As you read this, thousands of wildland firefighters, the men (and some women) who protect property and ecosystems from burning to a crisp, are getting ready for a busy season of brutal work. All of the steps government and health officials have advised Americans to take to avoid the novel coronavirus — stay home as much as possible, social distance from others, wear a mask — are completely at odds with the norms these firefighters live by. In their world, putting on a face covering isn’t worth the hassle, and toughing it out is a way of life.
Wildland firefighting crews are different from the firefighters who work at your local fire department — the ones who might show up at your house if you call 911. Wildland firefighters generally don’t interact with the public at all. Most of them work during spring and summer months in the “wildland-urban interface” — the zone where human development and vegetation intermingle.
Each crew usually consists of between 18 and 22 firefighters — including one superintendent, who oversees the whole operation, and two or three squad bosses, who manage the employees day-to-day. Some of the firefighters camp or rent rooms near a fire station that serves as their unit’s home base; others live on-site in barracks. When they’re given a fire assignment, they hit the road, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles to reach a blaze.