Tools of the Trade

Hotshot crews provide everything a crew member needs except for boots. As of last year, the Forest Service provides a boot stipend for firefighters to buy boots, but since size and preference are so diverse, it is up to individuals to figure out which boots to buy.

The requirements for wildland fire boots are that they have leather uppers, Vibram soles, and are at least eight inches tall from the ground. From there, you have to figure out what sort of boot is right for you.

Just like in the Army, taking care of your feet is crucial for hotshot crews. If your feet hurt, you are going to have a shitty day, no matter what you’re doing. Conversely, even in you are having your ass kicked, if your feet feel nice, fucking good for you. Wear good wool socks, if they work for you, and change them at least every other day. Clean between your toes at least every other day. Use foot powder and anti-fungal ointments. Cut your fucking toenails. That’s about it for personal hygiene. Take care of your feet. The rest is about boot selection, matching the right boots to the job.

Logger boots: Whites brand logger boots are probably the gold-standard for the logger boot style. They are roughly $425/pair, made of good quality leather, with a tall heel that helps for navigating steep terrain. Logger boots are probably the best boot for wildland fire, especially if you are on a saw team. They can handle heat without falling apart. They breathe better than other styles, which is nice when you’re going without a shower for several weeks. They are wicked heavy, but that’s only an issue if you are doing flutterkicks or pull-ups. Suck it up. Breaking them in can be painful (White-bite), but once they are broken in, I’ve found them to be very comfortable until they’re worn out. I usually get about a season and a half to two seasons out of a pair of Whites. The soles wear down, and the heel gets uneven, leaving me scrambling for footing and walking in a way which irritates my knees. A new sole rebuild costs about $150 and a full rebuild is $250, which is a great option not available for other types of boots. I have never had my Whites rebuilt, so I have three pairs sitting in my locker, too worn out to use but with too much life in them to throw away. One of these days I’ll send them in for some love. Other brands of logger boots that I would recommend are Nicks and Drews. Whites have not had the greatest quality craftsmanship in the last few years, so some guys are buying Nicks for about the same price. Drews are considerably cheaper than Whites and Nicks, and seem to hold up just as well. Do not buy Redwings. Do not buy Hawthorns. Do not be a cheap asshole. Your feet deserve better.

Hiking boots: If you’re going to be walking a lot, hiking around, scouting, exploring, and doing various other overhead shit, then hiking boots might be the best option. Sometimes I walk fifteen miles in a shift, and hiking boots support my feet better on long hikes than logger boots do. They are comfortable right out of the box and break in quickly, becoming even more comfortable. They are less expensive than logger boots. They are also less durable. The worst thing about hiking boots is that they don’t breathe very well. Your feet will be all white and wrinkly if you’re sweating a lot, which you probably will be. Big fires happen when and where it is hot and dry. Your feet will stink like cat piss, and athlete’s foot flourishes in these boots. Worth it? I think so… I’m currently using a pair of Scarpa Fuegos, and I like them a lot. They have a good reputation for durability and seem to handle the heat just fine, although I avoid stepping in hot shit if possible. I have worn out three or four pairs of La Sportivas over the years, and can no longer recommend them. The old glacier boot from Sportiva could not handle the heat. Step in some hot ash and your soles would come apart, delaminate. You’re pretty much fucked if your sole comes off, and even if it’s a partial delamination, you end up with a bunch of dirt in your boot which cakes up and causes blisters. It sucks. Sportiva created the WLF specifically for wildland fire, with a glue that is supposed to hold up to heat. I used a pair for a few weeks last season and half of this season, and all the rubber on the toe of my left boot came off. Fuck. A lot of guys used to wear Lowas, but I don’t see as many these days. I’d say they’re a decent option, but they didn’t work for my feet. I got too much heel-lift on uphill hikes and got some gnarly blisters. Haix has a new, cheap option, running at about $185/pair. They are lightweight. They are comfortable, but don’t expect to get more than one average season out of them. Actually, don’t expect to get more than one season out of any hiking boot. I am hoping to get two seasons out of my Scarpas, and I know a few guys who have used the same pair for three seasons, but those guys are cheap fuckers and I care about my feet too much to wear shitty worn-out boots.

