Strength and Conditioning Programs for Wildland Firefighters

American River IHC Capt. Matt Holmstrom

matt_holmstrom_american_river2HF: How’d you get into fire?
MH: Pretty much by accident –  my dad did nearly thirty years in the Forest Service and I was raised on Forest Service compounds, but I almost didn’t get my foot in the door for the summer I graduated high school.  My dad had come home and mentioned that he thought there might be openings for temps – but that he wasn’t sure and that I couldn’t work for him anyways – (he was in timber).  I had been working in the summers since I was in middle school, but nothing steady, just lots of odd jobs clearing brush or running a chipper so I told him that I was definitely interested and asked about the application – it turned out it was due about four hours earlier at the Supervisors office thirty-odd miles away.

Luckily, they had another round of hiring and I was able to start work on the trail crew there.  When I told my dad, he asked how I was planning to get there every morning since my truck was unfinished (we had been building a ‘52 GMC together).  I figured I could ride with him, and said as much, but he interrupted to paraphrase the Forest Service Handbook on nepotism – “can’t do it –there can’t be ‘any appearance of impropriety. . .’”

So I walked most days for my first two seasons.

I had a similar start into the hotshot world – when I called around to talk to crews in the winter of that year I was told by one superintendent, who had been around forever, that he had ‘three or four thousand applicants for three or four jobs,’ and that, ‘I shouldn’t get my hopes up.’  I drew a big line through his crew but they were the first to call early that spring and I found out I was one of their first hires that year.

HF: When reviewing applicants over the winter, what do you look for in a candidate?
 The recruitment process that we use is pretty straightforward and simple.  Anyone who calls or writes to us we attempt to get in better contact with and we create a call log for them – this is a contact sheet that we can then track.  This way we know if someone who shows up on our hiring list had actually taken the time to call us, to maybe even visit us and get to know us.  It is a whole lot easier to hire someone you’ve actually had contact with than someone that is just a name.

When it comes to looking for candidates though, we look for several variables, one of the biggest being previous fire experience.  We can only hire two people a year with no fire experience, and it is unusual for us to hire any.  Most applicants have a couple seasons of fire time, some additional quals (EMT and chainsaw cert are both big), and can put together a decent enough application to both show up on AVUE and for us to be able to discern their background and references.  I think people would be amazed how many applicants we get who have never called us, don’t know who we are when we call to check interest, have a horrible application riddled with errors, or who have references who give them negative reviews.  These are the people we avoid.  As to the people we hire – we look for talent that has been proven, usually on other modules in fire, but these days also often from the military.  Also I enjoy an application that has obvious work put into it – it is a bit of an indicator of how bad someone wants a job.  If you cannot bother to spell-check, that says something about your desire.  Additionally, I like folks who have called us, met us, or who have otherwise attempted to help us know them.  The computer system only gets you so far, in my opinion, but when hiring someone that you will spend a significant amount of your daily life with and need to trust with some serious safety concerns, the intangibles that don’t go well on paper come into play.

HF: Tell us about American River’s strength and conditioning program.  What’s it like?
Our PT program is pretty standard as compared to other crews.  We mix a whole lot of running and hiking with calisthenics and strength training with warm-ups and stretching on a near daily basis.  There are times, because of fires or very special circumstances that PTs will be skipped, but that is the exception – days that we are not on fire usually begin with a warm-up run and stretch session, followed by a run and some body-weight exercises.  I am a big fan of pull-ups, push-ups and sit-ups, especially post-run.  I also love bump-runs where interval training can allow people to work together but still challenge themselves.  The other option is a crew hike, and we will sometimes change that up as well to provide some variety – ‘seeding’ the strongest hikers as a small group in the back to challenge them to beat their last time and to pursue and motivate the slower guys who started first.  Before we do any of that though the crew has to be able to complete our hill together in our minimum pace, and we keep grinding that on until we do.

One area that I think that crews have made a whole lot of improvement in is in the area of scaling.  In the past, if someone had an over training injury, it usually meant taking more ibuprofen and gutting it out, but now we attempt to tailor the PTs to allow for recovery while still getting a workout in.  This is a vast improvement, I think, because it allows people to rehab an injury, rather than work through it and cause potential damage long term.

