May 19, 2022
It was three A.M. in Santa Barbara, and a fire blazed in the foothills of the American Riviera. Lindsay Rae Silvia, then a wildland firefighter working in California, woke up poolside, on a lounge chair, to sirens and the thudding roar of helicopters overhead.
“It was like our 15-minute break,” Silvia told me. “Some of us just took a cat nap while the engine captain stayed up."
The fire had already destroyed multiple homes, and her crew had been tasked with protecting other structures around the city.
Silvia had fallen asleep watching the fire and city lights glow in the night, down the mountain and over the ocean. It was a formidable, potentially catastrophic scene, but beautiful, luminous and shimmering in the dark.
Lindsay Rae Silvia has been working in fire for over a decade. She is currently a Fuels Technician with the Green Mountain & Finger Lakes National Forests, detailed as a Fire Application Specialist with the U.S. Forest Service. I had the pleasure and privilege to speak with her and two other wildland firefighters, Caitlin Gosciminski and Sienna Falzetta, about their jobs and experiences with wildland firefighting in the Western United States.
Gosciminski worked on multiple Conservation Corps crews before pursuing fire. Falzetta applied to a fire crew right out of college because of her interest in fire ecology.
All entry-level firefighters – officially classified as “forestry technicians” – are required to take a pack test. “It's kind of a running joke in the fire world that we're classified as forestry technicians and not wildland firefighters,” Gosciminski said. The applicant must walk three miles on a flat surface in under 45 minutes with a 45-pound pack. After passing this test, applicants are trained to operate chainsaws, drive government vehicles, and use pumps, trucks, and other firefighting tools.
Gosciminski’s training lasted just two weeks, and then she was sent out on her first fire “roll,” or assignment. A roll lasts two weeks or more, depending on travel times and fire severity. Large wildfires are classified as Type Ones or Twos, whereas smaller fires are Type Fours or Fives.
The workday of a wildland firefighter follows a loosely reliable schedule.
Crews wake up at six in the morning to work anywhere from nine to 16 hours. Usually, fire crews camp out miles away from a fire, and hike out every morning to the fire with their tools to begin a day’s work. They receive a daily humidity or weather briefing from fire dispatchers, who remotely monitor the weather and other environmental conditions.
One member of a crew, likely with a year or two of experience, will act as a fire lookout and climb to a higher point to monitor the fire. The crew remains in close contact with their lookout through radios.
“They talked a lot about wind,” Falzetta told me. Changes in wind direction or severity can provoke dangerous new fire behavior and must be closely monitored by the lookout and by fire dispatch. “Fire creates its own weather. Outside of the fire could be five mile an hour winds, and it's sunny. But then, once you get closer to the fire, there could be 40 mile an hour winds and the sky is gray because the fire has just created its own wind tunnel.”
After hiking out and setting up a lookout, crew members dig, swamp, cut, or use water hoses to fight the fire.
First, and most importantly, crew members will dig a one- or two-foot-long trench around the site of the fire to create a fire line. Other members of the crew will “swamp” the area by pulling brush to the side to make room for this trench. The fire line is established to act as a fuel break, to cut off a fire's supply of flammable fuel material, and mark the territory firefighters will be working in to contain the fire. The crew also uses chainsaws to cut down any bushes or trees that may be on fire to ensure the fire does not spread, or “jump,” the fire line. It is imperative that flames do not reach the crown, the uppermost part, of a tree.
“Very little fire suppression tactics can stop the crown fire,” Silvia said. “It goes where it wants to go.”
Apart from cutting trees, crews can use chainsaws to clear a helispot for a helicopter to land, or to clear an area in the forest for a fire camp. They also use radios to request helicopter assistance. Helicopters drop either buckets of water or flame retardant on fires.
“It’s a great tool to use, to have a helicopter bucket drop come in,” Silvia said. “It does come with some risks associated with it, to both the helicopter pilot and to the wildland firefighter on the ground who's calling it in, or even someone who might be working along that piece of ground where the buckets are being requested.”
Helicopters are often used during the “mop-up” phase of a fire, when the flames are contained and put out and crews get to work making sure the fire does not reignite. They are also used to bring food and supplies to fire crews in remote locations or provide transport to crews in these areas, where hiking may be more difficult.
A crew must also establish “trigger points” on the scene of a fire, which are different changes in direction a fire might take, and develop a plan to respond to these changes. If a fire starts moving in a certain direction unexpectedly, due to wind or other environmental factors, that would be a trigger point, and cause a crew to potentially retreat.