Basically, expect to spend a couple hundred dollars a year on boots. If you are an incoming rookie, and not sure if you’ll stick with wildland fire, maybe buy some Haix. If you are on a crew and intending to stay on crews, working on a saw team and/or doing mostly grunt work, logger boots are probably the best bet. You probably already have a pair. Good quality hiking boots like Scarpas can perform just as well as logger boots and are less expensive, but your feet will reek (just ask my wife). There is no perfect boot, or at least, I haven’t yet found the perfect boot. Boot selection is a three-way balance between price, durability, and comfort.

Take care of your feet.

That is all.

The Basics

We never really know what to expect when we roll up to a fire, but over the years I’ve learned that reality will almost always be less exciting than my imagination. I’ve learned that taking the time to create a good safe plan is critical. A hasty plan will often fail, leading to wasted effort and possibly injuries or fatalities. Making measured decisions and taking calculated risks are how we define our tactics and ensure that everyone leaves the fire line safely. Remembering basic firefighting strategy can keep you safe when your adrenaline pushes you to beeline to the hottest part of the fire and kick some ass.

“Keep one foot in the black.”

Avoid “unburned fuel between you and the fire.”

Be cognizant of and cautious of “light, flashy fuels” like grass.

Yesterday, I was leading my squad in to the West Antelope fire thinking about those rules. My assignment, as I understood it, was to park as close to the fire as possible and hike a straight line to the fire’s edge, roughly a thousand feet in elevation up. The fuels were dry grass which burns much faster than we could run, especially upslope with some wind behind it. A straight line would have taken us through a sea of continuous unburned grass. I couldn’t even see the fire from where we parked, due to terrain obstruction. I had seen the fire from a few miles away and during the drive in, until the hills got in the way, and fire activity seemed minimal. Planes were dumping retardant along the fire perimeter and several helicopters were working hot spots with bucket drops. Still, I walked the squad along a road down low and then up to the top through the black. It probably took us ten minutes longer to get there but there wasn’t much work to do anyway. We secured a section of fire line that was hung up in broken rock along the ridge, double checked our work, and monitored it for the rest of the shift.

To be clear, I’m not sure if I was expected to walk through the green or not, because I didn’t ask anyone. I just stuck with the basics and did what I knew was safe. Having seen the fire, I would have felt comfortable walking through the unburned grass, and that’s the route we would have taken today if we’d gone back up. I have to wonder if I just misunderstood the route I was asked to take. I also wonder how many times people have incorrectly followed orders blindly, putting themselves in an unsafe position.

In wildland firefighting, if you have questions or need clarification, ask. If you see an unsafe act or conditions that could hurt or kill someone, say something. Ultimately, don’t do anything stupidly unsafe, even if it’s a direct order. (Be prepared to explain why you are turning down the assignment and offer alternative options, but don’t rush headlong into something foolish just because you’re told to.)

Be careful not to cross the very thin line between badass and dumbass.

That is all.

Legend of the Grizzly

We spent most of our last roll in Wyoming, on the Cliff Creek Fire, just South of Jackson. We were spiked out the whole time, in two different camps. Spiking out means you are not getting meals and supplies at the main camp. Spike camps vary a lot. The first camp had food supplies in hot buckets, which are five gallon buckets full of whatever is being served at the main camp. We had mostly everything available that we would usually need. Our second spike camp was more remote and spartan. We flew in on a helicopter and ate MREs for dinner and breakfast most days. They flew us lunches and flew out our trash every morning.

Trash was a big concern because we were in grizzly bear country. The importance of keeping a clean camp was stressed at our first briefing and throughout our stay. We had three cans of bear spray, which is not a guarantee that you won’t get chewed up if a bear is pissed at you, so the main approach was to simply not attract them to our area.

On our last day spiked out in a the back country, a lookout from a different crew had a grizzly encounter when one came up sniffing at his lunch from 35 feet away and was acting very interested and somewhat aggressive. If he wasn’t aggressive, he certainly was not afraid. He was hungry. That night they flew us in hot buckets full of stinky baked halibut. Nice…

We all went to sleep that night thinking about bears. Around 11:30 PM someone heard some rustling in the bushes. He alerted a few others, who also heard the movements of a big animal in the brush just outside of our sleeping area. Not cool. There was much shouting at the bear to fuck off. There was much fearing that the bear would not fuck off, but would fuck us up in instead. I slept through that episode on the other side of camp, oblivious.

