Wildland firefighters called “tactical athletes”

El Cariso Hot Shots, 1972
“Tactical athletes”, also known as the 1972 version of the El Cariso Hotshots (missing  Superintendent Ron Campbell, and Bill Gabbert who was behind the camera). Click to enlarge.

Charles Palmer, who spent 20 years as a firefighter and smokejumper, describes wildland firefighters as “tactical athletes”.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Seattle Times.

…Physically and mentally, the demands of the profession are such that Charles Palmer, an associate professor at The University of Montana who studies performance psychology of wildland firefighters, considers such workers “tactical athletes.”

“These aren’t people who ride around trucks and squirt water on stuff — this is really demanding from a lot of different angels,” Palmer said. “You travel around, you have to perform, they’re getting very little downtime, they have nutritional challenges … physically you have to perform really well.”

In one study, Palmer screened wildland firefighters for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He said about 20 percent tested above the established cutoff score.

“It’s very possible a high percentage of folks who work as wildland firefighters have ADHD,” he said. “If you start thinking about a profile, people with ADHD are very comfortable with risk. They like fast-paced environments. They like activity. They like moving around.”

Front-line firefighters burn between 4,000 and 6,500 calories each day and need 7-10 liters of water each day, said Brent Ruby, director of the University of Montana’s work physiology department.

“Perhaps the top 10-15 percent of the average population can do this job based on fitness levels,” said Joe Domitrovich, an exercise physiologist with the National Forest Service.

But the Marshawn Lynch comparisons only go so far.

“They don’t get paid like a professional athlete would,” Palmer said. A 2013 National Parks brochure advertises pay of about $10-17 an hour to firefighters, before overtime or hazard pay, but base pay varies widely. Base pay for entry-level state Department of Natural Resources wildland firefighters starts at $12.50…

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

5 thoughts on “Wildland firefighters called “tactical athletes””

  1. All I know is throughout the 16 years that I fought wild land fires, I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and managed to stay thin and fit. Two years ago I resigned and I’ve packed on 45 lbs. of blubber. Maybe I need to sign back up!!

  2. I live in southern Oregon where the Stouts fire is hopefully in its last phase. More than 2000 fire crew members battled this wildfire; some on the backlines in support roles, others in the rugged terrain.

    I never understood even a fraction of what you do or about the conditions you faced. I know a little more now as my home was in the fire path. The complexity and the danger is staggering to me.

    My home is safe and so am I because of the fire crews.We are changed though. The forest near my home, my own rural habits and even what I hear about fires elsewhere are forever shifted. Trees are beautiful – and fire fuel. Rural is peaceful – and tinder dry. News broadcasts of other fires are just flat out scary and sad. They are about fire crews and their families at home.

    It is accurate about the stamina it takes to do your work, I am sure. I hope you realize though as the muscles rest and the blisters heal that your efforts have life of their own.

    We who live in the homes you protected carry your spirit with us. We are in awe of your efforts and forever grateful.

    1. Real similar statement was made years ago in the US Fire Administration video on FF Safety in the WUI when they said that fighting wildfires in the WUI “is like running a marathon” compared to structural firefighting.

  3. About a year ago I was talking to someone that was a structural fire fighter. Not sure where I heard it but “Structural Fire Fighting is a sprint, Wildland Fire Fighting is a Marathon.” He agreed. Based on the article, I think its an accurate description.


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