Careers in the Outdoors Part V: Interview with a Hotshot
In the age of global warming, wildfires are becoming more widespread, more frequent, and lasting longer than ever before. If you’re interested in saving the planet (or at least mitigating damage) while spending time outside in a high-stakes environment, this might be the career for you. Here’s an inside look at one of the most intense versions of wildland firefighting: the hotshot crew.
What’s your official job title? Where are you stationed?
I would like to remain anonymous. Because I would much rather talk freely about the US Forest Service, I’ll just say that I’m a wildland firefighter working in an interagency hotshot crew that is stationed somewhere in the Southwest. In addition to that, my views are my own, and while they are based on the deep reflections of my experiences over four years as a wildland firefighter, they surely would not resonate for every single person who also has “white bite” on their feet (the permanent scar that forms after a multiplicity of blisters that form on the upper, front-facing surface of the ankle due to breaking in a pair of eight-inch leather boots manufactured by White’s™).
What does a hotshot do?
Often it is our job to work the fire’s edge when the flames are no more than a few feet. This form of engagement is called “direct”: one guy cuts very fast while the other guy picks up the mess. We cut out a swath on the fire’s edge, an area that is void of vegetation (except for large and healthy trees). The “dig” come in after the saws, digging into the ground to remove the understory, grass, litter, down to the dirt and mineral soil. The finished product is the “line” that is anywhere from 18 inches to 36 inches, lining the fire. A low-intensity fire will not cross the line.
If we’re going “indirect,” that’s where shit gets intense. The flame lengths are enormous, and a giant mushroom cloud of smoke looms over and gives the daylight an eerie quality, and the fire’s edge is impossibly hot (well over 2,000 F). The plan is the same as going “direct,” with the main difference being that we are at a safe distance and using our “line” not as a means to keep the fire from crossing, but as a means to begin our own fire. With the right wind and weather, it burns into the main fire, leaving it no “fuels” to progress. That is the bulk of what we do.
A great misconception is that hotshots do similar work to urban firefighters because we’re both called firefighters. I have no idea how to do their job, and they have no idea how to do mine. They are sometimes needed on a fire when structures and homes are at risk or on fire, and they can handle medical emergencies too. But you’ll never find them on our piece of ground next to the column of smoke. Me and my crew? We belong in the woods. We don’t wear masks but suck in the smoke, often hiking miles across steep and difficult terrain, bushwhacking our way to the fire’s edge with nothing more than our hand tools, boots, Nomex pants, long sleeves, packs with six quarts of drinking water, gear (weighs up to 60 pounds), hard hat and gloves.
What’s your background and how did you get into this field?
My background is biology and environmental sciences. I went to college and worked as a field scientist in other professions, and when I learned that people get paid to jump out of planes into wildfires, I forgot about my formal education and applied to a type two initial attack crew. The next year I applied to hotshot crews, and have been working with them for three years. Next year I’ll apply to become a smokejumper until they hire me and I pass the vigorous physical exams.
Is there a typical career arc in this field? What might that look like? Do you need specific education or training to advance?
The truth is that you don’t need much to get hired as a rookie. You don’t need a degree; you do need a bunch of references saying that you can work like a mule and that you possess some basic competence. If you’re interested in entering this line of work, you’ll have to apply via usajobs.gov, and be very persistent in calling your supervisor and convincing them that you can handle the work.
Each of the hotshot crews employed by the US Forest Service (USFS) consists of approximately 20 people. One-third are permanently employed with benefits in the USFS. The other two-thirds are temporary employees. Other than benefits, wages, and annual time commitment (a year for perms or a lush seasonal six months on and six months off for temps), permanents have a lot more qualifications than temps, and that comes with time done in the field. However, it is rare that someone will get hired on a hotshot crew as a temp without having first proven themselves in another aspect of wildland firefighting.
Rookies start at GS 3 or GS 4, and crew supervisors at the top are about GS 11. I make about $30,000 after each season after taxes, whereas my boss makes about $100,000 in the same time period. If you are not hired as a perm before age 37, you will never become a perm. If I’m lucky, my prospects are that within ten years, I will be a GS 9 perm with benefits, making about $70,000 per season after taxes.
The fear is to get cancer just as retirement comes in, and that is a huge statistical risk for us. As I might have mentioned, we don’t wear respirators of any kind, so Snoop Dogg’s got nothin’ on us when it comes to smoking trees.
How is your team organized? Are you specialized or does everybody do similar things?
In the Southwest, there is a supervisor, a crew boss, three squad bosses, three to six senior firefighters, and the rest are temps. The temps do all the grunt work (chainsawing, line digging, burn operations, and chores) with the senior firefighters, while they answer to their squad bosses, who answer to their crew boss, who answers to his supervisor.
Describe the day you arrive on the scene of a fire.
