Hot shots in cool job

Group of wildland firefighters reunite for training, await next call

Spring is in the air.

And for some young men and women, thoughts turn to fighting fires across the nation.

advertisement

That is the mission of the wildland firefighters known as Hot Shots, a firefighting contingency that shows up each summer to battle fires across the country.

Hot Shots crews are made up of highly trained and physically fit men and women who are on call. They get a one-hour notice before leaving town for an extended period of time.

They fall under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of the Interior.

The Craig Hot Shots have been back together for two weeks, going through 80 hours of training in fire suppression and standard operation guidelines before they officially go on call Sunday evening.

Senior firefighter Justin Law said the group of 20 firefighters is awaiting a call from the Rocky Mountain Coordination Center in Denver.

"We are a national resource and go wherever they need us," he said. "Last year we went on about 10 incidents in Montana, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming."

The Hot Shots are not limited to assignments in the western U.S. Two years ago the crews were sent to Louisiana to help deal with Hurricane Katrina, as well as the Florida fires.

Crews are trained with each member having expertise on a specific tool. That "tool-order" stays with the crews throughout the season, with squads lining up in order, even for dinner, Law said.

There are the saws, the Polaskis and the scrape tools. When the Hot Shots break into squads, each squad boss knows the number of tools and the ability of the squad to fight fires.

Shawn Telford, superintendent of the Craig Hot Shots, oversees three squads with the help of a foreman and three senior firefighters.

There are 90 Hot Shots crews in the U.S. with 50 of them stationed in southern California.

The San Juan Hot Shots crew from Colorado currently is in Kansas aiding tornado victims.

This weekend will be the last taste of freedom for the Craig crew. Sunday night, they officially go on call, and must be ready to leave within one hour after receiving the page.

"Our stuff is already on the trucks," Law said. "When you show up you have your pants and red bag. A bag with two-weeks of socks and underwear."

Craig Hot Shots head for the fire with the supervisor in the lead vehicle, followed by two crew buggies and a chase vehicle. Crew buggies hold seven firefighters in back and a driver and squad boss up front.

"It's an exciting job, helping out around the country," Law said. "We're doing a good thing, traveling around and putting out fires."

Squad Boss Kevin Thompson enjoys his job so much that last winter, when relieved from firefighting duty in the U.S., he went to Australia with a crew to fight fires there.

"It was their worst fire season since 2003, which was the first time the U.S. sent ground forces," Thompson said. "It was really different. We worked for the State of Victoria on a 2-million-acre fire with 100 firefighters. In the U.S. there would have been thousands. They use a lot more dozers in Australia."

Working seven days on and two off, Thompson and the American crew spent 33 days from late January to late February fighting fires Down Under.

In the United States, the BLM, U.S, Forest Service and other agencies needing assistance can call the crews to action.

Because of travel time, Hot Shots crews usually arrive after the initial attack on the fire has been made, Law said. Due to their level of training, Hot Shots are given more complex assignments and left to work on their own, with internal supervision.

Crews on the fireline for 14 days are required to take two days off for safety reasons. That time often is spent traveling, heading home from the fire.

Many crewmembers are single and live in the barracks in Craig. Married members live at home when in town, but are gone for week-long periods each summer as fire season heats up.

A great camaraderie is developed in the crews, Law said. With members helping each other through tough situations.

Usually, the first day of October ends the season for Hot Shots crews, unless fires keep them working longer.

Off-season, most crew members go back to being students, Emergency Medical Technicians and ski-area employees.

Some take vacations, and some winter jobs. Most are athletes in some form, and all of them stay in shape for the next fire season.

"The main thing is we're proud to be here in Craig," Law said. "We represent the town and the BLM the best we can."

Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext.207, or dolsen@craigdailypress.com

Commenting has been disabled for this item.