How do I become a firefighter?

Seasonal Firefighter - People interested in a job as a seasonal firefighter must apply to the agency they are interested in working for. Each agency (Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, State of Idaho, etc.) has its own process for hiring seasonal employees. You may want to consider applying to more than one agency.

To become a wildland firefighter, you must be between the 18 and 35 years old and pass a physical fitness test. The average firefighter is paid $8.00/hour. They sometimes earn time and a half or "hazard duty" pay. 

Most agencies hire a fair number of employees on a seasonal basis (generally from May to September). Almost without exception, regardless of the type of work seasonal employees are hired to do, everyone receives basic firefighter training. During seasons where there are a lot of fires, people who have had basic fire training are called upon to help organized fire crews. If you do an outstanding job, regardless of what function you are in, you will be noticed and your chances of getting a "fire job" next season will be greatly increased.

Professional Full-time Firefighter - Check with the agency you are interested in and obtain an information package on how to apply for these types of jobs.

 What is a hotshot fire crew?

These highly trained, skilled and experienced crews are made up of firefighters who have had at least one season of experience as a wildland firefighter. There are 68 hotshot crews nationwide - a total of 1,360 firefighters. These firefighters are generally given assignments on the toughest part of a fire and use a variety of specialized hand tools, including chainsaws and fireline explosives. The crew members serve in all phases of wildland firefighting - building firelines, burning out, setting backfires and mopping up. Hot shot crew members are employed for a minimum of 130 days.

What experience do I need to become a smokejumper?

Smokejumpers are airborne firefighters that parachute from planes to attack wildland fires in remote and inaccessible areas. Generally, smokejumpers are the initial attack on remote, inaccessible fires. To become a smokejumper, you need one year of general outdoor experience. Included in this one year of experience must be three months of wildland fire experience on an organized crew. Competition for smokejumper jobs in recent years is resulting in applicants with four to five seasons of wildland firefighting experience competing for the very limited number of jobs that become available each year.

What is the function of the engine crews?

Engine crews are made up of 3-5 wildland firefighters. A typical wildland fire engine is a heavy-duty off road vehicle able to carry up to 800 gallons of water. Engines also carry foam to use on wildland fuels. The foam can also be used to protect the exterior walls of a structure.

 What is the function of the hand crews?

These crews consist of about 20 individuals who have been organized and trained and are supervised principally for operational assignments on an incident. Generally, these crews are made up of people who have been trained to fire fight, but whose everyday job is something other than fire, i.e., timber, wilderness rangers, recreation, range. There are approximately 500 hand crews in the United States.

What is a helitack crew?

Helitack crews are specially trained in the tactical and logistical use of helicopters for fire suppression. These crews can be rapidly deployed and are often the first to respond to a wildland fire. Helitack crews are also trained to "rappel" from a hovering helicopter in areas where the terrain or vegetation does not allow the helicopter to land. A primary job for the crew is to load and unload "slings" of equipment and supplies needed for firefighting.

 What kinds of aircraft are used in fire suppression activities?

 Helicopters - In a typical year, there are 15-20 "heavy" and "medium" helicopters under contract in the United States for wildland firefighting purposes. Also, there are an additional 175 under contract on a "call when needed" basis. Helicopters support firefighters on the ground by dropping water, foam or retardant on flaming trees, brush and even structures to cool hot spots and prevent a fire from spreading.

Airtankers - Airtankers are large planes fitted with tanks for transporting and dropping fire retardant or water. Their capability ranges from 2,000 gallons to the larger aircraft that are capable of delivering 3,000 gallons. Airtankers drop their load in a long string, creating a line of retardant. The purpose of the retardant is to slow the fire down in order to give ground support forces the opportunity to build firelines. A pink dye is added to give the pilot an idea of where the drop landed. In a typical year, 40-50 airtankers are under contract to state and federal agencies for wildland firefighting purposes. 

Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) - A MAFFS unit is a pressurized 3,000 gallon tank system containing either water or a water-based retardant designed to fit into a C-130 aircraft. MAFFS units can only be utilized when there is imminent danger to life and property and other aerial resources are exhausted or committed.

 Lead Planes - These planes are used to "lead" the airtankers to and through their retardant drops and are also used for aerial reconnaissance of fire areas.

Infrared Aircraft - These are aircraft equipped with highly specialized infrared mapping systems.  The Infrared scanners locate hot spots inside and outside a fire's perimeter. Infrared scanners can pinpoint a 6-inch hot spot from an altitude of 8,000 feet (1.5 miles) above ground level and can cover almost one million acres in one hour. Flights are generally flown after sunset and before sunrise when temperatures between the terrain and the fire differ the most, making it easier to pinpoint heat sources.

