Coolest Travel Jobs: What It’s Like to Be a Wildland Firefighter

It involves a lot more traveling—and a lot less water—than you might think.

Coolest Travel Jobs: What It’s Like to Be a Wildland Firefighter

Courtesy of Bailey McDade

In our new series, we explore what it takes to land—and work—the world’s coolest travel jobs. Previous installments featured interviews with an undercover hotel inspector, a social media influencer, and a Disney Imagineer. Up next: a wildland firefighter.

It has been a record year for wildfires. Devastating blazes have raged across forests in Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Northern California. Battling the flames every step of the way are crews of specially trained wildland firefighters, dispatched by the U.S. Forest Service. Bailey McDade is one of those firefighters. After studying jaguars in Belize and serving in AmeriCorps, the 25-year-old Virginian turned to seasonal firefighting as a way of working in conservation and facilitating travel throughout the United States. McDade is also among the firefighters featured in “Protecting Our Heroes: A Tribute to Safety and Innovation,” a new online gallery and touring exhibition by Plastics Make It Possible and the International Safety Equipment Association. We caught up with McDade in her adopted hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, to talk about the unique rigors of her job, what it feels like to stand waist-high in flames, and how fighting fires sometimes feels like one big slumber party.

What is something the outside world doesn’t understand about your job?
“It’s not all about spraying water on burning trees. Usually we fight fires by digging firelines and burning them off.”

I don’t know firefighter lingo. What’s a fireline?

“Digging a fireline around the wildfire means removing everything down to the mineral soil—so all the roots, pine needles, leaves, and anything else that can burn. It’s essentially your safety line, because everything that is completely burnt can’t burn again.”

Let me get this straight: You set new fires to create buffers that stop existing fires from spreading?

“Yep. [Laughs] We fight fire with fire. If you dig a two-foot-wide fireline, that’s a two-foot-wide safety buffer. But if you get hit pretty hard with flames, two feet isn’t going to do very much. So we’ll also string hose along the line, and then another crew will burn it off. If you build a mellow enough fire, it won’t cross the line; it’ll just get sucked into the main wildfire. And once these two fires hit, they extinguish each other because there’s nothing left to burn.”

How did you learn to fight wildfires?

“We’re constantly taking classes and training. I’m based in Arizona, but the U.S. Forest Service sent me up to Oregon and Montana to fight fires this season. All of our training, all of our tools and gear—it all has to be interchangeable, so we can work anywhere.”

Fighting wildfires is seasonal work then?

“It is. Until you work your way up the ranks, most of us are seasonal employees. I got 2,000 hours in over the last six months, but then we get laid off in the winter time.”

It must be hard having a personal life when you’re working such long hours.

“It averages out to about 85 hours a week. A black-cat surefire way to get a fire call at the end of your shift is to try to make dinner plans. [Laughs] Everyone in fire goes through these struggles, so it’s nice to have each other as a support system. It also helps that I’m young and not married and I don’t have children. For now, I’m loving it. I get to pound ground and see the country.”

You didn’t start out in fire. What did you study in college?

“I was a pre-vet major at Virginia Tech. I took a whole bunch of biochemistry, animal husbandry, and genetics classes. Then midway through college, I had an opportunity to research jaguars in Belize. That changed everything for me—just working in conservation and living out in really remote areas. Since then, I’ve been all over the world studying big cats. I tumbled into fire from there.”

How does one tumble into fire?

“When I was working with AmeriCorps and later Virginia State Parks, a big part of our land management practice was doing controlled burns, also called prescribed burns. I realized that by working in wildland fire, I could bust out of Virginia and see the whole country. Fire was my out.”

