The slowest fire season in years taught this wildland firefighter to create a financial backup plan

Courtesy Donovan Linear

Much of the Western part of the U.S. got a reprieve this year from a milder than average fire season — and no one knows this as well as Donovan "Donny" Linear.

The 25-year-old Montanan was preparing for his second season as a wildland firefighter when Grow talked to him this past summer. In 2018, his first year in this seasonal line of work, Linear had fought wildfires in six U.S. states and made more money in the stretch from June to November than he'd ever earned in a full year of work.

Read more: What it's really like to make a living as a wildland firefighter in Montana

This season proved more challenging, prompting Linear to pick up other lines of work to supplement his income and create a plan for financial security.

Here's how Linear navigated a year of uncertainty, and his plans for the future.

'There just wasn't any work for us'

Firefighters must be comfortable with uncertainty. The nature of the work is that they don't know where the next fire will take them or how long it will take to fight it. But this year, another unpredictable factor tested Linear: How much fire activity there will be in a season — or how little, as was the case in 2019.

Linear's crew was first called out for a fire in July, more than a month later than their first call in 2018. Their second call of 2019 was in early September.

More than 49,000 reported fires burned 4.6 million acres in the U.S. through late-December, compared to a 10-year average of 64,000 fires and 6.9 million acres, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center. The acreage that burned in 2019 was the least since 2014, and about half the amount in 2017 and 2018.

Linear and the other 19 members of a Missoula, Montana-based initial attack handcrew are employed by a private contractor. While these crews work alongside those employed by government agencies, since they contract with federal and state agencies for work, they may not be the first crews to be called.

By mid-September, it had become clear: "There just wasn't any work for us, even outside of the fires."

"Here I am sitting around waiting for a fire call and that kind of set me behind with bills and stuff like that, so I ended up having to get a regular job in order to get by," he says. Instead of fighting fires, which requires hiking several miles a day with a 60-pound pack on his back, Linear's new job was working as a cashier at a local grocery store.

There just wasn't any work for us, even outside of the fires.
Donovan "Donny" Linear
Wildland firefighter

'Short and bitter' fire season

While Linear's rookie season as a wildland firefighter kept him on the job for weeks at a stretch, 2019 was the complete opposite experience. When he turned in his firefighting gear sometime in October, he'd only worked a total of 21 days. "It was short and bitter," Linear says of this season.

Fire is vital to forest regrowth because it can clear out underbrush and dead trees. "A lot of people just aren't really knowledgeable in the sense that Mother Nature also needs fire, it's part of the natural ecosystem."

Linear is grateful that there were fewer destructive fires in 2019, burning homes or killing people. "I heard plenty of people saying they were thankful there wasn't smoke," he says. But the mild fire season was tough for people like Linear who depend on it for their livelihood. Linear says if he were to compare his 2019 earnings with what he made in 2018, "it's like night and day."

Courtesy Donovan Linear

Linear's crew was called out for a third fire, which turned out to be a 16-day job in Colorado. But by that time he already was working elsewhere, so he had to turn down the opportunity.

All that downtime proved inspirational for Linear, however. He completed online training through the International Sports Sciences Association to become a certified fitness trainer, and began working as a personal trainer.

A financial plan for 2020 and beyond

The slower-than-average fire activity this year didn't affect Linear's love for fighting wildland fires, but he will take a different approach with this seasonal job in the future.

"I'm definitely planning on coming back, but I know now that if the year's starting to look like it was this past year, what I can do differently," he says. "Once those months are rolling around where the fires really start to get to popping, if it looks like it's not going to be a good season, I'll probably just work a regular job or invest more time into my personal training business."

This spring, the 2020 fire season will begin anew. Linear will need to attend a refresher training course and pass a physical fitness test again: walking three miles within 45 minutes while wearing a 45-pound vest.

And he still has dreams of becoming a hotshot, the most elite group of wildland firefighters who generally work closest to the blaze, and joining a government crew in the future. Doing so would provide more security, by earning him a salary even during slow fire seasons and receiving benefits like health insurance, Linear says.

I'm definitely planning on coming back.
Donovan "Donny" Linear
Wildland firefighter

In the meantime, Linear will work on growing his personal training business. His goal is to help get people started on their fitness journey, training clients over a short time on diet and a workout regimen, rather than working with them for prolonged periods of time.

"You shouldn't have a personal trainer for a year," Linear says. "At least to me, that means you're not getting results."

With that kind of structure, Linear says, this will be work that he can do year-round and be a supplement to his income during the unpredictable months of the fire season. "With personal training, you become your own boss," he says. "How much money you make is whatever you put into it."

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