Before There’s Smoke, There’s Fire (Fighters)

By CHERY SABOL for the Missoula Job Service

At the first whiff of forest-fire smoke in mid-summer, a rush of people invariably shows up at Missoula Job Service, hoping to get temporary seasonal work fighting fires. It’s a great idea and good summer employment, but terrible timing. Training for those jobs begins months before then and is over long before ash starts to dust the valley.

These are attractive jobs because they can pay well with hazard pay, overtime and holiday pay, particularly during busy fire years, after only short-term, but intense, training. Qualifications are minimal; firefighters must be at least 18years old and U.S. citizens and high school graduation or equivalent can be required. Besides the bank-account allure, for many people there is a romantic appeal to spending time outside, defeating a powerful force of nature and protecting property and even lives.

If you have an interest in wildland firefighting this summer, here’s what you need to know:

Start now

Smokejumpers and aircraft have already been dispatched out of this region this year.  If you want to work for a federal agency, such as the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management, this is the time to create an account on and either create or upload a resume there. Federal firefighting and related jobs in Montana can be found here. Applications for state jobs, such as the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, are here. These documents can take hours to create well. People who are serious about finding firefighter work for federal agencies will put in the time now to create a full and complete profile on, according to Kitty Ortman.

Photo by Paul Queneau

She is coordinator of the multi-state Northern Rockies Geographic Area Multi-Agency Coordinating Group. It provides an interagency approach to wildland fire management for Montana, North Dakota, northern Idaho, and a small portion of South Dakota and Wyoming.

Ortman’s advice is simple when it comes to filling out applications for government firefighting jobs. Do it now because hiring supervisors may be pulling the first rosters of registered applicants in the next week or two. “Don’t wait until May,” Ortman said. College students and others might not be available until May, but the applications should still go in now. And, she said, detail your skills and work history.

“The more you explain, the better,” she said. This is no time for brevity. “Let us know if every summer you’ve been doing yard work,” Ortman said. Perhaps an applicant has no experience fighting fires, but grew up on a ranch. Employers know that as a rule, “ranch kids are used to working hard,” so that would be important information to include. Veterans are also prime firefighter candidates because they are used to a minimal-support environment. Volunteer work counts, too. The important thing is to not only fill in the blanks, but to fill them in completely.

There is another option besides working directly for state and federal agencies. They also contract with private companies or individuals to provide equipment and workers. While the government may train its new hires, private contractors rely on private training providers who make referrals or on workers who put themselves through training and then apply for work with a contractor. Some providers are also contractors and can smoothly combine those two functions.

Training courses begin in Missoula on March 1 and continue through mid-June if needed for aspiring firefighters. It consists of basic wildland fire training, usually 32-40 hours completed in a week. They cost about $200. Refreshers cost less. Specialized, advanced training is also available.

Both beginning firefighters and those returning for annual refresher training and skill enhancement should be getting into shape now, according to Troy Kurth of Rocky Mountain Fire Company in Missoula.

“They should start considering getting themselves physically fit so they can do the Pack Test,” Kurth said. Which leads to:

Know what you’re getting into

Firefighting is dirty, dangerous, and demanding. It’s not a job for people who like to begin the weekend at 5 p.m. on Friday. It’s not a job for people who expect to have weekends off at all. Days can be 16 to 18 hours long. Wildland firefighters can be far from home for extended times.

Photo by BLMOregon

It is, fundamentally an intensely physical job. Fire isn’t persuaded by logic. It has to be shown who’s boss and that takes abject strength at times. So, firefighters must pass the Pack Test or a work capacity test used to measure aerobic capacity, muscular strength and muscular endurance. Firefighters are required to pass the arduous level of testing, which includes carrying a 45-pound pack 3 miles in 45 minutes. An extreme level of fitness is expected for firefighters because they often work in steep terrain, and in extreme temperatures, altitude, and smoke, and still have energy left in case an unforeseen emergency arises. Here is more information on the test.

One thing that job seekers shouldn’t do this early though, is begin to outfit themselves, Kurth said. “We prefer people come to class before they buy boots. We can give them our opinion after training.”

However, if you prefer fashion boots over work boots, firefighting won’t be a good fit. Applicants should honestly consider whether they will be comfortable living with strangers, going for days without hot showers, and being out of range of computer and cell phone coverage, Ortman said.

Who makes a good wildland firefighter? “People who like hard work, who can stay focused. Athletes are great,” she said. So are people who enjoy hiking and are self-reliant. There’s room on a fire crew for both followers and leaders, for people who like working with just a couple of other people on small lightning-strike fires and those who enjoy a 20-person crew working in concert against a bigger blaze.

Enthusiasm is a marketable quality for someone who wants to be chosen for firefighting job, Kurth said. And women can make excellent crew members. “We had an all-girl fire crew last year. They were wonderful,” Kurth said.

He looks for people who pay attention and follow directions in training. If they can’t do it in the classroom, they won’t do it on a fire line, he’s found. And he likes to see people participating and not hanging back during practices.

Look ahead

Ortman doesn’t make predictions about fire seasons, but this year, it’s registering with her that moisture levels in the northern Rockies are good at this point, while California is another story. “We know California is undergoing a record drought,” Kurth said. Records from as far back as 1873 are falling, he said. Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona are registering now as abnormally dry to severe drought conditions.

Photo by Paul Queneau

Kurths’ crews travel south when they are needed there. In the last three years, he believes that everyone who passed Rocky Mountain’s firefighter training with a good attitude “got a ride on the truck,” or were able to work for a fire company. It’s not hard to surmise that dry conditions might keep them busy again this year.

There are about 200 contractors like him in the system, he said. If they are all needed, that means jobs for about 600 firefighters. Positions include hand crews, helitack / helirappeling, Hot Shot, smokejumper, and engine crews.

Job seekers should look for those position announcements on the federal and state web sites. And, Ortman said, they can call their local Forest Service offices to find out what positions will be available and to express their interest in working this summer. Positions are available at offices in Lolo, Missoula, Ninemile (Huson), Plains/Thompson Falls, Seeley Lake and Superior.

Those offices are also good sources for training and contractors. More information is available on the NWCG website. Missoula Job Service also has packets of information on tips for applying for wildland firefighting jobs. Call us at 406-728-7060 if you have questions.


Looking for a job in Missoula? Be sure to check out our Missoula Job Listings.  Be sure you “LIKE” the Missoula Job Service Facebook Page for daily post on job opening. You’ll also find Missoula-area information on Job Hunting ResourcesJob Hunting Tips, Job Interview Tips, tips for writing Cover Letters and Resumes.


Chery Sabol is an employment consultant at the Missoula Job Service, an organization that offers programs and services to assist employers and job seekers alike. Those looking for employment can view job openings on our website, as well as our Facebook Page  and Pinterest Boards. Employment consultants provide résumé reviews, conduct practice interviews, and offer skills testing.

The Job Service also provides a self-service area where job seekers have access to phones, a fax machine, a copier, and computers. Our qualified staff also offers business consulting services, including employee recruitment and retention assistance. Additionally, we provide financial support for businesses looking to train both new and current employees.

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