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.

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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.

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