A Day in the Life of a Female Wildland Firefighter

Bailey McDade
Bailey McDade

What Bailey McDade does for a living is hardly what you'd call conventional. As a wildland firefighter, she's tasked with stopping the spread of wildfires right where they start — and with preventing those fires from moving out of rural areas and into more populated communities. And after a spate of wildfires devastated parts of the West Coast this Summer, the job she does each year is more important now than ever.

In October, McDade was featured as a hero in "Protecting Our Heroes: A Tribute to Safety and Innovation," a multiplatform campaign being run by Plastics Make It Possible. I caught up with McDade—– who's now on the off season after a Summer of full-time firefighting — by phone and got a full rundown of just what her job entails on a day-to-day basis. My conversation with the 25-year-old Taylor Swift-loving millennial is below and has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

POPSUGAR: I would love to hear a bit more about your background and about how you started doing the work that you're doing.
Bailey McDade: Well, let's see. Where do I begin? I went school for wildlife science, and I did some conservation work with that. And it sort of led into my start with the Forest Service and into fire, and kind of just tumbled me into the fire world and hasn't spit me back out yet. [laughter] But it's a really, really fun job. I work with a lot of young people. People that love traveling. People that are OK with sleeping in the dirt under the stars for half a year.

PS: So what is your technical job title, and what do you do?
BM: I'm a wildland firefighter. I used to kind of do all of the above as far as conservation work, but now I strictly do forest fires. I don't work for a town or a city. They send us all over the country, wherever there are wildfires — and it's a seasonal job. So we work, typically, around 200 hours or so on a fire, and then we get a couple of days off, and then we go back out there. It's a pretty grueling schedule for about six months, and then I get the Winters off.

Bailey McDade

PS: What does a normal day during the fire season look like?
BM: Well, it really depends. For a normal day, you just have to be really, really flexible. You never really know what you're going to be doing, what your assignment is. But if you're assigned to a large fire anywhere in the country. . . you'll typically go, and expect to be there for 14 days and work each day for about 16 hours, sometimes a bit longer. It depends. Fire doesn't sleep. [laughter]

But you wake up. You eat breakfast. You're in this big camp with all the other fire crews, and it's sort of our responsibility to get our trucks ready and get all of our gear ready. And I think that's the big thing. Because we're all doing the same thing, no matter what we're doing; we might be hiking all day long, or we might be doing a burn operation where we're lighting things on fire. Or we might be setting up hoses and pots to do structure protection. But either way, we have pretty minimal gear, but it's very specialized so that we're kind of ready to go if there's a fire. Ready to spray water. Ready to be hiking.

There's also a whole list of gear that we have ready at every site. It's a kind of a lot to get into, but we typically have got a pair of pants and a button-down shirt, and they feel like just regular cloth but they're made out of plastic. So I kind of wear the same shirt and same pants for six months, and they have to get us through whatever we're doing. I would work 14 days or 14 to 18 days, and then come home for two days, and then go right back out. So I always have a backpack. One pair of pants and a shirt and my backpack, and I can go anywhere.

I'm sure you've probably seen pictures, but everything we have to fight the fires is usually carried on our backs. And we always have our boots, our helmets, and our shirts and pants and gloves in a 45-pound backpack that's got to carry whatever we're using. I might work a whole fire using nothing but a shovel or an ax or a chainsaw. Sometimes, we don't have water. But that's what all of our specialized gear is for. I might be hiking for 10 hours; I might be cutting down trees; I might be walking through flames. So everything that we have is lightweight and durable . . . everything that we have is some sort of plastic blend, with some things being tougher than others. I have this piece of cloth that goes around my face, a face shroud, that clips on to my helmet and that alone is all we'll use to stop some of the heat and the smoke and help protect our airways when walking right through the fire.

Bailey McDade

PS: What was 2017 like for you? Where were you fighting the fires?
BM: In Arizona, I was on a crew. I typically work on an engine crew. So for the first few months of fire season, Arizona was really getting slammed with fires. And it was a lot of — well, pretty much being on call for six months, 24/7. We were working really long hours going to a lot of new fires in Arizona. And then typically, as soon as the monsoon rains hit, they sort of ship us off to wherever else in the country needs help. And this year it was the Northwest for sure. I spent about a month in Oregon, about a month in Montana, a little bit of time in Idaho and Utah traveling through. But, yeah, the last few months of fire season, I was up in the Northwest. The fires were really bad there this year.

I calculated it out, and we worked just over 2,000 hours in the last six months. So if that were a normal work week, that would be about 85 hours a week for six months. So you don't include all the time that you camp out and then sleep outside in the woods and all that. It was definitely a long season, but nobody that's doing this job is doing it by accident. Nobody hates it. Everyone loves their job or they wouldn't be here.

PS: So when you're out and you're on location, what do you do in the time when you're not fighting fires?
BM: So I do have a station that I can go to. And if we're not assigned to a large fire yet, we have our bags packed, our gear's ready, and then we'll go work on sometimes thinning projects or making fuel brakes to help protect communities if fire were to come through. There's a lot of chainsaw work. We'll help out with the other forest service things sometimes, clearing campgrounds and roads and things like that. But we're pretty much on call. We have a two-minute response time. Within two minutes of getting a call from one of our lookouts, we're supposed to be able to be in the trucks with our gear ready to go to the fire.

