America’s Hotshots: The best men and women for the job

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After the deaths of 19 ‘Hotshot’ fire-fighters in Arizona’s devastating wildfires in July, we take a look at the rigorous training techniques they have to endure

The 19 fire-fighters killed in the Arizona wildfires this July were part of a specially trained team of Interagency Hotshot fire-fighters.

The fatal combination of the dry US climate and reduced management of forests has led to intensely demanding specialist training for these US fire-fighters. In recent months, similar wildfires have spread through Arizona’s neighbouring states, Colorado and California, following one of the driest winters in memory. This year’s fire season is on track to be deadly, spreading through acres of land.

An interagency Hotshot crew (IHC) or Hotshot Crew is an American team of fire-fighters that have specially trained in the suppression of wildfires in America and Canada. In the world of Wildland fire-fighting, Hotshot crews are seen as an elite group of fire-fighters. The team are so-called Hotshots because they are sent to the hottest parts of wildfires and they must maintain exceptionally high physical fitness standards.

Wildfires are a global danger, with groups such as the New South Wales Rural Fire Service of Australia and the Regional South East Asia Wildland Fire Network fighting desperately against these deadly natural forces. Fire-fighting crews must undergo this elite form of fire-fighting around the world – with its increased danger, in particular risks of heat stress and exhaustion – but the epitome of tactics and training are those of the IHC.

Hotshot crew members respond to massive, high-priority fires throughout America and they must often do so with little logistical support. Tackling wildfires is a job like no other. It requires unique training methods and complete absorption into the job at hand. Unique demands include living in the wilderness for not just days but weeks on end. The average assignment lasts a fortnight and crew members will arrive at a fire with a minimum of two full days’ food and water rations.

Entry level wildfire fire-fighter positions are extremely competitive and most full-time temporary positions are filled by individuals who already have acquired training and experience through volunteer or part-time positions. Hotshots are most often sent into the very worst areas of the fires, hence their name. This means that regulations require at least 80% of a team’s members to have at least one previous season of fire-fighting experience. They have to train and work together at least 40 hours a week.

Prospective Hotshots must obtain a "Red Card" or Interagency Incident Qualification Card by completing the National Wildfire Coordinating Group Basic Fire-fighter course (S-130) and the Introduction to Fire Behavior course (S-190). In addition to classroom and field training they must pass a strenuous physical work-capacity test. General IHC Operation requirements must be met according to the National Interagency Hotshot Steering Committee standards, but training will take place with established state IHC crews, according to state-specific outlines.

There are about 110 Hotshot crews across America each with about 20 members. Their main task is to scour a ‘fire line’ in the landscape and form a break between the fire and nearby homes by removing anything that could fuel the flames – such as brush, trees and vegetation.
The team must dig, chainsaw, scrape and carry huge kits, doing anything they can to deter the firm whilst always being aware of their escape routes.

When Hotshots are sent out to a wildfire, they use several tools to deprive the fire of the three things it needs to burn: Heat, fuel and oxygen. The crews cut firebreak lines – trenches dug into the ground down to the mineral soil — working as quickly as they can to remove the trees, grass and brush that fuel the fire. Once a firebreak is in place then another tool can be used, called a backfire. This is a smaller fire lit behind the firebreak line. As the main fire draws in oxygen, it pulls the backfire towards the main fire, which burns all of the brush and grass. Then when the main fire reaches the firebreak, it often burns out.

All of these tasks must be performed quickly and efficiently in extreme heat, with the weight of an extensive tool kit that comprises:

• Helmet and goggles which are fitted with protective flaps to cover the face if needed
• A gear bag containing essentials such as water, rations, sleeping bag and a fire shelter
• Fire-resistant clothing, including shirt, trousers and gloves. Crews also have yellow jackets with fluorescent strips for high visibility
• An axe or "Pulaski" – a combination of an axe and a hoe that is used for clearing trees and vegetation
• Drip torch which can be used for lighting smaller fires along a control line to consume the fuel of the main fire
• Leather boots – without steel toe caps, which attract and retain heat

Hotshots working the nightshift must sleep on the ground in full fire clothing. They need to be ready and on the road within two hours of a call, no matter where they are positioned. From May until October, the wildfire season, fire-fighting is the highest priority and the Hotshot’s summer must be sacrificed. IHC members have to be prepared to be on an assignment for 21 days at only 2 hours notice, with the potential of another 21-day assignment straight afterwards.

