Wildland firefighters are an elite group of men and women who have chosen a career in one of the most stressful, taxing, and dangerous jobs. Despite this, it’s one of the most rewarding and important jobs in the fire industry. To understand the life of a wildland firefighter one has only to look at their most important pieces of equipment.
The Pulaski Axe and the McLeod tool are the bread and butter of the wildland firefighter. Without access to hundreds of gallons of water the next best option for putting out fires is getting rid of its fuel. These two tools allow firefighters to create a fireline, a two-foot wide trench, that separate the fire from more fuel. Think of it like an invisible barrier that keeps a fire from spreading until it eventually runs out of fuel and dies out. The Pulaski tool can cut down trees with one side and help dig a trench with the other. The McLeod tool can dig into the dirt clearing brush and roots that could fuel the fire. This barrier is so important that in some instances, wildland firefighters will start a controlled fire to eat up fuel along the fireline to strengthen the barrier.
Wildland firefighters don’t wear the heavy turnout gear that is commonly associated with what most think of when they hear the term firefighter. Instead, they wear “yellows” and “greens” which are light, fire-resistant clothing. Wildland fires can spring up anywhere from an open grass field to jagged terrain, firefighters need to be light and flexible. Yellows are long sleeve shirts that feel more like regular clothing with good airflow, greens are like cargo pants. Most of a wildland firefighters job will be digging and maintaining the fireline, so flexible breathable clothing is more important than increased fire-resistance.
Keeping hydrated is one of the most important jobs of a wildland firefighter. Since clean water isn’t always readily available firefighters need to carry their water with them. It’s common to see firefighters using a low-profile hydration pack, so they don’t have to carry multiple hydration bottles. Since most firefighters don’t know if they will be on the fireline for 8 hours or 18 hours it’s important that they have enough water to get through a full day.
A fire shelter might be the most important item a wildland firefighter carries. Fires can be unpredictable and an area that was safe one minute could be surrounded by flames in the next. If this happens a firefighter’s only option is to deploy their fire shelter. When deployed the shelter expands to provide the firefighter with a heat-resistant space with breathable air. While the shelter can’t survive contact with flames, it can protect the firefighter from heat long enough for the fire to die out.
Not anyone can be a wildland firefighter the job is exhausting, dangerous, and often thankless. Most people wouldn’t last an hour but those that do become part of a community that will put their lives on the line for one another.