HF: What do you do in the off-season to prepare for the upcoming season?
 I work out a whole lot, and am constantly trying to explore new ideas for fitness, whether different ideas for workouts, mapping new hikes and runs or coming up with a better way for people to mark their own progress and goals.  I am amazed every year at the new folks that show up – it might sound cliche but they seem to get younger and I seem to get older.  It takes a fair amount of work to still try and compete with the guys at the front of the pack.

A typical workout day might include anything from running to hiking to weightlifting, largely depending on the weather.  I have been working out lately using a mix of different body-weight and weight lifting to overload and fatigue rapidly.  Working out at a slow tempo can help clear the mind, such as a long slow distance run, but most days I’m busy enough that I like quick high intensity training, maybe followed by a more mellow session later in the day, whether a sport or a slow run or row.

HF: For some of our readers that are unfamiliar with the firefighting chain of command, could you talk a little bit about what the job of ‘Captain’ on a hotshot crew entails?
At this point in my career as a foreman/captain on a hotshot crew my job has a lot of variability.  On any given day I could be running with the crew in PTs to sitting behind a desk doing administrative work – the paper that is needed for the crew. When on fires I run my module of ten firefighters with lots of help from my squad leader and lead crewmembers.  This means that I am responsible for the safety, production, and logistics of the module and the crew with my partner and the superintendent, my boss.  This also means that I have to have a lot of faith and trust in my leads and squad leader, because I simply cannot be around for every single decision.  The good news is that I have some great people here, and it is extremely rare for me to disagree with their calls.  Because of that level of talent and trust, I am able to focus on other tasks, sometimes planning ahead, sometimes some small detail that needs work.

HF: Looking back on your career, tell me about the hardest shift you ever pulled.
MH: There have been a couple that put me back on my heels a bit.  Some were tough physically, others mentally and occasionally both.  The physical shifts were tough on the body – from multiple IA shifts with little or no sleep to breaking my tib/fib with a falling rock and deciding the best option was to limp out on it, but those weren’t the worst.

I’ve pulled people and sadly pieces of people from cars, trucks, airplanes and fire shelters and those were definitely the hardest shifts I’ve pulled.  They also aren’t the kind of days I like talking about – sorry.

HF: What keeps you coming back every season?
MH: I believe that public service is a good calling, and that in our current climate of obsession with money as a gauge for success some degree of that is lost.  I love my job because of the people I work with, the opportunity to make a difference in peoples lives, and the chance to matter just a little bit.  I find it extremely unlikely that anyone really cares if a cubicle dweller calls in sick, but I know that if a member of my crew is missing/sick/absent we are in for a much tougher day, and depending on circumstances it could really matter to a homeowner, or member of the general public.  I know I’ll never get rich doing this, and I don’t really know that I care to, but I love having a job that matters, a crew that acts like a family and a purpose for the things I do that goes beyond income.

HF: What advice do you give new hires on how to prepare physically for the season?
MH: Work harder than you think you need to – no one who is in this business for any length of time likes to see people gassed out because ‘they never thought it would be this hard.’  You need to be able to mentally overcome obstacles, or you won’t ever even attempt them physically.

As far as training goes I push for a mix of running and calisthenics, on par with what we do here daily.  Nothing too crazy, just lots of muscular endurance and mental strength.  Lots of folks show up and think that the job is about being big – but some of the guys who beat up on me in PT almost every day are the little guys who run a lot.  I’m right on the upper edge of size for this job – in my opinion – and one of the best things to remember when it comes to size is the saying – ‘you’ve got to carry your own engine.’  So with all that in mind I try hard to let folks know to push themselves before they even apply –  if you get hired and are attempting to get into shape in the first couple weeks you are possibly going to see a few things happen: 1- overtraining injuries caused by trying to do too much too soon; 2 – a lot of disappointment from the overhead who took the time to hire you; 3 – a crew that improves together, gets stronger and leaves you behind.