Due to the danger and volatile nature of wildland fires, identifying these trigger points and making quick decisions to reevaluate a crew’s plan is crucial to their success and safety. Silvia believes the hardest thing about being in the field is making these quick decisions.
“I think a good decision involves consideration into what’s going to happen next, not just the decision right in front of you, by pulling in your past experience, paying attention to fire weather and fire science, and knowing and trusting the people you’re working with,” she said.
“Being able to adjust your decision, the one that you just made, because the fire behavior has just changed the moment you made that decision. And accepting that, accepting that the decisions that you make are only valid for so long, and having a secondary plan in place needs to be part of your first decision…I’m sure that translates into many other industries, but then with yours, there’s life on the line. There’s potential catastrophe on the line. It is a whole other level of decision making that is very difficult in that way.”
So, after a morning of briefing, hiking out to a fire, digging, planning, cutting, and monitoring the smoke or wind – what’s for lunch?
Falzetta laughed recalling her fire lunches. “They’re horrible,” she said. “It’s MRE, so meals ready to eat, like military issued. Those have good snacks in them sometimes, but the real issue is camp food. A lot of the time it was a Snickers bar, some old carrots, and if you’re a vegetarian like me, then a lot of the time they just gave me two pieces of white bread with a piece of cheese on it.”
Not exactly a meal one might be particularly keen on after hours of hard physical labor in the heat.
After lunch, it's back to work. On larger fires, it might take days to dig a fire line. Another day might be spent cutting trees close to the line, so a fire doesn’t spread, or “thinning” the forest or setting prescribed burns. Thinning means clearing and cutting smaller trees so that if a fire sparked in that area, it wouldn’t be able to consume as much fuel and would therefore not burn as intensely. Prescribed burns, which are controlled burns set and monitored by firefighters on certain areas of land, serve the same purpose.
And sometimes, you might just be sharpening tools for six hours, waiting for a smoke report.
“Some days, you're like, wow, that was the coolest thing I've ever done,” Falzetta said. “Then other days you're like, wow, I did nothing, I played with ants.”
Honestly, I was surprised to hear this. I’d imagined every day on a fire crew would be action-packed, filled with danger and life-threatening scenarios in the wilderness. That is not to say firefighters don’t face danger or don’t work hard, but my perception of their work was fantastical and idealized. A job can be important, crucial even, and still be mundane sometimes. One member on one crew is one small piece of a large, interconnected puzzle of firefighting crews across the West working hard for months on end. And fire season is only getting longer.
Silvia emphasized the role that excellent fire suppression tactics play in creating higher intensity fires and burn periods.
“Fire adapted landscapes is something that we cannot deny, because we've been suppressing fires so well,” she said. “Fire has historically been there; we've just been putting it out. A piece of ground wants to burn.”
Fire suppression is unnatural to forest ecosystems that rely on fire to clear underbrush, maintain biodiversity, and keep soil fertile and nutrient-rich. Climate change, drought, unhealthy forests, and fire suppression contribute to long, dangerous fire seasons, such as the ones from recent years.
“A healthy forest is biodiverse, and it's got different ages between these trees and different species,” Falzetta explained. “But now, with the climate changing, you just have these graveyard forests, so if a fire does come, the whole forest lights up. It's dry, you know, it's bad.”
Longer fire seasons means a longer work season and longer hours for firefighters. This means lots of overtime and little time off.
Gosciminski worked 600 hours of overtime during her past fire season. She knows people who have worked over 1,000 hours of overtime.
“You can’t have a life during fire season,” she added. “People miss weddings, funerals, birthdays, because you’re just always out there.”
Falzetta said the hardest part of the job was this demanding work schedule.
“I can take the physically demanding, like I can deal with that, whatever, but it's the time spent away from the things and people you love, that’s definitely the worst part.”
“You feel like you're doing something really important,” Gosciminski told me. She said the off-season can be difficult without that sense of purpose and without the community of your fire crew.
When I asked for any closing thoughts on her experience firefighting, Falzetta told me fire lunches need to be better, and they all need to be paid more.
“But if fire lunches were better, then I would accept the pay, 'cause, who cares, we don't do it for the money,” she continued. “We always joke about how we get paid in sunsets.”
And then, later: “I do love fire, fire is really cool. The comradery is the best part.”
What is it about fire? Is it the comradery, or the sunsets, or the purpose of the work? Or something else? Or all of it?
“It's really hard to explain,” Gosciminski said, smiling, and it seemed like she was trying to find the right words. I couldn’t help but smile back, trying to wrap my head around what she was feeling, what she might be trying to express about the job to someone who had never spent a day working in fire.
“You love the work, and you hate it,” she went on. “It's both, and it's really hard to explain.”