Make $40K in 6 Months Without a College Degree as a Forest Firefighter

Firefighters Sergio Porras, Jerome Alton and Natasha Rodocker mop up hot spots while battling the Oak Fire in the Jerseydale community.
From left, Firefighters Sergio Porras, Jerome Alton and Natasha Rodocker mop up hot spots while battling the Oak Fire in the Jerseydale community of Mariposa County, Calif., on Monday, July 25, 2022. They are part of Task Force Rattlesnake, a program comprised of Cal Fire and California National Guard firefighters. Noah Berger/AP Photo

Every year we read more and more news stories about wildfires that destroy forests and, increasingly, homes and businesses. The EPA reports that the wildfire season has grown longer, burning more and more acreage.

Because of this there is a growing need for wildland firefighters, who get paid well for long and sometimes dangerous work.

Pay varies quite a bit depending on experience, employer and whether there are many fires to fight that year. Obviously, the employer doesn’t know how many fires there will be, but the more there are, the more the firefighters are needed.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t separate the types of firefighters in its reporting, but assuming that those employed by the federal government are primarily wildland or forest firefighters, they earn an average of $56,640 annually.

To make the most money, you’ll want to get on a “hotshot” crew. These are the people who get the most challenging assignments. As “forest fire first responders,” they also work the most hours.

Hotshot crew firefighters can make $40,000 in less than six months  (with overtime and hazard pay). In recent years, there has been plenty of work in the western states because of regular and aggressive wildfires. Those opportunities have stretched as well to the southwest states, where dry and hot conditions have extended into early spring and late fall.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection starts full-time firefighters at an annual salary of $55,000 including overtime and hazard pay. The Biden Administration raised the minimum hourly wage for federal wildland firefighters to $15 per hour.

Could You Be a Forest Firefighter?

Being a federal wildland firefighter can be dangerous work. To get hired, you’ll need to complete a health screening questionnaire and a work capacity test. You must complete a 3-mile hike carrying a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes or less.

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.

The article also advises that you practice sleeping standing up and go without bathing during your week-long adventure. “If you think you’re having a good time, you may just make it as a wildland firefighter,” the article states.

Job Qualifications

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 has a web page dedicated to seasonal firefighter positions. You can find openings in other states by searching online for “forest firefighter” plus the name of the state.

Kent McDill is a veteran journalist who has specialized in personal finance topics since 2013. He is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder. Steve Gillman contributed to this report.