5 Ways Wildfire Fighting Is Exactly as Insane as It Sounds

The American West is the real Fire Nation: It spends roughly half the year consumed by wildfires. In fact, since the beginning of the decade, these fires have only grown more common and more deadly. A sensible species would've fled the entire American Southwest for the frosty hinterlands of Canada long ago, but not Homo sapiens. We'll be damned if a pesky little thing like advancing walls of deathly flame keep us from hangin' out in our favorite spots. I'm Drew Miller, professional wildland firefighter. I protect people's sacred right to live in places that regularly combust. Here's what I've learned on the job ...

#5. You Literally Fight Fire With Fire

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Water does not put out a wildfire. That's one of the first lessons the Bureau of Land Management taught us. Wildfires aren't like the house fires you encounter when your perpetually stoned roommate tries to microwave a Pop-Tart still in the foil wrapper. Those fires are measured in feet and yards. Wildfires are measured in tens of acres. There's not enough water in California to douse one of those. The planes and helicopters you see on the news dropping water or chemicals? As bitchin' as it sounds, they aren't trying to kill a fire by bombing it to death. They're just trying to buy the folks on the ground some time so they can light most of the landscape on fire before the real fire gets there.

Wait, what?

Mark Theissen / Hulton Archive / Getty
Oh, fire, is there any problem you can't solve?

See, a fire needs three things to keep expanding -- heat, oxygen, and fuel. Deny a fire any one of those things and it stops. What's the best way to get rid of fuel? Use it up. It's the wildland firefighter's job to set off many smaller fires in the path of the main blaze to create a barren fire-wasteland. We do have awesome arsonist porn like drip torches and flare guns (yes, some of us get to be literal firemen), but mostly we use chainsaws and other hand tools to remove fuel sources and dig lines so the fire can't spread as easily. Then we clear the area behind our friendly fire so it can't come back at us and set it off to go meet with the enemy fire. They have sloppy drunken flame sex, merge ... and then realize they've both been cut off from their fuel.

Don't worry about it, Abstract Concept of Fire: Lust makes fools of us all.

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Fire has a lot of problems with impulse control.

#4. Convicts Will Be Your Co-Workers

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Imagine yourself hiking in the woods when you round a corner and spot a prisoner ahead. What's the one thing you want him to be holding the least? A firearm? His wang? Your mother's face? Your wang? Well, pretty high up on that list is probably stuff like chainsaws, flare guns, and drip torches. But that's exactly what you might see: Most prison industry duty is simple stuff like making license plates, but sometimes it means fighting wildfires with tools that can easily do major bodily harm. Luckily for your mom and your wang (your mom's wang?!), not every convict can join a crew, just the nonviolent offenders.

Brad Barket / Stringer / Getty
What a reality series that would have been.

Don't worry: The prison system isn't cruelly sending all the white-collar criminals off to burn in the woods -- these cons actually work as volunteers, and not "volunteers." They willingly go out for fire duty because a few weeks breathing fresh (OK, ash-choked) air in the romantic California wilderness (it may be on fire, but doesn't that only lend to its romance?) sure beats picking up needles in the yard. While professional and convict crews are separate, we do encounter each other: We had some convicts come and bum smokes from us, which we actually got in trouble for (firefighting prisoners are apparently like squirrels, and giving them what they want will only teach them to rely on you for cigarettes instead of foraging for them on their own, as nature intended).

I'm torn on how I feel about the whole thing. It's good that they're getting job experience, living in better conditions than prison, and contributing to the society they once harmed, but these guys are also making $1 an hour. The only reason they're out there is the love for cheap labor, and sometimes they're taking the positions of actual wildland firefighters. We can't compete for $1 an hour wages, and we shouldn't have to, since our job qualifications aren't "got caught embezzling" and "had a shitty lawyer."

David McNew / Getty
Or "was a shitty lawyer."

#3. The Living Conditions Are Terrible

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Your normal city-based firefighters operate on a 24-hour shift. This means a full day in the fire department: living, eating, sleeping, and basically being on call at all times should some sexy coed's kitten get caught up a tree (or a tenement burst into flames, which is honestly more likely, but hey -- we all dream). Then they're off for two days or so before taking another shift. Wildland firefighters have it just a liiiittle bit rougher.

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We don't even get tricycles.

Out battling a wildfire, you are on a 16-hour shift, which sure beats the 24 straight hours of a city firefighter. Except wildland firefighters don't get the next day off. You get eight hours of total downtime to eat and sleep, and that means camping ... in the path of an inferno. We sleep far enough away from the fires to not be at immediate risk of death, but close enough that you can usually see the faint glow ahead. The only thing missing from the full camping experience is a tent, because you're not taking 20 minutes out of your precious sleep/eat/poop time to bother with that. You've got a sleeping bag, and if that's not enough for Fancy Lord Fauntleroy, maybe he shouldn't be fighting fires in the damn woods.

When battling a wildfire, showers and running water are nonexistent. The middle of the forest is notoriously lax in providing amenities. If you spend a few days digging around dirt and ash, you get pretty filthy. They might have some hand washing stations and port-a-potties, but that's about as good as it gets. Most of the time us romantic firefighter types are out there with tiny shovels digging our own poo-holes.

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Burrito night necessitates more serious tools.

By regulation, you can only be on a fire for 14 days until you have to take a two-day break, but for really bad fires, it can be extended for another week. That means you might spend most of a month constantly firefighting, then get a mere two days to recuperate. When somebody asks how your month has been, you can honestly answer "on fire."

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