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Physical Fitness for Private Lands Prescribed Fire

Physical fitness has been a hot-button topic in wildland fire since there’s been wildland fire. As much as people might not like it, prescribed fire IS wildland fire, just with the deck stacked as much as possible in your favor.

Questions have flown about the idea of “functional” fitness tests, the hazards associated with the “Pack Test”, and even if the “Pack Test” is a valid measure of baseline physical capability necessary to perform arduous wildland fire duties. Even at a surface glance: “Walk [nobody does, you have to do a kind of shuffle-jog to make time] 3 miles on a flat surface in 45 mins with 45lbs of weight on you [pack or vest].”

So much is wrong here:

  • “15 min mile” - isn’t a walk pace, it’s kind of a weird in-between: faster than a power-walk but slower than a jog, it forces you into an unnatural gait that can cause shin splints, hip flexor strains, back strains, and makes you more likely to trip and fall. Also - nobody actually walks like that, except during the pack test!

  • “Flat surface” - anyone in wildland fire, ANYONE, even you rooks out there: how often do we walk on flat surfaces? Almost never? Damn skippy.

  • “45 lbs” - if you’re a sawyer, sure, or setting up for a line spike. Very few people I knew in wildland fire (including the WFM I was a squaddie on, the 2 other WFMs on the Forest, and 2 Shot crews I shared stations with) ever carried 45+lbs on them regularly unless they were sawyers or headed out for a planned line spike.

The really long and short of it, from my POV, is: forget the Pack Test. Wildland fire agencies should be looking for standards that more accurately capture physical ability vs the exertion required for realistic wildland fire duties. The Pack Test isn’t it.

It absolutely is not a good or valid test for non-wildland fire folks.

“Ok wise guy, so what is?” I haven’t exactly figured that out, but for the “meat and potatoes” I would lean toward something that mixes strength, endurance, and cardio all in one: the Kettlebell Swing!

Photo by Taco Fleur on Unsplash

Swings develop all the things:

  • Shoulders & arms: to swing a tool/leaf blower nozzle, or carry a torch

  • Hams & glutes: for MOAR HIKING POWER!

  • Core: to tie things together and help you carry weight like a pack or leaf blower for extended periods of time

  • Cardio: Rule #1 of Zombieland is also Rule #1 of Fireland!

As they develop all the things, they will TEST all the things too!

A solid standard is 100 one-handed swings (50 each hand) in sets of 10 completed within 5 minutes. Thank you to StrongFirst for that idea (it’s a heavily-nerfed version of the Simple standard) - and remember to always make sure to check with your healthcare provider and get proper training before starting a new exercise routine!

Men, use 16kg (35lb) bells. Women, use 8kg (18lb) bells. Alternate strategy: use only a 16kg bell: men do 1-handed, women do 2-handed.

So you do your swings, then what? Is that it? Possibly. You’re the one setting a fitness standard here, I’m just spitballing ideas.

The additional option is a “Suitcase Carry” - take the appropriate-weight kettlebell and walk quickly - BUT SAFELY - 50 yards. Then set the bell down, turn around, pick it up with the other arm, and carry it back. Rinse and repeat the whole thing once more to make it a total of 200 yards, 100 yards each side.

Realistically in terms of carrying something like a drip torch without a break, in private lands prescribed fire you will SELDOM need to go more than 100 yards at a time without stopping - but if you CAN, especially after doing 100 one-handed swings, you’re in a really solid position physically at least for doing the kind of relatively low-complexity take-it-easy burning that we do in the Central Hardwoods.

If nothing else - or you just can’t get away from the idea of a “walking test”…

Just have someone walk a mile under light weight (~20lbs +/-) in say 18 minutes. That’s a solid power-walk pace but NOT the weird jog-shuffle that a 15 minute mile forces on you, and even the big mahuna BR800 leaf blower only weighs 25lbs. If you can manage that for a mile, that’s the equivalent of circling a 160 acre burn unit! Last I checked I haven’t seen many private lands burns over even 40 acres let alone 160.

Do we even need a fitness standard in private lands prescribed fire?

Realistically? At least in the Midwest and flatter parts of the East, my answer is “probably not”. Folks generally know their own limitations and those limitations can be mitigated by assigning alternate duties not directly part of the ignition or holding crews (such as Lookout, Fire Effects Monitor, UTV Operator, etc). Imposing physical fitness standards on volunteers assisting with lower-complexity prescribed fire in easier terrain, just seems unnecessary and excludes people from helping who could be valuable members of the team in other ways besides dragging a torch or leaning on a tool.


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