On the Job: Forest Fire Fighters
Derek Dalrymple is an inter-regional hotshot crew member working out of the Blue Ridge Ranger District in Happy Jack, Arizona. He is originally from Littleton, Colorado, and attended college in both Maine and Michigan.
I got started as a firefighter by taking wildfire suppression classes when I was in college in Maine. After speaking to someone at the local Forest Service office about what types of positions would be opening up, I applied to work as a park ranger at the Dupage County Forest Preserve in Arizona and was accepted. I worked there two years before starting as a hotshot. Other people start off working on the engine crews, which essentially do the same firefighting work that hotshots do, but their hours aren’t as intense and they stay closer to the roads.
Both positions give you the firefighting experience that helps you to get a hotshot position. Because a lot of training is given on the job, you don’t need previous experience, but it helps a lot.
The challenges of the job vary greatly. The biggest one is probably learning to work as a team. The team needs to work really well together to achieve peak performance. Good discipline is also important. The work is rewarding, though, knowing that you are helping the public and helping to preserve natural resources. I’ve learned a lot about leadership and about what I’m capable of doing.
The days vary a lot, too. Depending on how many fires break out in a particular season, you can spend anywhere from a quarter to two-thirds of your days fighting fires. We travel a lot to other states, even up to Canada and Alaska or down to Mexico. Firefighting days start at 4 or 4:30 in the morning. Depending on the activity of the fire, we can work into the night or all night fighting it, and it can take weeks to put out a big fire.
Days at the ranger station are just eight hours long, five days a week. We work out to stay in shape, train, prepare firefighting equipment, and do general yardwork to keep up the ranger station. We spend our free time in the outdoors as well, fishing or mountain biking. Our ranger station is pretty remote, so we can’t just go into town for a movie.
The best advice I can give to people trying to get into the business is to hang in there and be persistent. It helps a lot to contact the supervisor of the ranger station where you want to work and to get any kind of outdoor experience possible.