Firefighters are some of the bravest people around - willing to charge into incredibly dangerous and often painful situations in an attempt to save their fellow man from harm. Hotshot firefighting crews participate in specific training to deal with, and respond to, wild fires in remote locations. Used primarily in an attempt to hold back complex wildfires, hotshots are the emergency service operators that work in some of the roughest situations - usually with little to no logistical support.
Hotshot crews are often seen as the elite "special forces" of the firefighting world, capable of meeting the highest possible standards of physical skill and performance. In general, hotshots are required to pass grueling tests and complete a wide range of physical activities before they are considered. These challenges, known as the "Pack Test" can include tasks such as a three mile hike carrying a 45 pound pack in 45 minutes.
Becoming a Hotshot
Although working as a hotshot may seem to some like becoming a kind of firefighter celebrity, it's important to remember hotshot firefighting requires rigorous mental and physical training. Hotshot firefighters must push themselves to the limit day after day to ensure that they will be able to perform at optimum level within any location, under any circumstances. This career is one that requires long hours, dedication, and commitment to the most demanding of firefighting tasks, consistently exposing firefighters to the most extreme environmental conditions.
Hotshot firefighters work throughout America, and are comprised of a selection of groups containing twenty people each. These crews are scattered throughout the United States, and during peak wildfire season, they remain on call all hours of the day, every day of the week. To prepare for dealing with grueling conditions, hotshots regularly practice dropping into remote destinations and going on incredibly long hikes in extreme weather. It's agonizing and exhausting work, which some hotshot firefighters describe as "the best and worst job I've ever had".
Hotshot firefighters must work with only the equipment that they are capable of carrying by hand. This means that even in huge and terrifying situations, these professionals can't use things like bulldozers to make the job easier. Instead, hotshots need to rely on teamwork to get them through each mission safely. The crews figure out as a group how they will:
- Get into an area
- Set up a safe camping location
- Construct fire lines to contain a blaze
- Dig trenches for security
Working like a machine, these incredible groups act in tandem, clearing brush away from encroaching fires, and constructing new lines. How did the concept of hotspot firefighting come into existence? What sparked the idea for elite crews capable of such tough, trying, and necessary work?
Before the 1930s, crews responsible for wildland firefighting emerged as-needed. The individuals in these crews generally had no experience or formal training at all, but they worked together to manage a difficult situation all the same. The Civilian Conservation Corps—known by some as Roosevelt's Tree Army—were known best for planting trees to ensure that the forests continued to thrive. Their job also included working to prevent or fight back against forest fires. The CCC operated from 1933-1942, and was a work relief program to employ young men and create new jobs. As they were used for fire suppression operations, the development of the CCC marked the first time ever that standing crews had ever been established for this particular purpose.
Perhaps the very first, or indeed one of the first hotshot crews to ever carry the name, formed in a former CCC camp in Southern California. The sources for the year when this group was established vary, with some suggesting it was earlier than 1948, and closer to 1946, however the true date hasn’t been determined completely. This particular hotshot group coined the name: the "Los Padres Hotshots", and the crew was comprised of 35 crewmembers, offering 24/7 coverage until 1965.
In the late 1950s, the Cleveland National Forest gained its first hotshot crew called the El Cariso Hotshots. In 1961, the group tested an early fire shelter design, and at the same time, the Interregional Fire Suppression Program became a reality. This system—known as the IRFS—established 6 crews of thirty men across the West of the United States, close to airports so that they might have quick and immediate transportation to fires with the highest priority levels. Due to their value and effectiveness when it came to fire management, the IRFS program grew to 19 crews by 1974.
In 1976, history changed again when the very first woman joined the ranks of a hotshot crew known as the Los Prietos Hotshots. The woman's name was Deanne Shulman, and later in her impressive career she also grew to become the very first smokejumper in 1981.
Eventually, the firefighters that were once part of IRFS crews adopted the term "interagency hotshot crew" or simply "hotshot crew". When the mid-1990s arrived, a guide of operations was developed to help standardize the course of training that firefighters would have to pass to emerge as hotshots.
Hotshot firefighters and interagency hotshot crews are the result of more than seven decades of organized experience in fire suppression and firefighting. Starting from their roots within the Civilian Conservation Corps, to the elite groups organized throughout America today, hotshot crews are the firefighters that work within the hottest part of the fire, dealing with the most complex and dangerous circumstances.
Over the years, many hotshot firefighters have been placed in dire and sometimes fatal situations, such as the terrible blaze that killed 19 firefighters in Arizona. These tragedies make it all the more amazing to think about what each of these individuals risk on a daily basis.
How do you feel about hotshot firefighting? Does it seem like something that you would want to do?
*US Forest Service photo/Kari Greer (Creative Commons license)