If you’re new to fire you may not know that the duties of a wildland firefighter depend on what type of crew they’re on. Its helpful to know about the different roles of the six wildland jobs so you can choose a role best suited to your own abilities and temperament.
1. Hand Crew
Hand crews are the infantry of wildland fire forces. They are composed of 18-20 individuals of varying experience. As their name implies, these crews spend the bulk of their time using their hands to suppress and contain the fire, whether that’s cutting line, back burning, or mopping up.
There are five different levels of hand crew, each with varying levels of qualification. The five types of hand crews are:
- Type 1 Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC)
- Type 1 Hand Crew
- Type 2 Initial Attack (IA)
- Type 2 Hand Crew
- Type 3 Hand Crew
2. Fuels Crew
Fuels crews are primarily tasked with the thinning, reduction, and/or restoration of wildfire fuels. They are skilled in the use of hand tools and chainsaws to thin a variety of fuel types. Crews range in size up to a ten person team.
Fuels crews are often used in advance to prevent a fire from occurring or, if a fire has already started, away from the main head of the fire. They may be utilized for prescribed fire operations, as well as prep work, fire ops, maintenance, mop up, and monitoring.
3. Engine Crew
Engine crews utilize different types of motorized vehicles in support of fire suppression. They range in size from groups of three to ten firefighters skilled in the use of engines and their hoses.
While engine crew members can rely on the aid of their motor vehicles to patrol and apply water, they are also sometimes tasked with line construction and mop-up operations. Engine crews are often employed as assistance for hand crews engaging in more direct modes of fire suppression. Crew members can expect to perform hose lays, dig line, perform burnouts, and mop up hot spots.
Helitack crew members specialize in helicopter operations. Crews are composed of seven to ten individual firefighters. In addition to fire suppression, they utilize hand tools and chainsaws to prepare suitable helibases for their helicopters.
Crew members can sometimes spend extended periods on a helibase coordinating the transportation of crew and supplies to the fireline. Helitack crew members should be prepared to spend a long stretch of downtime at their helibase overseeing the logistics of equipment and firefighter transport. They are also often engaged in coordinating bucket drops between the helicopter pilot and forces on the ground.
Some helitack crews are trained to perform special operations such as short haul rescue or heli-rappelling. These skillsets are specific to certain teams and not all crews perform them.
Hotshots are a specialized hand crew used primarily for wildfire suppression, fuels reduction, and other fire management tasks. They are the most elite of all the hand crews and are used to fight fire in remote, rugged, and hard-to-access locations. Hotshot crews are a prized national resource and will likely spend the bulk of their fire season away from their forest fighting wildfires wherever the need arises.
Hotshots can expect to perform extremely arduous manual labor in very rough conditions. They are often assigned to remote and rugged areas of the fire where they will camp or “spike out”. Because they are a scarce and valuable resource hotshots can expect to work a large amount of overtime.
Because of the higher level of difficulty of their assignments, hotshots place a premium on discipline, mental toughness, and a high level of physical fitness. High physical fitness leads directly to increased safety through fatigue reduction and injury prevention. Due to the inherent difficulty of their tasks, hotshot crews maintain a high level of group cohesion and camaraderie.
Smokejumpers are firefighters who are delivered to fires by parachuting from an airplane. Because they are often the first firefighters to arrive on an incident they must be able to perform a wide variety of firefighting tasks and operate with relative independence. Because of this, smokejumpers are often highly trained and qualified.
Smokejumpers usually have a background in some other are of firefighting. They are prized for their flexibility and ability to rapidly respond to emerging or ongoing wildfires.
Which wildland fire job is right for you?
The answer to that question depends on your specific strengths and temperament. Are you a physically fit individual who likes using their body for hard manual work? Do you have a mechanical aptitude? Do you have a (completely justified) fear of helicopters? These are the kind of questions to ask yourself when deciding which direction to take in fire.
A common career route many firefighters take is by starting on an engine crew and then advancing into other areas, like hotshotting. This is a solid and proven strategy for getting your fire career started. The first year is about getting your boot in the door. Once you have at least a year of fire experience under your belt you can begin to steer yourself toward the type of job you want.