Did you have a mentor showing you the ropes?
“My boss at Virginia State Parks was an amazing mentor. His name was Forrest Atwood, which I just thought was the funniest thing in the world: I worked in the woods with a guy named Forrest. He was the leader for prescribed fire in Virginia—just a super-sweet guy who wanted to teach me everything he knew. One day, I was holding a drip torch and walking toward a fire in this grass field. We were wearing minimal gear: a long-sleeved shirt, pants that were a fire-resistant plastic blend, plus boots, gloves, and a hard hat. The flames felt pretty hot, so I stopped my torch and stepped back a few feet. Forrest came over the radio and said, ‘Hey, Bailey, how’s it going over there?’ I said, ‘It’s good, kinda hot up here, Forrest.’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s kinda hot behind you, too—you’re standing in the fire, girl!’ [Laughs] I looked around me and I’m waist-deep in flames! I had no idea. But it’s kinda cool thinking that just that little bit of gear was all I needed to keep safe.”

What happened next?

“I started traveling around Virginia, fighting more fires and helping train the new kids. I learned how to cut down a tree from a guy in the Forest Service named Butch. That’s when I said, ‘Hey, Butch, how do I get into this full-time? I want to work in fire.’” And he said, ‘Go for it!’ Once you’re in the fire world, you realize it’s a small community. There’s a lot of networking and a real sense of camaraderie; you have to join the club to understand how close it gets. Butch also said there is a lot more work in the Southwest: ‘Go there, there’s fire everywhere, you can’t miss it.’ So I said alright and I packed up and moved.”

Why did you choose Phoenix as your base?
“I’d been out here once before doing wildlife research. Also: There was a boy who wanted me to move here, and I said yes. That’s not really a thing anymore. But your base doesn’t say much. Once you’re in fire season, you’re all over the place. I spent just as much time in Oregon this year as I did Arizona.”

How does it work then? Do you get called out to fires on an old-school pager?
“Pagers were used by volunteer firefighters; this is my job. So every day I show up to my station and two things could happen: Either we get called as first responders to small fires—on the side of the highway, at campgrounds, in shooting pits—or we’ll get called to large fires that need a lot more planning and management. That’s called a resource order: It’s essentially a piece of paper that says where you’re needed and when. We always have a duffel packed with two weeks’ worth of clothes and a sleeping bag. We have to be ready for anything.”

Walk me through a typical two-week assignment. Are you camping in tents the whole time?

“We usually don’t set up tents. We have 10 to 15 minutes from the time we wake up to be completely packed up, geared up, and at our trucks. So most of us, at the end of the day, just lay a sleeping bag down and pass out. If you’re staying at a fire camp, there’d be a designated sleeping area, a caterer that provides your meals, a medical tent, a supply tent, and a whole bunch of yurts—usually in a baseball field, or at a school or fairgrounds. If you’re staying there, you’d head out to the fireline every day, but come back for breakfast and dinner. But if you’re assigned to an area that takes a long time to get to, or you need to work an extra-long shift, you spike out, which means you camp in the woods near the fire.”

What are the most physically demanding and mentally challenging tasks you face when fighting a wildfire?
One of the most challenging parts of my job is staying mentally engaged. Some days fly by, others crawl. You have to be ready to move quickly. The fire doesn’t let you know when it’s coming. It doesn’t wait for you. Sometimes the mental challenge is working for two straight weeks on digging a really great fireline and using chain saws to cut down dead trees, and then on day 14, the fire gets up in the trees and hops over your line, changing everything you’ve done. Fire is gonna do what fire wants to do, so you have to stay flexible. The physical aspect is always there, too. The people who are drawn to this type of work are also drawn to—what do the Marines call it? ‘Embrace the suck.’ You know, the really hard days are actually better because it brings everyone so close. You’re all filthy and sweating and exhausted, but also so happy.”

As someone who is clearly passionate about conservation, just seeing the destruction of habitats must be really devastating.

“Mellow fires every few years help trees to regenerate and grow stronger. But when you get these catastrophic fires—ones that nuke off the landscape—it’s a different story. You can’t compare homes and human life to acres of trees burned. I’d rather see a humongous area of vegetation burn up than lose one home or one life.”

What’s the scariest part of your job?

