Women of Wildland Fire: Amanda Monthei
Journey through the fire industry with Amanda Monthei, who’s worked on an engine, a handcrew, a hotshot crew, to now, where she currently resides on the media side of things.
Welcome to the Women of Wildland Fire Series! Follow along as we interview women who have carved out an exciting outdoors career for themselves in the fire industry.
Dive into a conversation with Amanda Monthei about her journey through the fire industry. After four seasons of working on the frontline of wildfire, including two as a Zigzag hotshot, she’s become a wealth of information for others interested in a fire career. Since shifting gears towards the media side of this industry in 2019, Monthei created the Life with Fire Podcast and is frequently commissioned to write about the impact of wildfires on surrounding environments and communities. She notably authored the popular article, The Women Before Me, which takes a look at the history of women on hotshot crews.
What originally drew you into wildland firefighting?
There were two women I knew in college who worked as wildland firefighters, and when they started posting images of their work locations I thought to myself, ‘Ok. That looks pretty rad.’ Before, growing up in the Midwest, I didn’t know that hotshots existed or what fires in the west entailed. It wasn’t on the news, so my worldview of firefighting was very limited.
I was really happy to know people who were in the fire industry. They answered all of my questions that went beyond the typical, ‘What is the training like?’ or ‘What kind of boots do I get?’ Unless you grow up in the West or are surrounded by fire culture, like have friends that are already working in fire, it’s difficult to get that information.
I also found it difficult to find information online about fire.
Yeah. What I’m trying to do is continue to get the word out about the possibilities within the fire industry–from doing interviews to writing about my experiences.
I sense that gap is a huge reason a lot of women don’t get into fire because they aren’t getting those bits of knowledge or expectations they need in order to build context to decide if they want to do this kind of work. Women are absolutely capable of this work, but I think we naturally over-inflate what it requires of us. For anyone with a general interest in fire, having information available about the job is important in deciding if it’s a good fit to apply for.
Applying for jobs in federal land agencies is a whole different side of things, it’s a notoriously long process that’s difficult to complete unless you’ve applied before or have someone walk you through it. In general, there are a lot of barriers to entry in the fire industry. [See: usajobs.gov]
How would you describe the difference between working for the federal government versus working as a contractor to someone looking to enter the fire industry?
Contract crews and federal crews can be very similar, it all depends on leadership. I personally recommend people go the federal route, as I feel like you have a greater chance of seeing more fire on a federal crew. Once you’re on a fire, contract crews are often just as busy as federal crews, and do similar work–though this is dependent on their reputation and performance much of the time.
That said, a lot of contract crews only get paid when they’re out on fires, which means they might make more per hour, but they don’t get any hours if there’s no work on fires. Whereas on a federal crew you get “base 8s” whether you're on a fire or not (that is, eight hour days on base while you wait for a fire). If you can’t get a position on a federal crew for some reason (missed hiring, didn’t get any interviews etc) then either state or contract fire crews are a great route to break into the industry.
What are considered entry level jobs in the fire industry, and what certifications are needed?
Entry level is what you would call an FFT2–firefighter type two. This is the first qualification one would get on their “red card” in order to work on a fire. For FFT2, you’ll need a few basic classes like S-130/190 (fire behavior and basic firefighting classes), a wildland fire pumps class, a chainsaw class and an annual refresher that includes an arduous pack test (three miles in 45 minutes with a 45 lb pack), fire shelter practice, a few videos about fire safety etc.
If you don’t have some of the fire classes then it’s helpful to have your EMT or WFR, a CDL, a background in manual labor and/or significant outdoor experience. Being able to say you run/hike/ski/bike and are generally in good shape is helpful too.
What was the deciding factor to join a hotshot crew?
I started on an engine crew in Idaho to ease my way into the industry. I quickly realized I wanted to work on a handcrew or hotshot crew. That’s the kind of work I kept seeing online, and ultimately dictated my perspective of working in wildland fire. I wanted to dig lines, be in remote locations, get flown into fires, and work with a big crew, which isn’t the experience on an engine crew.