IHC teams will work until the end of October or even longer if it is a particularly severe fire season. As well as fire suppression the crews will also assist with medical aid, mechanical fuel treatments and shuttle recovery. Often teams will also help with the removal of downed tree limbs during winter and spring storms – since they are usually skilled with chainsaws and axes. Most IHC crew members earn around £8.35 an hour, but their pay goes up during the heavy summer fire season, when they work 16-hour days.

Training experienced fire-fighters to become wild land Hotshots takes 2 weeks and forms life-long bonds within the team. Team members have likened the experience to being in a sports team. The average age of a Hotshot is low 20s and a lot of them confess to being adrenaline junkies. They focus on the rush in order to overcome the exhaustion that they often suffer as they fight against wildfires.

Hotshot suppression tactics are perfected during worst-case scenario drills that are crucial to crew member training. The deployment of emergency tent-like structures during the Arizona fires would have been well-practised by the team. These tents allow Hotshots to shield themselves when they are trapped by flames. This is one of the last resort methods the team adopt. At this stage all they can do is dig down to the best degree of safety and cover themselves with fire-resistant material. This is done in the hope that the fire will burn over the top of them but the reality at this stage is that there may be no more than a 50 percent chance of survival.

Motivation, bravery and optimism are the key qualities a Hotshot needs to make it through their training. The physical requirements are extreme. Hotshots must be able to hike three miles carrying 20.4kg pack in less than 45 minutes and do 40 sit-ups in a minute. Whilst many a typical fire-fighter will be able to carry out this task easily, the difference with the Hotshots is that every single crew member must be able to do so. Many of the fire-fighters spend the winter months getting in shape for the oncoming season.

According to Dick Smith, a retired Hotshot fire-fighter who spent 38 years fighting wildfires: “The Hotshot crews are similar to the special forces in the military. They’re highly trained and can meet the highest physical requirements.”

Physical training is crucial to IHC teams. The only way they can make it through a brutal fire season is with physical conditioning, adequate rest and proper nutrition. Crew members will be expected to begin the wildfire season in their top physical condition and an intense off-season fitness program is recommended. The minimal level of training includes hiking with a weighted pack, running sprints and distance running for endurance.

IHC standards from the National Interagency Hotshot Steering Committee state that: “The physical ability to perform arduous labour is critical to crew morale, personal health and safety standards. As part of the training programme for IHCs, all crew personnel will be required to participate in a minimum of 1 hour of fitness training, 5 days a week, during unassigned periods.”

After IHC crew members have passed the Work Capacity test which is given of the first day of work, crew members will be expected to start a rigorous Physical Training Programmes, focusing on “aerobic fitness and strength building.” The programmes will consist of exhausting hikes in full gear over rugged mountainous terrain, long-distance runs, push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, interval sprints, drills and resistance training.

America’s interagency Hotshot crews undergo unique specialist training to prepare them as much as possible for deployment into the savage flames of forest wildfires. Wildfires are powerful forces of nature that will burn for as long as they have access to fuel, oxygen and heat but the extensive physical training of these fire-fighters makes them the best men and women for the job.

Many other parts of the world including Australia and Asia suffer from wildfires but it seems that the quality of training just isn’t at the same high standard as the IHCs. What needs to happen is the adoption of similar training and tactics in global fire-fighting crews. It is crucial now more than ever that wildfire training is seriously researched and disciplined. Research published earlier this year in The Forest Ecology and Management Journal suggests that the number of wildfires worldwide is set to increase. We are now in a vicious cycle with wildfires not only an effect but a cause of global warming.

 

 

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