Why Hotshots are the Biggest, Baddest Wildfire Crews Ever
The tragic Carr Fire plaguing Northern California, not to mention the dozens of other large fires actively blazing across the U.S., shows that fire season, as the U.S. Forest Service warns, is a year-round issue no longer contained to certain months in a few regions.
On August 9, as the Carr Fire ballooned to more than 177,000 acres, the National Interagency Coordination Center Incident Management Situation Report numbered the active uncontained large fires across the U.S. at 56, including 5 “new large incidents.”
The calls go out to all available agencies during the hottest and driest summer months, but no crews are more elite than the Hotshot crews. The United States’ best of the best wildfire warriors are in a class by themselves in terms of dangerous exposure and rigorous fitness standards.
Hotshot crews go back decades in the fire suppression battle, toughing out the hardest sections of a fire’s reach while displaying the fastest speed to cut through firelines in notoriously remote and rugged terrain accessible mostly – and perilously – by foot. The term “Hotshot,” after all, refers to the hottest part of the fire where these crews work.
There was no greater example of bravery and sacrifice than Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew. Granite Mountain lost 19 of its fighters in the summer of 2013 while they fought the Yarnell Hill Fire in the deadliest wildland blaze for U.S. firefighters since 1993. The tragedy was chronicled in the 2017 Columbia Pictures feature film “Only The Brave.”
A 2013 Congressional Report showed there are 110 interagency Hotshot Crews in action at any given time. The Forest Service in 2017 revealed Hotshot crews on average spent 103 days assigned to fires, drove more than 56,000 miles to incidents, and averaged treating better than 1,800 acres through prescribed burning, mechanical thinning and other means.
But that’s all just when the crews actually get to a scene.
They’re able to get there at all because they are elite for a reason.
A 20-person Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHCs) — the most highly trained, skilled, and experienced type of handcrews – must be able to run 1.5 miles in a time of 10:35 or less, do 40 sit-ups in 60 seconds or less, 25 push-ups in 60 seconds or less, and gut out chin-ups based on body weight (four chin-ups for 170+ pounds down to seven chin-ups for those less than 110 pounds). The ground crew must also carry four chainsaws with fuel, hand tools, required overnight gear, and drinking water and food for 48 hours. Oh, and the only specifics call for Hotshots to be available for incidents “with no geographic restrictions.” Translation: the terrain is too remote and rough for vehicles, so hiking in toward a blaze is all that’s left.
Hey, that’s nothing new.
An extensive 2013 report produced by the National Interagency Hotshot Crew Steering Committee has some wild stories to tell.
Physical training during the early years of the Sawtooth National Forest (Idaho) crew, which dates to 1966, was rigorous. They did about 40 minutes of calisthenics that finished with a run (in boots) for about three-fourths of a mile, culminating in a hill climb where crewmembers frequently experienced “type 3” nausea. The Prineville (Oregon) Hotshot crew currently runs between 3-6 miles at various venues, often out in the field, especially where there are hills, according to the report. Weight training is also big.
The Wolf Creek Interagency Hotshot Crew (Oregon) started a Hell Week program to separate the Hotshots from the rest. The students’ first day consisted of a 1.5-mile run before lunch and a 10.5-mile run after lunch. Day two started with stretches and calisthenics followed by 15 miles up the scenic Thunder Mountain Road. Days three and four consisted of lots of digging fireline around control burn units with little rest and little food in order to simulate fire conditions.
The wildest experience of all may come from the Fulton Hotshot Crew out of Glennville, California, who, in 1973 while battling the Pillikan Fire, apparently pulled five straight 24-hour shifts.
And once crews are actually out there, it isn’t just the fires that challenge but the terrain.
The Kings River Hotshots, organized on the Sierra National Forest in 2001, patrol elevation ranging from 1,300 feet at the lowest point to 12,400 feet in Kings Canyon Nation Park. The Ft. Apache Hotshot Crew’s home base, in Whiteriver, Arizona, features crew personnel from the White Mountain Apache Tribe who cover a reservation area of 1.6 million acres with a lower elevation of 3,000 feet and upper elevation of 11,000 feet on Mt. Baldy, the tribe’s Sacred Mountain.
“With firefighting there’s a certain amount of toughness and resiliency that you need to have if you’re going to succeed and thrive and actually enjoy what you’re doing,” CC Ma, a medical student and crew member of the Sawtooth National Forest Hot Shots, said in a 2017 Forest Service video, “especially on a Hotshot crew.”
This summer has been particularly bad for wildfires, especially in California. The Carr fire in Redding has already claimed the lives of 8 people and burned hundreds of thousands of acres.