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Attacked!

It is 1230 in the morning and I’ve been sleeping in the woods, poorly. I’m doing a division assignment on a type 3 fire as a qualified taskforce leader and can’t stop thinking about tomorrow’s shift. Tomorrow’s shift is pretty straightforward, but performing as a division is new to me and today was challenging at times. But it is annoying to miss out on sleep from thinking about the next day. 

Anyway, I was beginning to drift off around midnight, for real finally, I think. Then I heard some rustling in the leaves and a sort of bark/growl/roar maybe 30 feet from me. Some sort of small and furious animal was running amok and headed my way. 

I stayed quiet. Most of the time animals leave people alone. Not this little fucker though. I don’t know what this thing was, but it came roaring up the old ditch I’m trying to sleep in, ran onto my sleeping bag and got up close to my ribs before I sat up and slapped the shit out of it with my rolled up sweatshirt I use for a pillow. 

The beast squealed. I had trapped it under my sweatshirt. I briefly contemplated punching it in the face but what if it was a little skunk? A trapped and punched skunk could completely ruin my night. So I let it go and it ran off into the night. I’m camping by myself tonight, because the rest of the crew went home, but I still said aloud the only logical thing one could say after being savaged by a random 5-10 pound creature: “What the fuck was that?” 

By the time I was able to turn on my headlamp the critter was long gone. This entire incident lasted roughly seven seconds. Hopefully the adrenaline will wear off soon and I can go to sleep. Fatigue can make a straightforward assignment more challenging. 

That is all.

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Preseason PT

Our seasonal firefighters are coming back to work on 17 April. Soon, very soon. The expectation on my crew is that everyone show up on day one in good enough physical condition to do the job. We don’t always all meet that expectation…

So today I am going to write about what I have learned about preseason training in the last nine years I’ve been on a hotshot crew:

My first year on the crew was also my first year in fire and my preseason training program failed me entirely. I was in shape for the Army, not the hotshots. I did 12 mile ruck marches and six mile runs, push-ups, sit-ups, and flutter kicks. As a result, I was usually last on our PT hikes. 

The second year was much better. I hiked up hills I knew the crew would train on, measuring my times against known benchmarks to track my progress. I carried more weight than I would have in my actual fire pack. But carrying 65 pounds on a Grand Canyon hike, while good exercise, puts a lot of strain on the knees, especially when hiking downhill. 

These days, I don’t train with heavy weight at all. I periodically carry my normal pack on familiar trails to check my progress, but mostly I go fast and light on hikes and bike rides. Mountain biking is an excellent cross training activity for hotshotting. Some of the strongest hikers I’ve worked with have also been avid mountain bikers. Plus it’s fun; just don’t crash and break bones. Most of my winter hikes involve skiing back down, hopefully helping my knees last the rest of my career. I don’t run at all. Ever. Unless the crew makes me. 

This year I augmented with a gym membership, taking 3 to 5 classes per week that focus on strengthening quads and glutes as well as all kinds of smaller stabilizing muscles and especially core muscles. It’s circuit training but not Crossfit and so far I haven’t experienced any injuries at the gym, just really sore muscles. 

Maintaining strong legs, lungs, and core seem to be the key to physical performance on a crew and helps with injury avoidance. I’ll find out next week how well this winter’s workout program actually prepared me for the job, but I am confident I’ll be as strong as I was last year, probably stronger. 

The only other key to preseason training I know of is to healthy food and drink less beer. Sometimes easier said than done. 

But always a good goal. 

That is all. 

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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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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.

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