This past year was, by the numbers, the worst fire season the state of California has seen in recorded history. Doing battle with incomprehensibly huge blazes that claimed 4,257,863 acres in California alone are brave firefighters like Pranay Manghirmalani, who has worked as a firefighter for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, better known as Cal Fire, for the past seven years.
Being a firefighter in the Golden State isn’t like being a member of the New York City Fire Department, since the FDNY focuses primarily on structure fires with special training for fighting fires in high rises. The folks at Cal Fire have to be the Swiss Army knife of firefighters, and not that little one on your keychain, but that big fat bastard Swiss Army knife that comes with an instruction booklet and a satchel.
“California is different because there’s no separation between structure firefighters and wildland firefighters. Everyone is an all-risk firefighter with the exception of some agencies, like the Forest Service, which primarily focuses on wildland fires,” Manghirmalani said on the Free Range American podcast. “We all go to everything. We have so many homes in middle-of-nowhere areas that you have to have that knowledge and those skill sets. One minute I’ll be digging a line and the next I’ll be switching uniforms, getting my SCBA [breathing apparatus] on and going interior on a house. So, it’s different out here.”
First, just becoming a firefighter in California is a long, involved process that requires a good bit of determination and a lot of work, said Manghirmalani, who also serves in the California Air National Guard and has a background in law enforcement
“They say it’s one of the hardest careers to get into in California. It’s pretty competitive, but the job itself is a blessing. I did a lot of work to get here and I definitely earned it,” Manghirmalani said. “There are a lot of different avenues you can take. Basically, you look for a local fire academy and get your wildland firefighting certifications and structure fire certifications, and you apply to a department. The route I took, I paid out of pocket and went through a fire academy in Lake Tahoe, California, and then I went through an EMT program on my own.
“In my department, we hire seasonal firefighters every year, usually in November, December. You put in your application and they’ll ask you for certain certifications, which hopefully you got through your fire academy. Then you go through the process. But there are a lot of different outfits, and there are private firefighters, too,” Manghirmalani continued. “There’s a lot of government contract work out here as well, and a lot of guys are in Oregon because it’s a huge producer of contract jobs. And if you still need some of the necessary certifications, they’ll offer it and even pay for it. There are a lot of different avenues you can take.”
Manghirmalani said contract firefighters with the Forest Service will do a lot of maintenance work like clearing brush and setting up fuel brakes when they’re not on a fire, but when the call comes in, they’re in the thick of it with the other firefighters.
In addition to the extremely difficult, dangerous, and exhausting work, Manghirmalani said the journey to become a California firefighter creates a particularly strong bond.
“That’s why you see so much off-duty pride,” he said. “From apparel companies to firefighter bike clubs, it’s definitely synonymous with military careers. It’s awesome and it feels like a big family.”