My second season, I got on an Initial Attack (IA) Type 2 Handcrew in Central Idaho, there were 10 of us in total. I saw that job as a stepping stone to getting on a shot crew.
In my third season I applied for a bunch of shot crews and ultimately got on with Zigzag in 2018, based in Mt. Hood National Forest. I wish I would have started a fire career earlier in my life, maybe around 23, because I ended my career as a Zigzag after two seasons. At the time I was hitting 30, struggling to hold down relationships, and keeping in touch with friends and family, so I stepped away from operational fire. There’s no flexibility in the summer while working on a hotshot crew. I’m glad I found it when I did and had that opportunity to fight fire, though I would’ve liked a few more years under my belt.
How would you describe the roles and differences between a handcrew and hotshot crew?
Hotshot crews are geared towards assignments that are higher intensity, more remote, and require self-sufficiency within the crew. When the terrain is steep, rugged, and requires long hikes, they'll refer to it as ‘Hotshot Country.’ On my shot crew, we were digging lines and doing burnouts most of the time.
For the most part, they’re very similar. Depending on the fire, you could be doing hotshot work as a handcrew and vice versa. It comes down to the qualifications and reputations of the people on the crew. With a handcrew, you’re more likely to end up working mop-up roles, or in general the less intense work.
Imposter syndrome is real. Were there any moments of self-doubt as a shot, and how did you push past that feeling?
The first three months of my first hotshot season I felt wildly inadequate. I had all those feelings ‘Why did they hire me, how am I here, etc.’ The other rookies felt the same way, so it wasn’t only me. I felt prepared by our training plus I was surrounded by highly qualified people….but I also felt like it was difficult to contribute to the program as a really green rookie on a hotshot crew.
Being able to keep up on hikes is a small way to help combat that imposter syndrome. If you can do more than the minimum pull-ups/push-ups and exceed the physical standard they set out, the crew is going to respect that regardless of your background. When you’re two months into the season and messing up left and right, they’re going to remember that the person put in the physical work to be there. It’s a huge learning process since each crew has a different culture, protocols, and operating procedures. Accept that you’ll forget things and mess up.
During my first season as a Zigzag I had this problem where I’d always leave my window open in the buggy. You’re not supposed to do that because then ash or sparks can then fly into the buggy. The rule is there for a very good reason, but I could not remember to roll up the window. The third time I forgot, they made the entire buggy do 60 push-ups. That was absolutely the last time I forgot to do that. I still remember the embarrassment!
That probably means you're a good team member since you do care so much.
You’re part of the team and all these little rules contribute to creating crew cohesion. It can make the first couple of months of a new season feel very difficult when learning, but come July and August when fires are heating up the whole crew will be extremely dialed with one another. You’re running like a well-oiled machine and everyone knows what they’re doing at all times. We had 7 rookies on my crew that first season, so there was a big learning curve we all had to get through.
There was one other woman as a rookie and five guys, so it was cool to see that my experience as a rookie was similar to everyone else’s. I got the same amount of shit as everyone else, and often we’d all get shit together. I was not targeted because I’m a woman, and I was not different than anyone else learning.
What would be a piece of advice for anyone who wants to get into wildland fire?
It’s a valuable experience regardless of how you get into it or what you end up doing in it. Being in the dynamic is worth pursuing and seeing what it’s all about. If you’re already somebody that’s into the outdoors, likes spending time doing physical labor, wants to see new country, and meet new people, it’s a great experience.
That being said, there’s always the question of firefighter pay, treatment, the inflexible nature of the job, and the subsequent difficulties down the road. However, it’s very possible to make a great career out of fire that’s sustainable. If there’s any sort of vague interest in this type of seasonal work, it’s absolutely worth exploring.