Gypsy firefighters: Hotshots travel the country saving lives
They say they are summer vagabonds, gypsies, on the ultimate camping trip. Some will tell you they are trying to save the planet, while others mention they are earning money for college.
It’s a childhood fantasy come true or a family affair for a few. Most are in for several seasons before moving to easier, more comfortable jobs, giving their young bodies and already old, perhaps ruined knees a rest. The men and women get up when they’re told to, toil 16 hours or more a day when needed and work until told to bed down to do the same thing the next day. With pride and patience they spell out their names, share a joke, explain their job and their attraction to it. They are drawn to the excitement of the front line and the voracious flames, or the freedom of being outside. Or, it was this or homework.
That’s how it was and how it is for Jared McElhannon, one of the 20 members of the Eldorado Interagency Hotshot Crew, an elite group of wildland firefighters stationed out of the Eldorado National Forest’s Placerville Ranger District in Camino, Calif., and battling the Martis Fire since it began June 17.
McElhannon, 22, started fighting fires as a 16-year-old when a family friend staying with him and his brother gave the boys a choice: come with him to a volunteer firefighting course at the fire station, or do their homework. When Jared turned 18 after two years as a volunteer explorer, he went straight to the hotshots.
Last Thursday afternoon the lanky four-year crew veteran and company were lighting backfires for a containment line in Murphy Meadows, near the California/ Nevada border, where two nights before the burning slopes lit up like San Francisco hills on a moonless night, smoke pouring over the mountains like rolling ocean fog.
It’s the danger and the beauty that provide a certain romance to the work and life of a hotshot, a romance that charms him or her to return one fire season after another, to travel around the country, one fire to the next.
As an interagency unit, full-time hotshot crews, which currently total around 70 nationwide, not only go to the hottest spot of the fire, helping with the initial attack operations, they also work scratch lines and reduce fuels in burnout operations, often at high altitudes and with long approaches. They work the remote areas, in steep, rocky and smoky terrain. For these reasons, a minimum of 80 percent of any crew must have at least one year of firefighting experience, so this is not an outfit for the green. Their intensive and continuous training is varied enough that they can be assigned to any phase of the fire and also be called in for other natural disasters like floods and hurricanes.
Self-sufficient for the most part, hotshots, in addition to a chain saw, shovel or a Pulaski – a long-handled combination axe and hoe – carry what they need in hip packs (backpacks can put a strain on crew members and inhibit movement when swinging a tool), including water, food (Meals, Ready-to-Eat, or MREs), fuel, fusees (explosives for backfires, especially in brush) and other basic necessities. The teams, known as a type-one hand crew, spend the entire season together, some for several fire seasons, training, conditioning and learning in the classroom when not out fighting.
“The crews are so tight, it’s the ultimate camping trip,” said McElhannon.
Dee Dee Hannon, 32, agrees with her crew member. Moreover, she said, “we work in some of the most beautiful places.” Hannon joined the crew in 1994 after being with the forest service for five years. As hotshots make $10 to $15 an hour excluding overtime, hazard pay and other supplements, she joined to make money for college.
“She’s the best basket weaver I know,” said Todd Moore about Hannon’s college experience. The blond 30-year-old is working his third season as a hotshot. He joined because of the action and because of his “save the planet mentality.”
The hotshot crew, which takes its name from its members being in the hottest part of the fire, has always been about action and preservation. Although some hotshot crews originated in Southern California on the Cleveland and Angeles national forests in the 1940s, the national program, according to Steve Karkanen, chair of the National Interagency Hotshot Crew Steering Committee, formally began in the 1960s when a need for quick-reacting crews – they must be able to mobilize within two hours of getting orders – was recognized.
The Eldorado hotshots, now one of 22 crews in California, formed in 1981 after precursors in the Eldorado National Forest joined together. Current Superintendent Mike Beckett has been with the unit off-and-on since its inception. Beckett, 39, has fought fires for 22 years, starting after high school because logging wasn’t paying the bills. Reticent about his own experiences, the paternal Beckett spoke fondly of his crew, alternating between jokes about the group’s comedian – Moore – and serious talk on the exhausting demands of the work.
“I guarantee they’ve lost weight the past four days,” said Beckett last Thursday evening. “There’s a fatigue factor. You can mitigate a lot of the fire, but to keep them going, they need food and water. They drink two to three gallons of water a day.”
But, Beckett added, the crews train and prepare for such conditions and situations. When not out fighting the hot edge of the fire – often for two to three weeks at a time – “we do two 2 1/2 hour sessions each day of physical fitness,” he said.
On the opposite, cold edge of the fire is the mop-up crew, those responsible for the “search and destroy” aspect of the blaze, putting out the smoldering embers, scanning for spot fires. These crews also do rehabilitation work, concentrating on covering up the scratch (bulldozer and hand crew) lines and confronting one of the biggest aftereffects of the fire – erosion.
“Clean-up is the most tedious part of the fire,” said Jim Lundergreen, strike team leader for mop-up. “Everyone likes the flames and water,” said Lundergreen. “With this job, either you love it or hate it. If you don’t like it, you only do it once.”
And working the mop-up, just as they worked the initial attack, are the engine crews.
“We’re creating a buffer zone – to stop the fire from coming out,” said Brad Medvin, stationed out of the Lassen National Forest, though as his boss Steve Diaz said, “Where we’re from is kind of like what day is it today?”
Generally manned by four firefighters at a time, an engine crew is responsible for running hose lays for mop-ups where two firefighters work together, one exposing embers with a hand tool, the other spraying water with a hose. Monday afternoon, Medvin, an engine captain in training, along with his engine crew and a mop-up team from the Cleveland National Forest were working on a section east of Murphy Meadows. Assisted by an intermittent rain that provided some relief, Diaz, engine captain for Medvin’s outfit and a firefighter for 25 years, said this fire was not like others.
“There’s no such thing as a run of the mill fire, but for this time of year this is a very active fire,” said Diaz.
Diaz’s crew was on Day 8 Monday and expected to be on site through Tuesday. Working 14-day cycles, where to next was a question Diaz couldn’t answer.
“Every day is a new adventure,” said Diaz.
Adventure or rehabilitation, the diligence and grunt work of the firefighters is apparent. The signs of life are already returning. Birds chirp from burned branch perches. A mop-up crew saw a sow black bear and her two cubs lumber through the woods not more than 200 feet from where they worked. Mountain lion tracks were spotted by several crews. And with time, the forest will move on, past this fire, though with the scars to prove it.
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