Work of fighting fires is 'arduous'

State really checks out applicants for fitness

Posted: Monday, April 25, 2005

FAIRBANKS - When it comes to physical fitness for wildland firefighters, the state Division of Forestry doesn't mess around with words like "athletic" or "strong."

No, they tell it like it is.

If you want to get a firefighter red card, the ticket to front-line firefighting work, you have to get an "arduous" fitness rating.

For the dozens of men and women gathered at the Fairbanks Area Wildland Fire Management Center earlier this month for fitness testing and fire-line safety classes, that meant one of two things: Don a 45-pound backpack - think big bag of dog food - and walk three miles within 45 minutes or forego the backpack and run half of the course in 11 minutes, 40 seconds or less.

That's the forestry definition of arduous, an apt adjective given the sweaty faces and heaving chests of the people crossing the finish line.

That level of fitness is a necessary thing in the field, said veteran firefighter Mike Garnett, after finishing his pack test with more than six minutes to spare.

"There's situations when the fire's getting out of hand, you have got to be in top condition to at least get out of there," Garnett said.

Although piles of snow remain on the ground and the smoky skies of last summer are a hazy memory, the training marked the kickoff of this year's fire season. Over the next few weeks, the Division of Forestry will host classes and fitness testing, all aimed at building a pool of firefighters to draw on for the fires that are a yearly occurrence in Alaska and across the United States.

"To fight wildland fire pretty much anywhere in the U.S., you need a red card," said Paul Keech, assistant fire management officer for the Fairbanks area.

He said most of the people at the session were there to renew their red cards, an annual requirement.

Keech said turnout at the training was about average, although the division has been receiving more interest than usual in firefighting jobs this year. The reason is likely last year's record fire season.

"We ran out of people last year," Keech said. "That's the biggest question: What's this year going to be like?"

Last year it was a slow spring, he said, and firefighters were worried there would be little work.

"All of the sudden, bam, it just went and didn't quit," Keech said. "I'm sure all of the firefighters are hoping for a year like last year."

Opinions among those just finishing the running test were mixed.

"The grass is dry already," said Larson Hess, who plans to work his fourth fire season this year.

"I think everything burned already last year," said Russell Shewfelt, 18, who was training for his first season on a fire crew.

Shewfelt and a half-dozen other first-year hopefuls agreed that the money was a big draw for them.

"They say it's rough, but you get paid," said 19-year-old Michael Charlie.

A typical state firefighter is paid about $13 an hour, said Keech, and if they are called to a fire will work 12- to 16-hour shifts. Than means a lot of overtime, at time-and-a-half for state crews.

"I'd imagine they'd probably take home $5,000 for a two-week assignment," he said.

Experienced firefighters who qualify for initial attack crews, the first responders to a wildland fire, have the chance for more regular work, Keech said. That's because those crews, much like those who work for a fire department, have to be standing ready to respond to a fire on a moment's notice.

In addition to money, adventure and adrenaline are no small part of the appeal of wildland firefighting, several people said.

"It's a paid camping trip," said Hess. "Even at the end of the year, I don't want it to be over."

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