Bailey McDade

PS: And is it the same group of people or is it different every time?
BM: My crew is the same. From year to year, some people leave. Some people switch crews. But the fire world, in general, is pretty small. This Summer I was getting lunch and I ran into a guy that I was on a crew with last year. So you kind of run into the same people. But no, my crew stays the same for every fire that we're on for the whole season. You become a group. Like I said, we sleep next to each other on the ground. Most of us don't usually set up tents. You kind of just lay your sleeping bag down next to your buddy and go to bed. You wake up. You eat three meals a day with them; you fight fires with them.

PS: What do you do for the rest of the year? Do you have another job, and what do you do to unwind?
BM: I do. I work a little bit. I make candles and sell them at a farmers market in the Winter. But right now, I've got a lot of plans to travel. A lot of fire people, I think, kind of what we miss during that season — it's an amazing job, but you don't really have any free time. You don't even get to decide what you're eating for lunch every day. So everyone splits. I have friends in Iceland, Peru, Thailand, Colorado. All my fire friends are all over the place right now. Everyone just kind of takes a big chill pill for the Winter. And I'm planning to go to Argentina in about a month with my dad.

I actually get a hard time from one of my fire buddies because I still enjoy camping and hiking in the off season. Most people say, "Hey, we do that for work. You really want to go camping?" But I love being outside. I have a dog, and I try to take her everywhere with me, and we go on a lot of road trips, visit a lot of parks. In the wintertime — the last two Winters — I've been trying to keep up with some wildlife research, since that's what I went to school for. I did a lot of big cat research on jaguars and mountain lions and bobcats, and that's kind of taking me all over the place. I've been to Belize a few times for it, and last year, I spent a month snowshoeing in the Yukon in Canada with a friend where we were tracking Canada lynx and things and doing some wildlife research there.

I'm kind of a science nerd. I like to play in the woods, but it's kind of extra cool that we get to do a little bit of wildlife research there too.

Bailey McDade

PS: Do you see other firefighters in the off season or just when you're on the job?
BM: I do, yeah. I think part of it is we're on a very unique job schedule, sort of like teachers getting to hang out with each other in the summertime. I don't have many friends outside of fire that can pick up and go to Thailand for a week in the wintertime. [laughter] I live with a girl that's on another fire crew, and we just hung out with a couple of people from my fire crew last night. So, yeah. We definitely can't seem to avoid each other. I love it, though. It's like family.

PS: What do you see yourself doing next?
BM: I'm pretty happy in fire right now. I feel like a huge part of habitat management is pretty directly involved with fire — the areas that need to see fire. Certain plants need fire to make better habitats for animals, and so I feel like that's sort of my justification for it; we really are managing the land. And I like that I can work in national forests and have a huge scope and get to travel to places I never would see, parts of the country I would never see if I weren't in fire. So I'm pretty happy I'm sticking around in fire for now. I think I won't close the door on playing with plants and animals and doing all of this kind of sciencey stuff. But working with the Forest Service is awesome, and I'm pretty new, so we'll see. I'm young. I can definitely tell you that two years ago, I didn't think that I would be a firefighter.

PS: Tell me the story of how you actually fell into it. Was it just a conscious decision where you woke up one day or what happened?
BM: Well, I was originally planning to go to vet school. When I was in college, I was a pre-vet major. And we had — I think it was sophomore year — we had to come up with a research project. It was really open-ended, but had to be a capstone, culminating project. Kind of on a whim, I found a zoo in Belize that had a jaguar rehabilitation program. And I contacted them and said, "I want to be an intern. I want to come here for Summer and work as a zookeeper. And I want to work with the jaguars." So I went there for my research project. And just kind of hiking around the jungle, I realized I really, really, really wanted to work outside. I wanted to work in conservation, with wild animals, and hike for a living. And so I kind of changed paths right then and there and did a lot more.

I went back to Belize a couple more times. And later, when I was working for AmeriCorps, I worked in eight different parks, and one of our jobs was doing all the controlled burnings — all the prescribed burning. I decided, "Hey, this is pretty neat. I like fire. I like this aspect of the job." And I actually moved to Arizona before I even got my first fire job. I just kind of crossed my fingers, applied, and moved.

Bailey McDade

PS: Were your family and friends like, "What are you doing?" Or were they super supportive?
BM: I've always kind of have been the wild child in my family, the one that moved around the bunch and traveled a bunch. So when I told my family that I was moving to Arizona, my parents were obviously a little bummed out. They live in Virginia. But my sister said, "Hey, we honestly thought you were going to tell us you're moving to South America, so this is kind of OK. Arizona's fine. We thought you were moving to Belize."

PS: So if you could communicate one thing to POPSUGAR readers, what would it be?
BM: I think we should definitely do a better job of educating the public on what we're doing, when we do these controlled burns or what we're doing when we're creating fuel breaks, trying to reduce the amount of fuel around communities. And when I say fuel, we call anything that can burn fuel. So trees are fuel. Dead grass is fuel. Bushes are fuel. When we do these fuel-reduction projects, either you're burning it or cutting it, something like that. We're really trying to make it so that when the fire does come through — and it always does — that it doesn't have so much fuel that it becomes catastrophic. Maybe it's just education, people realizing that fire is really good for the landscape in some areas. Some pine trees won't regenerate and grow new pine trees until fire comes through. And they're adapted for that. It's just when you have way too much fuel in one area that doesn't naturally see fire or introducing fire from humans starting it, that's when the trees burn down. And then you get these massive, devastating forest fires. But a little fire is really good.

People love us when we're fighting wildfire, and they hate us when we're doing these controlled burns. They see smoke in the air, but it just comes down to knowing what we're doing. Most people are still pretty convinced — I'm not even sure my parents know what I do. They always say, "OK. Be careful. Don't jump out of any airplanes." But both parts are important, and I'd like to educate people on that more.