*I should explain something about hotshot crews, and fire crews in general: Not everyone on the crew is what you would call backwoods savvy. Fire experience and tactical know-how we can teach, and city kids are usually as proficient with chainsaws and fire science as any other rookie after a few years, but knowledge of nature, animals, and how to move with the terrain are things that take a little longer to develop. We’ve had a guy on the crew who couldn’t sleep because he was afraid of coyotes. Not everyone on the crew grew up in the woods, hunting, hiking and camping. So, the more timorous members of our group, the less experienced, were the ones bunched around the campfire, shouting at bears.

I woke up at 2:30 AM when someone on my side of camp started yelling at the bear. “Hey! Hey! Get out of here!” I woke up confused, and asked him what it was. He told me he thought there was a bear not far off in the bushes. I got up and shined my headlamp around, didn’t see anything, and laid back down. Short of blasting a grizzly with a high-powered rifle, your best bet in an attack is to play dead and hope it goes away before you are actually dead. Going back to sleep seemed like a pretty good option. But, then, I had to shit. Urgently.

There was no way I was getting back to sleep without taking a dump first. Then someone nearby started shouting at bears again. That wasn’t helping with the slumbers either. So, fuck it, I got dressed, grabbed my tool and went in search of toilet paper. Found the paper, heard some movement, saw some eyes glowing in the sagebrush, climbed up on a bear-box to get a better look… It was a goddamn deer. A mule deer doe that gave zero fucks. I walked over to where it had been harassing us from, to verify that there was not a ravenous grizzly bear there also, found a good flat, brush-free area, dug a hole, and took an amazing shit.

Then I went back to sleep. I told a few people that it had just been a deer and that I’d actually seen it, but some of the guys slept in a huddle by the campfire for the rest of the night. Apparently they missed the memo.

We all hiked out the next day, having never actually seen a bear in “grizzly country.”

That is all.

Long/Fast Winter

This off-season has been intense. I managed to find myself a front desk gig again to avoid layoff. The agreement was that I would be available to help out with prescribed fires, but there weren’t many opportunities. So I spent my Fall and Winter selling firewood permits, xmas tree permits, and America the Beautiful park passes. I also answered hundreds of phone calls about popular attractions on our forest and road closure questions. Overall, it was a decent way to spend my time.

The other guy working the front desk was cool. He has two kids and enjoys skiing and mountain biking, so we always had plenty to talk about when we weren’t busy. I also took some classes this Winter, which kept me busy studying during down times in my office job. It was almost like a work study position.

I’m taking an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) course and Fire 1&2, which is a class required for structure firefighting. Between the two classes, I’ve got roughly a 24 credit course load going on, so the time allowed for studying at work was a huge help. I’m laid off for two weeks now, taking care of the kids and house, and my study time has taken a big hit already. It will be ok though.

It’s been nice hanging out with Mica more. He’ll be 2 years old in July, and he’s a pretty cool little turd. We’re developing a routine. I drop off his big sister at school and then we run errands til 1000 or so. We get home, he gets a snack and maybe a wrestling session and then it’s nap time at 1100. After only three days he knows the deal. Then I wake him up at 1400 if he’s not awake already and we go get his other sister from preschool. Sitter shows up at 1630 or so and then I go to class til 2130.

Big days, but we’re all getting by.

Fire season is going to feel like vacation.

I’m looking forward to going back to the crew, classes over, just drive a day or two, check in to whatever incident, and go to work.

Simple.

That is all.

Phillips Creek Fire

Today is our fourth shift on the Phillips Creek Fire, in Oregon, on the Umatilla national forest and private land. Things are going well on our division, using a combination of dozer line and hand line to bring fire down to roads on both sides of a major ridge via sub ridges.

Putting in the line was a big day for the crew. Everyone worked hard for most of the shift after a slower morning. I got assigned to dozer boss and got to take one of the guys from my squad as trainee. We walked the proposed ridge, talked with the scouts and leadership on my crew who were walking the fire’s edge on the next ridge to the northwest, and started pushing line.