Once we are assigned to a fire, we live and work on that fire for 14 days. Normally, we’re working out at the station where we are based, where we call home. We run miles each morning, or do a hike as a crew, do hill sprints, pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, burpees… you name it, they try to kill us. Then we’ll go and do “project work” on our home forest; this may involve anything from trimming roads to doing prescribed burns.
Then we get the call. We drive there, check in at the incident command camp if it’s a larger fire, and our bosses are briefed. Initially, we usually drive as far as we can on forest service roads and park the buggies in a place that is smart (open area for turnarounds and likely not to get burned). Before we start hiking in, we circle up and go over our assignment with a thorough briefing of our objectives, weather, tactics, and escape routes. We don’t want have to worry about getting burned or deploying our fire shelters.
What’s a fire shelter?
A fire shelter is an eight-pound “human burrito” that we carry, in case we realize we’re going to die. It is a last resort, a Hail Mary. It’s basically a layered tarp made of aluminum-zinc-aluminum, so that radiant heat is reflected away from the person that is inside it when they are lying on the ground, cursing themselves profoundly for ever having gotten into this nightmare. Unfortunately, the aluminum flakes away in heavy convective heat, and even burns away at a radiant temp of about 2,500 F. Sometimes they save lives, sometimes they don’t.
What’s it like “living” out there for two weeks?
The buggies have our sleeping bags and bed throws, and we typically sleep next to them or find a good sleeping area outside the main camp, after getting a meal from the catering contractor. Sometimes we “spike out,” meaning we don’t bother going back to main camp because we are too far away or too invested, so we camp out in the woods at a place that isn’t going to burn over. Sometimes we “coyote camp,” which means we sleep on the line without a sleeping bag.
When we don’t go back to camp for food, we eat MREs. They typically suck pretty hard, but you will always be hungry enough to eat one. I must say, though, in the last year they’ve come out with a new generation of MREs that are much better than what they used to be like. Sometimes a helicopter will fly us hot meals and supplies when we’re spiked out.
You poop in the woods. Baby wipes are a must-have. Body powder for pack rashes and moleskin and athletic tape for your sorry feet. After 14 days, you drive back to your base station, get two days off for rest and recuperation, come back to work, and go for a long run with the crew where at least a few guys are vomiting from their “rest and recuperation.” You perform chores at the station and restock and maintain what needs to be restocked and maintained, and then you’re ready to be called out to a fire.
What are your coworkers like? Working environment? Bosses?
The crew is diverse. I love and hate my coworkers. You work in very stressful environments together and spend little time apart from them over a period of six months. The crew formation is not unlike the military, so this can be a power trip for some people, but in the end, you are judged by your work ethic.
I love the diversity. I work with a number of different ethnicities, backgrounds, women, men, liberals, conservatives, angels, and cowboys. Wildfire attracts a large number of extremophiles who are really here to push their limits. Egos can get high, group bonding can leave others out, sometimes people get harassed or belittled, machismos can become repulsive. It’s a strange beast, and at its worst it is not unlike Lord of the Flies, but if you are on a diverse crew then it will become self-regulating. Sexual harassment is a major issue in wildfire; yet I am hopeful, because diversity is growing in the USFS and the old-school ignorance is declining out of plain necessity.
What are essential qualities for someone working in this field?
Physical fitness is most definitely essential. I carry a chainsaw in addition to my pack, which accumulates to about 75 pounds (half my body weight), and it never gets easier. It is absolutely essential that everybody on the crew is able to adapt to our severe circumstances. A crew is only as fast as its slowest member—nobody wants to be the slowest guy, trust me. A fire crew can easily turn into a pack of wolves, and the slowest guy will suffer in every way, but mostly in the social aspect. In addition, a low sensitivity to pain certainly helps.
What do you think people who are outdoorsy and thinking about getting into this field should know about the job beforehand?
This job is for a very certain kind of person, and I honestly am baffled as to who that is, exactly, but I think it boils down to being grateful for the simple fact that you are alive and capable. If you’re OK with all of this and can still work like a beast and remain humble in the face of being intellectually offended by “fire culture” and all of the other bureaucratic flapdoodle that inundates the USFS, then you’re a prime candidate.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
Aside from the adrenaline rushes, from starting fires in a context that otherwise would result in a mandatory prison sentence for grand arson, experiencing a high as a result of physiological exhaustion, falling enormous trees with my chainsaw yet still doing something positive for the greater environment, the endless adventure and awe-inspiring sights of Mother Nature at her best and her worst—my ultimate favorite is when the end of the season arrives, and just as I think I can’t take it anymore, I get six months off to do whatever-the-hell-I-want.
I think I might have covered all that.
Any parting words?
I have been all over the world and have done many different jobs, from labor grunt to specialist. I have never worked as hard as I have on a shot crew, ever. For this reason, I have a special respect for everyone who has what it takes to excel at this job, and you should too.
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