“Snags are a big concern. A snag is a dead tree, sometimes on fire, sometimes not. If the roots have been weakened or they’re somehow unstable, and you’re cutting them down or digging the line around them, it’s a big heads-up situation. I remember one night, we were working late—maybe 11 p.m.—to contain this new fire; it could have been really bad if we let it go. There was a large snag on fire near where we were working. Our crew bosses were adamant about setting up lookouts to do nothing but stare at the tree and tell them if anything moved or changed. We’re working as quickly as we could, but it was scary being around the tree when the branches started coming down. When the lookout said it started to sway, they didn’t hesitate to pull us out. They said, ‘Nobody’s life is worth saving a tree—get outta here!’ When we came back five hours later, the tree had fallen.”

I always thought the biggest risk of being a wildland firefighter was getting burned. But is it actually falling trees?

“I can’t say what the biggest risk is or isn’t; I wouldn’t want to belittle the risk of getting burnt over. We lose lives that way, we lose lives from trees falling down, and we lose lives from vehicle accidents caused by fatigue and smoke impacting visibility.”

“Bravery” is probably the one word most associated with firefighters. I mean, you chase flames for a living. How much of that is pure fearlessness and how much is knowing that when you’re wearing the right gear, you can stand in a fire up to your waist and not get burned?

“Well, you can’t stand for very long. [Laughs] Our gear is fire-resistant, not fireproof. It’s definitely still hot though: My boots have melted walking through flames. I’ve had times where I can feel my nose hairs getting singed. But we have this shroud, like a little strip of plastic-blend fabric, that goes around our face. When I put it on, it’s like closing an oven door. Also: You’ve been training for the most extreme situations, and so has everybody on your crew. You’re there because you want to be there.”

When you hike out to a fire, what are you wearing and carrying?
“We wear long-sleeve yellow button-downs made of a fire-resistant plastic blend that feels like regular cloth. We call them ‘yellows’—real fancy. Our cargo pants are the same material; they’re dark green and we call them ‘greens.’ Other than that, we have tall leather boots, leather gloves, a plastic hard hat, and safety glasses. Everybody carries a chainsaw, a Pulaski [ax], a shovel, a hoe, or some other kind of hand tool, plus a big ol’ backpack with anything else we might need, including two gallons of water.”

Is that for putting out fires?
“No, that’s for drinking. When hiking out, we wear a bladder bag, which is a tough vinyl backpack filled with five gallons of water. It weighs about 40 pounds and that’s what you use to put out a grass fire during the mop-up stage. Altogether, you might have 90 pounds of gear on your back.”

What’s something we’d be surprised to learn you carry in your backpack?

“So. Much. Caffeine. A lot of us carry instant espresso or Vitamin B12 powder. You don’t know if you’re gonna work an 8-hour shift, 16-hour shift, or a 24-hour shift. We always have our fire shelter, too.”

What’s a fire shelter?

“Oh my goodness, ‘What’s a fire shelter?!’ [Laughs] It’s strapped to our packs at all times. We’re not even allowed to walk away from our trucks without our shelter. It’s aluminum laminated to silica laminated to fiberglass laminated to more aluminum. It packs down to the size of a few bricks and weighs about 10 pounds. If you were cut off by a fire and couldn’t escape, it’s a last-ditch effort to save your own life. You’d shake it out, get on the ground as quickly as possible, and cover yourself with it. I don’t want to say like a baked potato, since it’s a pretty serious thing, but that’s what it looks like.”

Yeesh. What advice do you have for people who want to get into this field?

“Go for it! It’s an awesome job and really important work. I don’t know of many jobs, other than the military or maybe Peace Corps, where you have this atmosphere of family and purpose, but at the same time, you get these incredible opportunities to see parts of the country you would never otherwise see. I’ve hiked up mountains you’d never visit in a million years because they weren’t on trails. And because it’s such a small community, you make friends really quickly.”

Other than being a good team player, what are the personality characteristics of a great firefighter? Who should be doing this job?

“Like you said, being a great team player—but also being flexible, resilient, having a really strong work ethic, and also a good sense of humor. It’s kind of funny that all of these grown adults are sleeping in sleeping bags together, eating sack lunches on a log in the woods, and showering in creek water. Humor goes a long way. No one is on the crew by accident. Everyone who is here really loves it and all of the ridiculous things that go with it.”

>>Next: What It’s Like to Work for Doctors Without Borders

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to AFAR, New York Magazine, TIME, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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