The dozer operation went well, and we pushed a contingency line on the next ridge as well. My trainee did a great job. It was good that his first shift with heavy equipment involved some extensive scouting and let him see the capabilities and limitations of dozers and the operators. An experienced operator can do things with his machine that make me nervous, but they seem to always know when quit. The line reached a point were it dropped off too steeply to go any farther and still be able to track back out. Since there was no way out the bottom, we had to pull the plug on dozer line there.

After the heavy equipment tracked out, the crew was able to fully engage, having been relegated to cutting out ladder fuels and snags behind the dozers during the line-push. While my trainee and I were pushing the contingency line, the sawyersa started cutting out the ridge down to the road. They cut all the small trees for about sixty feet of the hand line location and the swampers dragged the cut material across, into the “green”. Black and green are the terms we use to orient ourselves to which sides of the line will be burned and unburned. The saw teams also cut the lower limbs off of larger trees, and cut down dead ones to aid in keeping the fire on the ground when we burn off the line.

Once the saw teams made some progress, the remaining crew members started digging, extending off the end of the dozer line. Sometimes the dig gets lucky, able to utilize natural features or just knock a layer of leaves off with a few swings to create a good fire line. This time they were not lucky at all. There was a thick layer of bear grass all the way to the road that had to be chopped out about eighteen inches wide, and under the grass was a lot of organic material and rocks. As my supervisor said to the guys after the shift, they did a great job; it doesn’t get much worse than that.

The dig had been working for two hours by the time I got back to the crew. I dug with them for about two hours and then got sent to get the vehicles. That way the guys would have a ride to camp when they finished the line instead of having to hike back out. It was only an eight hundred foot elevation gain, but after a hard day, that can be rough. Just those two hours of digging, on top of the hiking I did working the heavy equipment, had my biceps cramping up. Some of the other guys in the dig were cramping up even worse. But they drank some water, took some ibuprofin, and got the line in before dark.

Big day.

Tomorrow we will finish burning it down to the road.

That is all.

Alaska 2 (Alaska Report 1)

I’m currently on a flight from Fairbanks to Seattle. Next stop is San Fransisco, where I parked my Forest Service Jeep. My plan is to drive as far as Bakersfield, CA tonight and then get home the next day. It feels like I’ve been gone a long time. My wife had a busy time with the kids and her parents, and my parents were dealing with their parents’ health issues back East for much of the time. It will be good to be home so that I can help with the kids and give my wife a break for a few days at least. It will be good to see them all.

Alaska was a different experience from fires in the lower forty-eight. From what I saw, and I know this isn’t true of all fires in AK, the fires blow up and are pretty much unstoppable, then they sit down and have to be secured. Many big fires are the same way, but in Alaska, near structures anyway, the entire edge has to be opened up and dealt with extensively. Roads and heavy equipment are useful, but the majority of the edge on the fires I experience had to be cut out, cold-trailed, and mopped up by hand-crews. It’s a lot of work, and it’s not the exciting kind of work we all hope for, with big burnouts and epic handline construction along ridges and down steep slopes. It’s flat terrain, in thick black spruce stands, with problematic tundra holding heat for weeks and supposedly even years at times. It’s a grind.

It was awesome to experience some fires in Alaska, especially as a HEQB and Task Force Leader trainee (TFLD (T)). I had a truck the whole time and didn’t have to get soaked to the skin when it rained. Well, once, my division supervisor got lost and popped out in the middle of the black in a downpour and I had to go rescue his ass in a UTV. I got pretty wet, but it was worth it to see him all bedraggled, staggering down the two track in the rain. Hilarious. He had a tough shift that day.

My crew wants to go to Alaska, and I can understand the desire to fight fire somewhere you’ve never been, but I have to say, it would be a long hard roll and we’d be ready to go home after fourteen days of it. That being said, some crews take helicopters to the middle of nowhere in Alaska, where the black spruce isn’t so thick, and pretty much just walk around the fire, checking for heat and monitoring. It’s like an all expenses paid camping trip, and sometimes they end up in some beautiful places. You never know what you’ll get. But it will probably rain, a lot, and there will definitely be hordes of voracious mosquitos and horse flies.

Anyway, there’s a quick, disjointed, and probably not entirely accurate description of Alaska firefighting for you.

