Here are some Frequently Asked Questions about wildland fire.
Jargon. We will not attempt to define the hundreds of terms and phrases that are common and unique to wildland fire, but the National Wildfire Coordinating Group has a very good Glossary of Wildland Fire Terminology.
Where can I find information about fires that are burning right now? There are a lot of sources on the Internet. Here are some you can try.
- National Interagency Fire Center
- California Dept. of Forestry & Fire Protection (California only)
- National Park Service (fires in national parks only)
- U.S. Forest Service, Current Large Incidents
How do I get a job as a wildland firefighter? USAJobs is a good source for information about wildland fire jobs in the federal government. Most federal wildland firefighters are technically “forestry technicians”, so at the USAJobs site you should search for that term or “fire”. To work for state or local agencies you will need to inquire with each individual organization.
What training does a wildland firefighter receive? Most entry level wildland firefighter jobs require that you complete at a minimum, Firefighter Training (S-130) and Introduction to Fire Behavior (S-190) either before or just after you are hired. If you want to get these courses before you apply for a job, check with your local federal or state land management agency, or inquire at a community college. Or search on the Internet for a wildland fire academy. To reach the highest level of rank or qualifications, such as the position of Type 1 Incident Commander running the largest fires, it takes longer than it does to become a General in the Army.
What are the physical requirements to be a wildland firefighter? The job of a wildland firefighter is VERY physically challenging. VERY. So if you have never worked out of doors or used your muscles for anything more arduous than operating a video game controller, you will have a hard time.
The federal agencies require that firefighters pass a Work Capacity Test, or “pack test”, that requires you to walk three miles on level ground in less than 45 minutes while carrying a 45-pound pack. Some states and local agencies use this test, but many use other types of physical-agility tests. Fire-related jobs that are less arduous than a firefighter have different and less arduous versions of the work capacity test. And did I mention that the job of a wildland firefighter is VERY physically challenging?
How can I get a job as a wildland firefighter in another country?It is very, very difficult for a U.S. citizen to get a job as a firefighter in Australia. Forget about it. For a citizen from outside the U.S. to get a job as a firefighter in the U.S. you would first need to be sponsored by an employer. Then you need a work permit from the U.S. embassy and a “green card” or resident alien card.
What is a “Red Card”. It is a wallet-sized card that certifies that a person is trained and qualified to perform specific jobs on a wildland fire or other types of incidents. After a person is hired and trained and they pass the required level of the Work Capacity Test, they are eligible to be given a red card by their employer.
At what temperatures do forest fires burn?
An average surface fire on the forest floor might have flames reaching 1 meter in height and can reach temperatures of 800°C (1,472° F) or more. Under extreme conditions a fire can give off 10,000 kilowatts or more per meter of fire front. This would mean flame heights of 50 meters or more and flame temperatures exceeding 1200°C (2,192° F). (Information provided by Natural Resources Canada.)
What is a “prescribed fire”? These are sometimes called prescribed burns, or controlled burns, but the term that most land management agencies use is “prescribed fire”. It is the process of treating land by using carefully and skillfully applied fire to burn some of the vegetation. When applied correctly by professionals, it is only done after writing a prescribed fire plan that addresses the specific characteristics of the tract of land being treated. It will include a “prescription” that requires that many different weather, environmental, and vegetation factors be within carefully defined parameters. The plan will also specify how the fire will be applied, by whom, and what fire control people and equipment must be on scene before the first match is lit. The reasons for using prescribed fire can be many, but they can often include: to replicate natural conditions, restore fire to the landscape, reduce unnaturally high accumulations of vegetation due to fire exclusion, reduce the fire hazard around structures or communities, enhance the habitat of animals, and control exotic species.The smoke from a prescribed fire can be a nuisance, but it is much less than would be created if the same area burned as an unplanned and uncontrolled wildfire. Fire is a natural part of most ecosystems. It is not a question of IF the land will burn, but WHEN and under what conditions…controlled, or uncontrolled.
One thing that can be confusing is that the media usually uses the term “controlled burn”, which for them can be anything from someone burning trash in their back yard to a federal agency conducting a 5,000-acre prescribed fire that has been planned for four years.
How can I obtain certification so that I can use prescribed fire on my own land?
Check with your state forestry or wildland fire agency and ask if they have a program for land owners to use prescribed fire. For example, Texas has a law, HB 2599, that guarantees landowners the right to burn on their own property, then sets up a prescribed burn manager certification system administered by the Texas Department of Agriculture under the direction of the Prescribed Burning Board. For a fire department employee to become qualified as a prescribed fire burn boss requires many years of experience and training. There are numerous prerequisite positions and courses that are required. As they move up from one position to the next, the firefighter must document satisfactory performance on a fire or prescribed fire in each position. It can take 10 to 20 years of full time employment as a firefighter to move up from being a firefighter to a prescribed fire burn boss. Here is a link to information about the qualifications process.
Keep in mind that the use of fire as a tool requires a great deal of knowledge and experience, and it is as much an art as a science. Many things can go wrong that can have catastrophic consequences. Anyone setting fire to the landscape, a private landowner or a government employee, should have liability insurance.
How do I keep my home from burning in a wildfire? Briefly, your home needs to be “fire safe”. That is, the flammable vegetation within 100 feet of the structures must be reduced to the point where fire can not easily spread from the natural vegetation to your home. And the structures must be of fire-resistant materials and design. Firewise.org has much more information.
What types of airplanes and helicopters are used to put out fires? Well, first, aircraft don’t put out fires. The best they can do is to slow down a fire to allow firefighters on the ground to get in close and actually put out the fire by applying water from hoses or to physically cut the vegetation away at the perimeter of the fire with hand tools so the fire runs out of fuel to burn. Cal Fire has an excellent publication with photos and descriptions of the most commonly used firefighting aircraft.
When thousands of firefighters assemble to fight one of the larger wildfires, how are they organized? Following some disastrous fires in southern California in 1970, firefighters began designing an organization system that was based on the military.
It eventually evolved into the Incident Command System (ICS) which defines jobs or positions that can be activated and used on fires and other types of planned or unplanned incidents. Each position has clearly defined duties as well as training and experience requirements. Each person filling a position that has been activated knows where they fit into the organizational structure and to whom they should report. Standard terminology is used to facilitate communication so that personnel from different agencies can easily work side by side. The system is flexible and scalable so that it can be used on very small or very large incidents. The ICS became used, not just by firefighters, but by many emergency management agencies as it evolved further into what is now known as the National Incident Management System, or NIMS. In 2003, it formally went national with the passage of Homeland Security Directive number 5, mandating that all federal, state, and local agencies use NIMS to manage emergencies in order to receive federal funding.
What is the meaning of life? “There are three great events in our lives: birth, life and death. Of birth we have no conscience; with death, we suffer; and, concerning life, we forget to live it.” Jean de La Bruyère, 1645-1596, French moralist