- Recent college grad Ryan Steinbruner was looking for excitement so he became a wildland firefighter.
- He was surprised that most of his job is preventing or monitoring fires, not putting them out.
- It’s long hours and he once spent 25 days away from home, but Steinbruner’s not ready to leave yet.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Ryan Steinbruner, a 22-year-old wildland firefighter from Colorado Springs, Colorado. It’s been edited for length and clarity.
Growing up in Colorado, I’d seen what wildfires can do. I was a student in Boulder when the Marshall fire devastated the area, destroying more than a thousand homes.
Even then, it wasn’t until I was working for a conservation group in Colorado that I was first introduced to wildland firefighting as a line of work.
I wanted to do something in service to others after graduating college and something that got me out in nature. Wildland firefighting felt like a good fit.
I signed up because I like something dangerous
One of the things I was most excited about in this job, is that it’s literally playing with fire.
People come from all different backgrounds and experiences, but we all signed up because we liked something dangerous and also because we’re okay hanging out with the same 20 or so people for long periods of time in the woods.
That said, I feel distant from friends and people from college, who are often in more traditional office jobs or school. I think about how I’ve lost contact with folks just by nature of being without cell service and in the woods for most of the time.
I’m in a place of self-discovery right now, though, so I’m mostly okay with it. I also know that I always have my crew, which has definitely been one of my favorite parts of this experience. I’m really motivated by knowing that people are depending on me and that I’m part of a team.
I work about 220 hours over a 14-day assignment
The hours can be tough. When I factor in travel time, I work about 220 hours over a 14-day assignment. Recently, my crew worked a full 40-hour week, then responded to a local fire in Colorado that took three days.
Because of that, we lost our weekend. We came straight back down to camp before we got called up for another 14-day assignment. It was 25 days straight away from home and the rest of the world.
Very little of that time was spent actually fighting fires.
It’s more watching and waiting than I expected
Even when I’m on an assignment, there can be a lot of watching, and waiting, and just monitoring the fire’s position. This is my least favorite part of the job. It can feel frustrating, like there’s more that we could be doing.
There is definitely a strategy at play, but a lot of times it looks like, “Man, we just have all these people doing nothing.”
They call it “active monitoring,” and it’s based on a “better safe than sorry” mentality, where it’s better to have more people on standby, just in case, rather than risk having too few. Sometimes these areas have already been designated for prescribed burning, so it makes sense to let nature do the work for us.
But if you’re coming from any kind of for-profit mentality or business, it does feel like we’re just wasting everyone’s money, spending long days just watching fires burn.
I didn’t experience a lot of fires this season, and I want to be able to say that I got to fight some real fires.
My plan is to spend the next few months applying to hotshot crews. These are the best of the best when it comes to wildland firefighting and the people really on the front lines of the most active firefighting.
Hotshot crews are definitely competitive, but it’s no secret that the fire service always needs more firefighters.
Fire season is generally getting longer and more intense
So far, there have been over 50,000 wildfires in the US in 2023. As the planet gets hotter and drier, we’re seeing unprecedented fires and longer fire seasons.
Another big challenge is that people are now living in areas that have historically been pure wildland, meaning that there are suddenly values at risk in an area we could’ve let burn before.
Now there are subdivisions bumping up right against forests and wildlands, so it’s this new mix of fighting fires in wildlands and structures. It means that not only are there more fires, there are more fires we have to fight.
Was your new job not what you were expecting and you want to share your story? Email Jess Orwig at [email protected].