Making The Cut: The Grueling Path to Become a California Wildland Firefighter

In a previous article, we discussed the training California National Guard and State Guard troops undergo during the Class 1 wildland firefighting academy. A new article from The Department of Defense goes even deeper discussing the punishing challenges in store for these soldiers. From long marches with heavy packs along steep hillsides to nonstop physical exercise to ensure each candidate can make the cut.

The program was first initiated by The California National Guard in 2019 to fight the increasing intensity of wildfires. Named Joint Task Force Rattlesnake, the force started with the mission of assisting Cal Fire’s efforts to manage vegetation that often fuels wildfires. Candidates, including almost 120 soldiers and airmen, undergo an intense 10-day training at an academy located at Camp San Luis Obispo. If the soldiers complete the course they can take their place among 14 full time wild land fire fighting military crews who stand ready to deploy at a moments notice.


Joint Task Force Rattlesnake: Fire Training Tests Candidates’ Endurance


Service members wearing fire protection clothing hike up a hill with hand tools.


Those hoping to join the California National Guard’s frontline wildland firefighting corps had no time to admire the morning sky as it collided with the golden hills of California’s Central Coast.

The state was already weeks into its fire season when nearly 120 soldiers and airmen entered a 10-day academy hoping to serve on Joint Task Force Rattlesnake, 14 full-time military crews that embed with California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The academy sets a punishing pace for would-be task force members, who must push themselves on a three-mile hike through the rolling mounds on Camp San Luis Obispo. By the time they had reached the first peak, their bodies ached under the weight of their packs. With a cadre of seasoned firefighters prodding the group to match their pace, the candidates’ resolve was tested with each grueling step.


Service members wearing fire protection clothing walk in a line up a steep hill.

Service members wearing fire protection clothing use hand tools to clear brush.

Service members wearing fire protection clothing hike up a hill with hand tools.

Service members wearing fire protection clothing hike up a hill carrying hand tools.

The 72 soldiers and airmen who made it through might soon be put to the test in a real-world wildfire.

“We emphasize how strenuous and arduous this job is,” said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Brock Redding.

“Being put in these environments, it’s very tough, mentally and physically, on not only us, but the service members, as well,” he said. “There has to be that trust where when we give an assignment to the service member that they can complete it, and we are assured that they are going to get it done in the manner we need it to be done.”


A medic inspects a man’s feet.


Formed in 2019 by the California National Guard as a response to the growing frequency and intensity of fires, the task force was initially tasked to support Cal Fire’s efforts to clear the dense, dry vegetation that creates the environment for fires to spread.

Rattlesnake crews quickly proved themselves and now deploy alongside Cal Fire to the frontlines during fire season, typically May through October.


Throughout their academy training, which is run jointly by Cal Fire and the California National Guard, task force hopefuls receive classroom instruction and field training on the fundamentals of wildland firefighting.

The volunteers learn how to deploy to the site of a fire and use hand tools to clear the long lines of vegetation meant to stop fires from spreading further.


A man in uniform carries a flag through brush as service members wearing fire protection clothing work in the background.

Service members wearing fire protection clothing run up a hill.

They also learn how to deploy fire shelters — a last ditch maneuver to keep firefighters alive if they’re overtaken by the blaze.

Making the Cut

Once the volunteers complete the academy training, they’re assigned to Cal Fire stations throughout the state.


Service members wearing fire protection clothing do pushups while in formation.


Task Force Rattlesnake draws from all occupation specialties throughout California’s Air and Army National Guard, as well as the California State Guard.

Army Lt. Col. Michael Riley, the commander of Joint Task Force Rattlesnake, said the Guard’s ability to draw service members with such a broad spectrum of skill sets to the mission makes them a natural fit for the firefighting mission.

He said in addition to their military training, Guard members bring a variety of skills gained in the private sector that can translate well in the unpredictable business of fighting fires.

“You’d be surprised,” he said. “In any team, I can go ‘Hey, the power’s not working in the building’ and somebody will say ‘I’m an electrician.’

“Literally, we can be somewhere, and something can be happening … and, lo and behold, when we start working the problem set, we have … [someone] either available at the team or very close by,” he said.

Army 1st Lt. Shiloh Perenon, who served as an officer –in charge of the Nevada City, California, crew and now oversees six crews, said he’s seen Guard members with a variety of civilian skill sets – from plumbers to electricians – who have put those skills to use on the fire line.

Still, those who have served in its ranks caution that the job is not for everyone. There are no easy days for those who make it onto a crew. Even during the off-season, the work is grueling. Crews complete most of their fuel mitigation work during the winter, when wildfires are less likely.


Service members wearing fire protection clothing hike up a hill with hand tools.


Crews routinely hike steep terrain with packs that can weigh 35 pounds or more only to arrive at jobsites where they clear acre after acre with hand tools and chainsaws.

Task force crews rotate through 12-hour shifts at the station year-round. During fire season, it’s not uncommon for crews to work 24-hour shifts and be away from home for days on end.

Perenon said the key traits needed to succeed on the task force are adaptability and endurance.

“A fire can happen at any time,” he said. “That means at the end of a grueling workday, a crew can head out to a fire and be out there anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days. The plan can change at any moment.”

The emphasis on physical fitness that’s drilled into the hopefuls during their initial training doesn’t end after crew members join their units.

Each shift typically starts with group physical training. Crews consistently hike with full gear to stay ahead of fire season. That’s on top of the day-to-day demands in the field.

Task force members said they go through a few weeks of exhaustion during the hikes when they first join their units, but eventually everyone hits their stride. Within months, most members of the task force max out their physical training scores on drill weekends with their units.

To the uninitiated, it can be difficult to understand what would drive service members to volunteer for such a demanding assignment.

Even while serving on the task force, they must stay on top of the National Guard’s monthly drills and annual training requirements — and they can still get called up for deployments at a moment’s notice.

And despite the challenges of the job — or in many cases because of them — members said they’ve tapped into a deeper calling by joining the task force.

For many, it’s an opportunity to make a direct impact in their state and sometimes their own hometowns.


Service members wearing fire protection clothing hike up a hill with hand tools.


Life in the task force also fosters the kind of deep bonds that are common in military units, but more difficult to find in the civilian world.

“At the end of the day, this is as close as you’re going to get to engaging threats together without being in a war,” said Army Sgt. Jonathan Salazar, a task force member in Nevada City.

“You develop those bonds,” he said. “You rely on each other heavily in a very unique way that you can’t replicate.”

Source: Department Of Defense

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