So You Want To Be a Hotshot…

My crew has a handout we used to give potential recruits to dissuade some people from even filling out an application. The title is “So you want to be a hotshot” and it basically details what could be considered the negative aspects of the job.

Working sixteen to thirty-six hours straight, not showering for up to three weeks while living in the woods covered in dirt and soot, and working and walking until your feet and entire body hurt are some of the highlights.

I read the pamphlet during my first visit with the crew overhead and it simply solidified my desire to be on a hotshot crew. They hired me in 2008 as a completely green rookie (zero fire experience). Getting on the crew was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Here’s a breakdown of what hotshots do:

On a fire, our main task is to stop the forward progression of the fire, either by direct or indirect line construction. We remove the fuels available to the fire, either by cutting away the brush and branches with chainsaws and following up with handtools to scrape down to mineral soil right along the fire’s edge (direct line) or prepping existing fuel breaks, typically roads, and burning out in front of the fire to remove fuels (indirect line).

To accomplish our main task of removing available fuels from the fire, we often utilize other tools and resources. Helicopters and air tankers can drop water and/or retardant to give us more time by slowing down fire spread or cooling the hotter, more active parts of the fire’s edge. Wildland fire engines and their crews are often very useful in burnout operations, either by direct support on a road we’re burning or by supporting a hose-lay into country that is only accessible by foot. We also often work closely with other handcrews, making sure our operational plans mesh and that no one is put in a dangerous situation by a lack of communication and planning. In an ideal situation a crew holds the line they’ve worked and there is an established breakpoint with the adjoining crew, but circumstances dictate.

Holding is another of our more important tasks. Stopping the fire is pointless if no one is there to ensure it remains stopped. So we line out and grid for spotfires after a burn or if trees have been torching and blowing embers across the line. We line and mop-up spotfires. We mitigate holding concerns with mop-up, which is basically the boring and backbreaking process of manually mixing up burning organic material with dirt, and if we’re lucky, water, until it is extinguished.

We typically hold and improve our piece of line until it is either safe to leave or another crew can come in, patrol, and continue to mop it up. It sounds a little arrogant, I know, but there are other less qualified and less physically fit crews who are more suited to mop-up shifts. If there’s anything physically difficult, dangerous, or technical to be done, hotshots want to be there and are the best resource for the job.

We are called Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHCs), Type 1 Crews, or usually just hotshots or “shots.” There are usually about twenty people on a shot crew. Our leadership typically consists of a crew supervisor, a crew foreman, two squad bosses and one saw boss, and one to three senior firefighters. The remainder of the crew is either a sawyer, a swamper, or a digger as their primary job.

Sawyers use chainsaws to remove vegetation from the fireline and cut down snags (dead trees). Swampers move the vegetation and pieces of snag to a location where it either can’t catch on fire or won’t impact the success of the operation if it does burn. Diggers dig handline down to mineral soil. Situations dictate, but perfect hotshot line is eighteen inches wide, with no duff, and with a cup-trench dug wherever burning material could roll downhill and across the line.

Digging sucks, but it has to be done right or all the other work is wasted when the fire escapes. Digging all day is, in my opinion, the hardest job on a crew. Swamping can be equally grueling, but rarely is. It seems that when the swampers are getting crushed, the dig is fairly easy, and vice versa. All the jobs can wear you out on a hard shift, but digging kills.

We have other skills of course, but our main jobs are line construction, burning, and hazard tree removal.

That is all.


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