HF: Got any good stories about epic FAILs for rookies?
 Cannot answer – per media relations-regional office

HF: Grossest thing you’ve ever seen a guy eat?
 Cannot answer – per media relations-regional office

HF: You’ve spent almost your entire career on a hotshot crew – what is it about a hotshot crew that keeps you from going elsewhere?
 I like having a job that matters, even if only for that day.  I am a realist and I know that the forest that is ‘devastated’ one summer looks amazing just few years later, but I like to believe that we make a small difference every day.  Sometimes on really good days it is in saving someone’s home, sometimes it is protecting a small corner of forest but it always seems to add up to a tangible benefit.  I do like the fact that hotshot time is often used as the measuring stick in folks careers – like, ‘I was with such and such Hotshots from 87-94,’ or whatever – the years spent elsewhere are somehow harder to remember – at least for me.

HF: Favorite MRE entrée?
 Probably the toughest question in the interview to answer seriously – although they have gotten a whole lot better in recent years, they still get passed over in favor of just about anything else.  I personally like collecting some of the miscellaneous items (leftovers) and mixing them together in some pretty odd combinations – it might take awhile to save up for a meal of chicken fajitas with rice, beans, and tortillas, but its better than gutting down the eggs cold.  I try hard to stock up and eat lots of other stuff – oatmeal in the morning, snacks (nuts, jerky, dried fruit) through-out the day, and vitamins to balance out the MRE only diet – but it gets real tough.  At a certain point it just becomes fuel, and the niceties of ‘fresh’ are no longer a possibility.  It just makes the ‘real’ food all the better when you get back to it.

HF: What’s the best piece of advice, or mentoring you’ve been given?
Character counts, do what is right even when no one notices, or maybe especially when no one notices.  If it is the right thing to do – you shouldn’t be conflicted about it – make your stand for something or you’ll break off for anything.
I’ve been given lots of advice over the years but I guess my favorite was from my dad (though I clearly haven’t learned to follow it) –‘Better to keep your mouth shut and have people think you’re damn fool than open your mouth to prove it.’

HF: You’re a ferocious reader – what are you currently reading?  Best book on fire?  Best non-fire book every firefighter should read?
Currently I’m reading a few books – Norman Davies’ Europe covers that continent’s history from the Ice Age to the Cold War and is pretty impressive, though sometimes a bit thin in some areas.  It’s a massive undertaking though, and the author doesn’t pretend to cover everything with the depth you might find elsewhere – it is simply a huge one-volume history.  I’m also reading Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell (DVD) which is also amazing, but very sad and inspirational – about a battle in Afghanistan in which most of a SEAL team was killed.  I’ve also been picking my way through a few others, but I think you get the picture.  I generally read at least two books at a time, and sometimes many, many more.

As far as the ‘best book on fire’ I might argue for Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire by John N. Maclean, though it was definitely one of the toughest to read.  While I didn’t like all the conclusions drawn from it, I do feel that like any of the Maclean books, it filled a void in our understanding of what went on, and hopefully raised awareness past the standard training videos to something much better.  Jumping Fire, Young Men and Fire, and Fire and Ashes are all excellent as well.

The best non-fire books that I think everyone in fire should read would probably be quite the list, so for now I will limit myself to just a few-
First (and best) would be Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales.  It is extremely well organized with a great lay-out that switches between real-life stories of survival and the human/brain/body connections that literally separate those who usually live from those who usually die.  I know it taught me about human stress reactions and how to recognize serious decision making errors at or near the inception rather than when things are sideways, and it revealed how fallible humans really are.
I would also recommend Blink by Malcom Gladwell which digs a bit deeper into the human brain and how we develop mental ‘slides’ that train us how to react in certain situations.  This is critical in firefighting – being able to know, not guess, but know that something is unsafe without really being sure why.
As far as physical training goes Born to Run by Chistopher McDougall has gotten very popular around here and I am a big fan as well.  The discussion is again broken up between a narrative of the author’s journey and the science behind the story.  I know for myself it helped to understand some ideas about running that were previously only curiosities – persistence hunting, ultra-marathons, the Tarahumara, etc.
For the fiction fans I loved Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield, just a great action story with some excellent motivation and history.

HF: What are your training hikes like?
We’ve got a couple that follow either the Western States trail system or come up hard out of the American River canyon, but come out sometime and we’ll show them to you.

HF: Captain Holmstrom – Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. Stay safe!

1 Comment

  1. SONNY MONTGOMEY Author July 18, 2016 (5:39 pm)



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