 What other wildland firefighting resources are being utilized?

Remote Automated Weather Stations (RAWS) - RAWS units collect, store and forward six critical weather elements hourly, via a Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) 22,300 miles above the equator, to a computer system located at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. There are approximately 1,150 RAWS strategically positioned throughout the United States. The types of weather information involved include wind speed and direction, wind gusts, precipitation, air temperature, relative humidity and fuel moisture. Resource managers also use RAWS to monitor environmental conditions and air quality. Some RAWS units are used as early-alert warning systems for things such as floods, mud slides or hazardous material levels.

Incident Management Teams - This is a team of highly trained, experienced individuals who are organized to manage large and/or complex incidents.

Firefighter Handtools - Most of the handtools used by firefighters are combination tools. Throughout the years, wildland firefighters have "invented" handtools that serve more than just one function. Handtools used by firefighters must be effective, efficient, versatile, portable, simple, easy to maintain and repair and standardized so they can be pooled, traded and transported quickly.

Pulaski - This is a combination tool, ax and mattock invented by Ed Pulaski in 1910. This tool enables firefighters to cut trees and limbs with the ax side and to dig and scrape with the mattock side.

McLeod - This combination heavy duty rake and hoe tool is named after Ranter Malcolm McLeod. Firefighters use this tool to cut through matted litter and duff and clearing loose surface materials.

Ax - The most common one being the double-bitted, which is used for cutting trees and limbs. the single-bitted or poleax is common in the east and is used for cutting trees, limbs and for driving wedges.

Shovel - This is a combination tool - the edges are sharpened so that the user can chop down small trees, cut limbs and roots. Firefighters also use shovels to scape away needles and other duff as they construct firelines down to mineral soil. They are specifically designed for fire use and are the lightest, yet most effective shovel or all-around use.

Drip Torch - Firefighters use this device for igniting backfires or burnouts.

 Backpack Pump - Firefighters carry these backpacks, usually made from collapsible neoprene, during mop up operations. They are effective for cooling down hot spots.

 Once a fire starts, how is it managed and organized?

 How agencies respond to a reported incident is well organized and planned in advance. As the incident requires, additional resources are dispatched from the local agency. Once the incident goes beyond the local agency's ability to continue supplying resources, requests for additional resources are forwarded to the nearest Geographical Area Coordination Center (GACC).

There is a total of 11GACCs across the United States, including Alaska. These centers will locate and dispatch additional firefighters and support personnel throughout the geographic area. The GACCs are as follows:

Geographic Area Coordination Center


Alaska Interagency

Fort Wainwright, Alaska

Eastern Area

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Eastern Great Basin

Salt Lake City, Utah

Western Great Basin

Reno, Nevada

Northern California

Redding, California

Southern California

Riverside, California

Northern Rockies

Missoula, Montana

Northwest Area

Portland, Oregon

Rocky Mountain Area

Broomfield, Colorado

Southern Area

Chamblee, Georgia

Southwest Area

Albuquerque, New Mexico

 When the resource needs for an incident, or incidents, exceed the capability of the GACC, resource orders are then forwarded to the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC), located at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho. The NICC is an interagency operation that provides logistic support and intelligence reporting to all wildland management agencies. NICC dispatches crews, overhead personnel, aircraft, supplies and services across the U.S. and Canada and to other foreign countries based upon requests from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).  These requests are facilitated and coordinated by the USFS, International Programs, Disaster Assistance Support Program (DASP). DASP is a cooperative program between OFDA and the USFS.

How much equipment and supplies are in the NIFC fire cache?

The fire cache maintains a minimum inventory of tools, equipment and supplies to support 10,000 firefighters. Even though the total number of items does not equal 5,000 - they have immediate restocking capability - within 24 hours or so.

75 percent of supplies, materials, tools and equipment are returned after the fires, serviced and put back in the inventory for use on the next fire.

How many radios are there in the NIFC radio cache?

The radio cache has an inventory of 7,000 radios - this includes personal hand-held radios, radios for aircraft, etc.

Throughout history, what are some of the most memorable fires?

 Some of the major wildland fires that burned in the early history of the United States include the following:





Lives Lost

Miramichi and Maine Fires

October 1825

New Brunswick and Maine




October 1871

Wisconsin and Michigan


1500 (WI) Undetermined (MI)


September 1881





September 1894





September 1894


Several Million

Undetermined, but few


September 1902

Washington and Oregon

1,000,000 +




April 1903

New York




Great Idaho

August 1910

Idaho and Montana




August 1933





October 1947




The following is a list of some of the more significant fires that have burned in recent years.





