Saydee-Marie Fujioka, a Wildland Fire Apprenticeship Program participant, works on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prescribed burn. Photo by Saydee-Marie Fujioka, USFWS.
BY KARI COBB
Dan O’Connor used to look forward to being laid off from his temporary wildland firefighter position every fall. During the spring and summer, he worked long, hard days for months on end. Through it all, he looked forward with the anticipation to the fall, when he would be laid off and could enjoy life for a few months, recuperate, and prepare for the coming fire year.
Historically, wildland firefighting has attracted people who want to work hard for six to nine months, save all their well-earned money, then take a few months off in the fall and winter to pursue hobbies, travel, and generally recuperate from months of hard, physically and mentally taxing labor.
“When I was first starting out in fire, I looked for jobs that offered temporary work so that I could spend my winters traveling or surfing,” remembers O’Connor, who is now a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fire Management Officer in Southern California. “The world has changed. That sort of lifestyle isn’t achievable anymore due to the skyrocketing cost of living across the West.”
O’Connor is right: the world has changed. Wildland fire activity starts earlier in the spring and lasts longer into the fall. Wildfires are typically larger, grow more quickly, and are more difficult to control. These days, wildland firefighters are needed throughout the year—not only to tackle wildfires, but to conduct wildfire risk reduction projects in the fall, winter, and spring.
As the U.S. Department of the Interior adapts to changing environments and more intense fire activity, it is also investing in the future of wildland fire management through its employees. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wildland Fire Apprenticeship Program builds future wildland fire leaders through a mix of classroom education and on-the-job training.
The apprenticeship program, accredited by the U.S. Department of Labor, sends entry-level firefighters to an academy where they become well-rounded wildland fire leaders and practitioners. The apprentices attend several weeks of classroom learning where they study topics such as fire behavior, fuels management, and human performance. Students also experience a diverse learning environment through on-the-job training as they participate in hand crews, engine crews, aviation, dispatch, prescribed fire, and other assignments.
Apprentices have up to four years to complete the program. They are then they are converted to full-time, permanent positions.
Across the Interior Department, other bureaus are also using wildland fire apprenticeship programs as they continue to build future leaders.
Saydee-Marie Fujioka, an apprentice with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, came across the Wildland Fire Apprenticeship Program while working as a wildland firefighter for a different bureau.
“My previous work with suppression-funded programs didn’t allow me to experience anything other than suppression work,” said Fujioka. “This program has allowed me to experience what it’s like to work with helitack, hand crews, and even dispatch. I already feel like a more well-rounded firefighter.”
Ultimately, Fujioka would like to be a Fire Management Officer and she wholeheartedly believes this program will help her achieve that goal.
Krishna Parthasarathy first heard about the program during his Conservation Corps service at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, where refuge fire personnel encouraged him to apply. Parthasarathy’s first apprenticeship assignment was with the USDA Forest Service’s Redding Hotshots based in Redding, California. It exposed him to the crew’s developmental leadership lessons and self-confidence building tactics. Parthasarathy’s next assignment is with the USDA Forest Service’s Price Valley Helitack Program in Idaho.
“I’m looking forward to the ‘infamous rappel mountain week’ and meeting the physical challenges of that. This program has taught me to not be intimidated by the task before me and to say ‘yes’ to exploring all opportunities that come my way,” said Parthasarathy.
O’Connor currently employs six apprentices. When fire activity declines in Southern California, he assigns the apprentices to other regions that need assistance with fuels management and other projects.
“Our apprentices never sit around, that’s for sure. If there’s no fire on the ground, they support nearby refuges by assisting with restoration projects, trail repairs, or other refuge needs,” said O’Connor. “In this way, apprentices not only build relationships with non-fire refuge staff, they also develop a better understanding of the refuge system and why protecting these places is crucial to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s mission.”
The Wildland Fire Apprenticeship Program allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to foster a workforce with extensive wildland fire management knowledge and skills, including leaders who understand wildland fire management from the ground up. This investment allows the bureau to foster meaningful wildland fire careers and retain employees who enjoy their jobs and passionately support wildland fire management.
Through its apprenticeship program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has filled 28 wildland fire positions in one year. It plans to continue the program as part of its ongoing efforts to build future wildland fire management leaders and a diverse, well-rounded workforce.
Kari Cobb is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Public Affairs Specialist at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.