At this point, I’m looking forward to a couple days off, and selfishly hoping that I’m back to work with the crew before they get a fire assignment. They got to go to the north rim of the Grand Canyon for a full fourteen day roll while I was gone, so at least they got some action as well. It’ll be good to see them.

That is all.

Alaska 1

This morning I showed up for briefing at 0600 and, as expected, my name was on the demob list. My scheduled time for demob was 0800, but I figured I’d get a headstart with some possible vehicle issues so I stopped in for my demobilization checklist. I told them I was being let go and they asked if I’d like to go to Alaska. I said, “Yes, I would like to go to Alaska.”

So now I’m all checked out of the Saddle fire, waiting for details on a flight from either Redding, CA or Sacramento, CA to Anchorage. I’ll still be HEQB, working in a part of the country I’ve never seen before. I am very much looking forward to new experiences and having an excellent adventure.

I know I’ve mentioned this before somewhere, but… My Job is Better Than Your Vacation.

That is all.

Day One: Saddle Fire

Today was my official first day on the Saddle Fire. It may also turn out to be my last day on the fire. I got out to the line today, was assigned a dozer and operator, and got geared up to go scout the line for future rehab operations. As I was firing up my GPS, preparing to go for a hike, I heard the division trainee calling my dozer on the radio. Since he was not far from ,me I walked over to see what was up. My dozer was being demobilized…

At briefing last night I learned that the entire fire had line around it. Night shift did a small burnout with no issues, and this morning they were calling the fire 40% contained. That’s a conservative estimate. (Conservative estimates are the norm in fire containment percentages.) What I saw of the fire was pretty cold and pretty contained, with high recovery relative humidities last night and in the forecast. Suppression mode is moving toward rehabilitation mode in a hurry…

So I followed the dozer and transport back to ICP, said goodbye, and tied in with operations to see what was to be my fate. Sounds like I’ll either get demobilized too or get another piece of equipment. If an excavator comes in, I might get to run that for rehab shifts. Otherwise, I’ll probably be headed home in the morning.

So it goes.

***As I’m editing this post, I’m listening to radio traffic from air attack, discussing a possible new start not far from here.  Who knows, maybe they’ll need a dozer boss!

That is all.

Back in Business

I’m on my first real fire of the 2015 fire season. There were a few small local fires early in the Spring, but they were only type four and type five single-shift low-intensity fires. The crew did a few prescribed burns this spring too, but no “real” fires until now.

The Saddle Fire is on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest under a type two incident management team. The latest situation report listed the fire at 1,480 acres, 15% contained, with 866 personnel assigned. It grew 460 acres yesterday and threatened some structures, but hasn’t sounded too spicy today. I wouldn’t know, because I’ve just been hanging out next to the operations tent since noon, waiting for an assignment.

Ops says I should get an assignment tomorrow, but I’ll still go to the night briefing at 1800 to see if anything is going on requiring my services.

This is my first time out as a single resource, Heavy Equipment Boss (HEQB). I got signed off on my taskbook for HEQB last season, but have always taken my assignments on fires the crew was assigned to already. This time I left the crew at home, borrowed a jeep from prevention, and drove myself from my home unit to the fire like a grownup. Pretty cool.

I love being on a hotshot crew. I like the missions we get as a crew, doing epic burnouts and constructing handline. I like dropping big trees when I get the chance. My favorite part of the crew at this point in my career is running a squad. I get to work with a bunch of really good dudes every day.  The only position I’ve had on the crew that I enjoyed nearly as much as squadboss was being a primary sawyer, but my time on a sawteam is over.

Yesterday, I showed up at work at 0800 like always, and did a couple hours of PT with a few of the guys since we were doing “PT on your own,” which for us was a 13 mile or so mountain bike ride. That was fun. I was getting changed after PT, getting ready to go prep a burn block when my boss called saying there was an order for HEQB in northern California and asking if I wanted it. I did. So did one of the other squadbosses. So we had one of the seniors pick a number between 1 and 20. I won.

I was on the road about an hour later and drove as long as Forest Service policy would allow a solo driver to operate. This morning I got up and hit the road at 0600 and got to ICP around 1130. I checked in as quickly as possible, anticipating a quick briefing from operations and an assignment to a division and a piece of equipment. But that’s not always the way it goes.

Hopefully there will be something for me tomorrow, and I’ll get to get out on the line doing something useful.

That is all.

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