Lives Lost

Marble Cone

August 1977











Montana and Idaho



Oakland Hills October 1991 California 1,500 acres
2,900 structures destroyed


South Blaine County

October 1991




Foothills Fire

August 1992




South Canyon Fire July 1994 Colorado 1,856 14

Idaho City Complex

July 1994




Cox Wells

August 1996




Millers Reach  June 1996 Alaska 37,336 acres
344 structures destroyed


July 1997





July 1997





August 1997




Volusia Complex 1998 Florida 111,130 None
Flagler/St. John 1998 Florida 94,656
also forced the evacuation of thousands of residents
Dunn Glen Complex August 1999 Nevada 288,220 None
Big Bar Complex August - November 1999 California 140,947 None
Kirk Complex September - November 1999 California 86,700 None

 The following shows the averages for number of fires and acres burned. 1918 was the first year for which records are available.


Average Number of Fires

Average Acres Burned

























 What is fire's natural role in ecosystems and why do we need to be concerned about this?

 More than 100 years of excluding fire, combined with past land-use practices, have altered the landscape. This has resulted in changes such as a heavy buildup of dead vegetation, dense stands of trees, a shift to species that have not evolved and adapted to fire, and, occasionally, even an increase in non-native fire-prone plants. Because of these conditions, today's fires tend to be larger, burn hotter, and spread farther and faster, making them more severe, more dangerous, and more costly in human, economic, and ecologic terms.

The goal of the fire policy is to restore the natural balance by adopting land management practices that integrate fire into ecosystems as an essential natural process. Fire can be used to reduce the buildup of dead and downed trees and curb insect and disease infestations, while releasing and recycling nutrients essential for the growth and reproduction of many plant species. Land managers must balance wildland fire suppression with the use of fire for resource benefit.

What is a "prescribed" fire?

A prescribed fire is any fire intentionally ignited to meet specific land management objectives (i.e., to reduce flammable fuels, such as the accumulation of brush, logs, etc. on forest floors; or to help restore ecosystem health). Prescribed fires are preplanned ignitions, with predetermined boundaries. They are conducted only under certain weather conditions (i.e., during periods of low wind) when flame length and heat can be controlled. Land managers must obtain approval of prescribed fire plans from applicable federal or state agencies before conducting planned burns. In addition, all applicable requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) must be met on federal lands. Before federal land management activities (i.e., trail building, timber harvesting, use of fire, etc.) are conducted, NEPA requires that the environmental impacts of these activities be analyzed to assess their impacts on cultural resources, wetlands, soil, water quality, air quality, visibility, and other resources.

 How will an increase in the use of fire benefit ecosystem health?

The effects of fire can retard or accelerate the natural development of plant communities, alter species diversity, change nutrient flows, and interact with other physical, chemical, and biological systems. Thus, for most North American ecosystems, fire sustains functional ecosystems.

How will the most critical areas in need of fire application be identified?

Some wildland areas that are in or near an "urban interface" (where houses and structures have been built) may be considered a priority for using managed fire because they are considered at high risk for wildfires that could become catastrophic. Other areas will be selected for a variety of land management purposes, including forest and ecosystem health.

What tools other than prescribed fire do Federal agencies have to reduce fuels hazards?

Besides wildland fire, fuel treatment may be accomplished by mechanical, chemical, biological, and manual means. In some areas, fuel accumulations may be so heavy that use of wildland fire may not be practical. In these cases pre-treatment of the area by another means may be necessary before wildland fire may be applied.

What is the relationship between fire and air quality?

Wildland fires occur naturally and are one of the many natural sources of particulate matter (tiny particles such as dust, soot, etc.) Particulate matter is the main pollutant of concern from smoke because it can cause serious health problems. Smoke can also adversely affect the clarity (visual range) of our air. Wildland fire is also part of the natural ecological process of many ecosystems. Without wildland fires the ecological health of many forests, rangelands and wilderness areas will decline.

What can homeowners do to protect their homes from wildland fire and ensure their home can be protected in the event of a fire?

Use fire resistant building material. The roof and exterior of homes should be constructed of non-combustible or fire resistant materials such as fire resistant roofing materials, tile, slate, sheet iron, aluminum, brick, or stone. Wood siding, cedar shakes, exterior wood paneling, and other highly combustible materials should be treated with fire retardant chemicals.

If a fire does occur near a home in the wildlands, homeowners have the responsibility to create a "defensible space" so that firefighters may safely protect their homes. Examples of defensible space are: cleaning roof surfaces and gutters regularly to avoid accumulation of flammable materials, or Removing portions of any tree extending within 10 feet of the flue opening of any stove or chimney, maintaining a fuel break around all structures, etc.