire.” The 32 hours of training costs $450, and you can start as young as 17 — though you’ll have to wait until you’re 18 to be hired.
Where to Find Forest Firefighter Jobs
Most of the jobs are in the west, and according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, each of the many federal agencies that employ woodland firefighters has their own hiring process. Here are six of them:
Many states have one or more agencies responsible for fighting forest fires, and their hiring policies and wage structures differ from each other as well. For example, the state of Washington recently had a job listing on Careers.wa.gov for a seasonal forest firefighter, offering a salary of $11 to $16.03 per hour. You can find openings in other states by searching online for “forest firefighter” plus the name of the state.
Your Turn: Do you think you have what it takes to be a forest firefighter?