Category Archives: Descriptions of the job.

Random musings and explanations of what it is that hotshots do.

Fire Shelters

Personally, I don’t think we need fire shelters. I think we should just be less aggressive if we cannot provide for safety first. That being said, I’ve never had to deploy. And my superintendent has over 25 years of experience and has never put me in a sticky situation in the 9 years I’ve been on the crew. And I’m on a hotshot crew, which I suspect gives us more latitude to turn down unsafe assignments.

Shelters aren’t that heavy, really. I just don’t intend to ever have to use one, so why pack it all over the country? Knock on wood…

That is all.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Extended!

This was supposed to be my last pay period until March, 2015 or so.  I typically get laid off for four or five months in the winter because I’m a firefighter, pretty low level, and there are not many fires this time of year.  Being laid off is normally something I’ve looked forward to during some long shifts or boring shop days, but with the new house and new baby, I’ve been dreading not getting a regular paycheck.

I always save up all summer to prepare for my lay-off, and we’d have made it through, but today I managed to find some other work that will last me through the winter.  If you call the supervisor’s office on my forest, I’ll be answering the phone, fielding questions and transfering calls to “ologists” and forest overhead.  I did the same thing at the ranger station last winter, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

I’m not an outgoing person, but in certain situations, where it’s my job and feels totally appropriate, I can be quite chatty.  I know a lot about our forest and its recreation opportunities and resource uses, having lived here and worked for the forest here for seven years.  Being able to inform people about what there is to do here is satisfying.  And I won’t be unemployed.

Win-win.

That is all.

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Reputation

Well, the Deception Fire turned out to be a bit of a turd, but the crew did good work anyway.  There was a lot of sitting around, waiting for the conditions to be right for burning.  The fire was down in a valley and  going direct was not a good option.  Neither was burning the big box.  Oregon fires are weird like that.  We got through it though, and came out looking good, with the important fuckers there pleased with our work and attitudes.

Believe it or not, a crew’s attitude or the perception of their attitude that is formed by different crews and incident management teams is just as important to their reputation as is the quality of their work.  There are some hotshot crews who are some badass sons of bitches and work very hard creating quality line.  If they are also assholes, their reputation suffers and no one wants to work with them.  Sometimes hotshots get a little too proud of themselves for being hotshots and are rude or condescending to other resources.  Sometimes the crew leadership lacks diplomatic skills and offends their division supervisor by disagreeing with the plan.  Then things get awkward.

Being a good crew that is well-thought-of is a lot like just being a good person in life generally, I think.  Don’t be a dick to those less awesome than you, maintain a positive attitude, and be reasonable with your boss, and life is good.  Also, be prepared and able to work as hard as you can for days on end.  At the end of the day, production is still the measure of a good hotshot crew.

That is all.

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Deception Fire

Today was day eight for us on the Deception Fire. It’s mostly been a waiting game on this one. The fire was down low in steep terrain and had made at least one good run out of the hole a few days before we arrived. Type one helicopters and a little rain kept it in check while the roads around the fire were prepped. We put in a canopy break and dozer line to tie some roads together and reduce the acres we’ll need to burn, but that’s about all we’ve been able to do so far.

My crew is part of a group of seven hotshot crews designated as the burn group. There are two burn groups, and ours is tasked with lighting the west side of the fire when conditions are right. We’re supposed to get west winds in the next few days, so maybe we’ll get to do some work soon. Then there will be a few mop-up shifts followed by demobilization and travel home. Unless we lose our burn that is. Then we’d be going direct til we time out, I’d imagine.

Anyway, this has been a different experience from the usual. It’s ok with me. I’ve been able to read four or five books and I’m sick, so a little extra rest and relaxation is not a bad thing at all.

That is all.

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Oregon

On the South Fork Complex. It’s been a fairly stout roll for us. Lots of direct line and hiking. Today my buggy broke a leaf spring so my squad will be living out of two rental trucks for a while. Such is life but it’s always a sad day when the buggy breaks down. Feels like being being evacuated and living in a shelter. It’ll all be ok though, today was day ten.

That is all.

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