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My Path to Fighting Wildland Fires: A DCNR Firefighter’s Journey

September 26, 2018 02:40 PM
By: Todd Breininger, Forest Fire Protection Program Specialist, DCNR's Bureau of Forestry

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​My career path to DCNR began in high school. I was involved with the local volunteer fire company, and one day there was a large wildfire on the mountain within our coverage area.

I was really impressed by the response from the fire companies and the DCNR Bureau of Forestry, and I knew then that fighting wildfires would be a great job with lots of excitement.

That feeling never left me, so I majored in forestry in college. I hoped to land a job with DCNR after graduation, because I respected many of the forestry people with which I worked in the wildland firefighting community.

Endless Education, Training

Wildland firefighting training is almost endless as you move up through positions in the system.

Basic wildland firefighters must complete four classes totaling 46 hours, as well as an eight-hour refresher course every year. To be eligible for an out-of-state assignment, you also must pass the pack test: carry a 45-pound backpack for three miles in less than 45 minutes -- walking, no running allowed!

These requirements are the bare minimum for wildland firefighters, but you need a lot of additional training as you progress and take on more responsibility. Wildland classes are nationally certified, so the class you take in Pennsylvania will be the same as one taught in California.

Helping Other States

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Todd Breininger in front of a DCNR vehicle in Montana.

Pennsylvania DCNR is frequently called upon to assist other states and federal agencies by fighting wildfires, as well as responding to other natural disasters.

We’ve sent crews out west since 1973, and in more recent years, we’ve begun sending engines and single resources (specially-trained personnel assigned to a specific position, other than a member of a 20-person crew).

At the time of writing this, Pennsylvania has sent 228 people to assist other states this year, including three engines and eight crews.

Expecting the Unexpected

Heading west on a fire assignment is different every time. You learn early on to remain flexible because plans always change.

For example, a few years ago, I left my house for Harrisburg thinking I was headed to Alaska. When I arrived in Harrisburg, I discovered Fairbanks was smoked in (heavy smoke around the airport caused issues with flights coming in), and our crew was now heading to Utah. Well, after a few days in Utah, the fire was under control, and we ended up in California.

In short, you never know what to expect. You could get on a wildfire where you spend two weeks witnessing extreme fire behavior. Or you could end up on a cold section of the fire, making sure it’s out and not seeing much fire at all.

Experiences pretty much run the whole spectrum when you’re out there -- some trips really get the adrenaline flowing, and others are simply not as exciting.

But there are two things you know for sure:

  1. You’ll be working long days (usually about 15 hours)
  2. You’re going to get dirty

It’s worth it though. Because even if your assignment isn’t exciting, it is important -- especially to the people affected by the fire. Also, the experience is great, and you’ll return with a lot of knowledge that’ll help us fight fire at home.

Pennsylvania’s fire program has improved tremendously over the years, because of the knowledge and experience people have gained on western fire assignments.

A Job of Opportunity and Sacrifice

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Todd Breininger helping fight fires in Montana.

Although being a wildland firefighter is great, it doesn’t come without its downside. It can be very stressful and lack of sleep on an assignment is common. The “on-the-go” lifestyle can take its toll in the long run.

Addressing Everyday Needs

When fighting a fire out west or in Pennsylvania, we eat bagged lunches or MREs (meals ready to eat). When at bigger fires out west, there typically is a base camp that has supplies and food.  A caterer cooks the breakfast, dinners, and makes the bagged lunches.

Showers don’t happen too often. Out west, there are shower trailers, but the lines can be very long. And if you shower, you won’t get to sleep until very late, so it’s not uncommon to only take a few showers on a two-week fire deployment. Instead, many firefighters use “bath in a bag,” which is a large baby wipe you use to clean yourself.

As far as sleeping’s concerned, I carry a sleeping bag and tent with me when I’m deployed.

My Family’s Support

It can take a toll on your family while you’re gone. Your spouse and kids may constantly worry about you, and they must pick up the slack while you’re gone. I’ve missed a few family vacations and kids’ games over the years because I was out on a wildfire.

Luckily, I have a great wife who is very understanding of me leaving for two weeks with little notice. She knows that I really love fighting wildfires and supports me 100 percent, even though it’s hard on her while I’m gone.

People constantly tell me that I have a great job, and they are correct. I’ve been to every state in the west, including Alaska, and I’ve seen country that most people will never see while I was on fires.

As the Prescribed Fire Specialist in Pennsylvania, I get to travel around the state working on prescribed fires and responding to wildfires -- basically doing something new and exciting every day.

I’m out in the woods, beholding nature, and working with great people. When I walk in my house in the evening, I’m happy knowing I followed that feeling of excitement, choosing the right job so many years ago.

Learn More

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Wildland fire in Pennsylvania

To learn more about wildfires and community resources, explore DCNR’s website.

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