Text and photos by Chris Ives
Fire moves through diverse landscapes on all corners of the earth, from the Siberian tundra to the African savanna, the pinelands of North America, to the Australian bush. As humans, we are destined to live with fire whether we choose to or not, and as a result there will be people who devote their working lives to solving the unique problem of managing fire.
In the United States, we have a well-developed fire fighting force with over 100 years of experience and 100 years of mistakes from which we are constantly learning. In the late 1940’s, the first hotshot crews were formed in southern California as a result of a need for a more professional standing firefighting force. It is said that the term “Hotshot” was derived as a result of these well-trained crews being deployed to the hottest parts of the fires on which they were serving. In the following decades these programs developed and became more standardized.
Today, there are over 100 Type 1 Interagency Hotshot Crews in the United States. These crews are made up of 18 to 22 individuals who are mostly temporary seasonal and permanent seasonal employees. During a typical six month long fire season, hotshot crews will respond to dozens of fires working 1,000 hours or more of overtime. The typical schedule while on fire assignment consists of 16 hour of work each day for 14 or even 21 successive days, after which they are given 2 or 3 days off to recover before returning to on-call status for fire assignments.
These fire assignments require long days of digging a fireline, cutting trees and brush, and burning off vegetation to stop the spread of fire, and putting out or “mopping up” fire that has been contained, all of this often in a country that is too steep or remote to send other resources. Sometimes there are days of staging, waiting for the next assignment or for the fire behavior to change and allow crews to safely engage the fire. These days when you are left with your thoughts can be just as taxing or exhausting as the days of high physical demand.
Much of the work of the hotshot is not glorious, many of the crewmembers joke that when there is a fire that requires a lot of suffering, they call a hotshot crew. Despite the rigorous work schedule, demanding physical labor, and long periods of separation from family and friends, there is a strong bond and sense of achievement that forms on these crews because of what they have had to endure.