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

Courtesy Donovan Linear

When Donovan "Donny" Linear begins most of his work days, it's with a 60-pound pack on his back, and a long hike and a hot fire ahead of him. But sometime last summer, while digging trenches to battle blazes in the back-country of six Western states, he found his calling as a wildland firefighter.

"Once you get out there, you get bit by what we call the fire bug," Linear says.

That's no insect. It's the desire to keep coming back year after year to fight wildland fires, which are blazes that burn in rural areas.

This is Linear's second summer season fighting fires as a member of a 20-person crew based out of Missoula, Montana. He works for a private contractor on what's known as an initial attack handcrew, which is tasked primarily with helping to contain wildfires. They work alongside crews employed by government agencies.

"I love being physically active," he says. "I love being outdoors. It's hard work, but doing it, I feel like I have a purpose."

Here's what it's really like to make a living as a wildland firefighter, according to this 24-year-old:

$350 'money makers' — and other start-up costs

"Living in Montana, you really grow to love the outdoors," Linear says. Back in 2017, however, he was working anywhere but: on a production line at a bacon-maker.

"A good buddy of mine, he had just finished up his third season fighting fires," Linear recalls. "He would show me pictures and videos and tell stories, and it really got me interested."

In early 2018, Linear applied for an opening as a wildland firefighter. That spring, he attended a weeklong training course and had to pass a physical fitness test, which he had to pass again this year: walking three miles within 45 minutes while wearing a 45-pound vest. "No running or jogging, just a fast-paced walk," he explains. Linear passed the test last year in 39 minutes, and this year in 36.

To prepare for his first fire season, Linear added "a lot of hiking" to his weekly workouts, and while packing weight. Then there was the matter of getting outfitted.

While his employer provides a chainsaw, hand tools, fire resistant clothing, a pack, and a fire shelter, Linear needed his own sleeping bag and boots. The hiking boots designed for firefighters alone cost about $350. All told, he spent less than $500.

"It's a great investment," Linear explains of the boots. "You have to wear them every day; you're out there hiking miles in the mountains, so they're literally your money makers. If you're getting blisters and your feet are all beat up, you're not going to be able to be out there and then you're losing money."

Beyond getting outfitted, Linear says his expenses during fire season were very minimal: He still had to pay rent on his apartment, his cellphone bill, and other utilities, but all the food while working was covered. And there wasn't much opportunity to spend money during his 48-hour rest periods — he visited friends and family and washed his gear to get ready to be called out again.

While money isn't the main reason Linear got into firefighting, he made more with this seasonal job than he's ever made in a full year of work. After taxes, he says his net pay was more than $20,000 in 2018 for working about six months. For perspective, the median annual income for households in the Missoula area headed by someone under the age of 25 is $21,741, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Lessons by fire

There's that saying about trial by fire — and then there's learning how to fight wildfires while actually fighting fires. "You don't really understand it 'til you're out there," Linear says. "Your very first season, you're like a deer in the headlights."

Linear got his first taste last June when his crew was called out for a wildfire in Utah. By the time his season ended that November, Linear had fought fires in five more states: Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana. He made "deep connections" with the 19 men and women on his crew and gained "a whole new kind of appreciation for Mother Nature."

I love being physically active. I love being outdoors. It's hard work, but doing it, I feel like I have a purpose.
Donovan "Donny" Linear
Wildland firefighter

Here's a bit of how wildland firefighting works. The crew gets called out for a fire, travels there by truck, then typically spends what's called a two-week roll — 14 consecutive days — working the fire, before traveling back to Missoula for a mandatory 48-hour rest period.

While wildfires can burn for weeks or even months, different crews are called upon at various times depending on what's needed to fight the blaze at a particular time. Initial attack crews, like Linear's, typically are among the first resources that try to prevent the fire's spread, especially if it's near homes.

Sometimes suppressing the blaze is the goal, rather than extinguishing it. That's because fires are vital to forest regrowth; lodgepole pine cones, for example, only open in high temperatures like a fire.

While working a fire, crew members typically must hike to where they'll be working, while carrying a 60-pound pack containing their personal gear, fire shelter, plus all the food and hydration they need for the day.

Unlike with structural fires, where water is key to putting out flames, wildland firefighters typically use other techniques to contain the blaze. For Linear and his crew, that might mean hours creating what they call hand lines — clearing a 10-foot wide swath of trees and brush with chainsaws and tools, then digging down to the dirt — all in an effort to try to control the fire's spread.

Courtesy Donovan Linear

Work days last anywhere from 12 to 16 hours, and Linear says he regularly hikes 10 to 20 miles any given day. Back at base camp, they eat dinner, and if they are lucky to have cell service, they connect with friends and family back home, then bed down for the night — in locations as varied as a field or a school gymnasium.

Despite how grueling the work is, Linear says he quickly knew this was the job for him. "It helped me become a stronger person and a stronger man," he says. "You've really got to push yourself mentally and physically during that time where you're on a wildfire."

Sacrifices and risks

Firefighting also requires sacrifice. For Linear, that means time away from his daughter, who just turned 2 in July.

"Last year, I missed my daughter's first birthday because I was on a wildfire," he says. "It hurts, but you just have to remember you're doing this for yourself and for your family."

And because wildfires usually occur in remote places, keeping in contact can be difficult especially with friends and family who worry about the risks. In 2013, 19 hotshots — an elite group of firefighters who generally work closest to the blaze — died while battling the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona.

But fire typically isn't the biggest risk for wildland firefighters. Heart attacks, vehicle accidents, and aircraft accidents accounted for more than 60% of on-the-job fatalities between 2007 and 2016, according to data from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

Still, Linear credits one of his crew bosses for reminding the firefighters to be constantly mindful of risks — like dead branches falling from trees, tripping hazards, and tool-related accidents. "He would say, 'If you're not thinking about the worst-case scenario in the back of your mind, being out here really isn't the job for you.'"

More than just the money

Firefighters must also be comfortable with uncertainty. They have no way of knowing where the next fire will take them, or how busy their summers will be. And 2019 is off to a frustratingly slow start. Linear's crew was called out for their first fire in late July, more than a month later than their first call in 2018.

More than 31,000 reported fires have burned about 3.8 million acres so far this year, compared to a 10-year average of 43,000 fires and 5 million acres, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center.

Courtesy Donovan Linear

Fewer fires means smaller paychecks. Linear says the money is secondary, but it's another piece of the uncertainty inherent to this job. In the off-season last year, he applied for job-attached unemployment as some other wildland firefighters do, and lived off that plus the money he'd saved from the summer.

"You don't know how many fires you're going to get on or anything like that," Linear says. "It definitely teaches you to budget," he says, adding that he's "not a born spender."

This year, Linear will make a base salary of $15.66 an hour when he's working a fire, then overtime after 40 hours. By comparison, minimum wage in Montana currently is $8.50 an hour.

As for the future? Linear aspires to become a hotshot, the most elite group of wildland firefighters.

"Once you get bit by the fire bug, the money is just a very minimal incentive to keep coming back," he says. "When you love your job, it's easy to want to keep doing it."

More from Grow: