Fearless Firefighting Hotshots

Oakhurst is home to this elite group of U.S. Forest Service hotshots

Tiffany TuellJuly 25, 2012 

For the Sierra National Forest Hotshot crew, putting their lives on the line to fight fires is just another day at the office. And from May through November, they travel across the country at a moment's notice, leaving behind friends and family for two to three weeks, working up to 24-hour shifts and making their bed on the ground, only to get up after a few hours rest to head back to the fire front lines.

"Hotshot crews are one of the many valuable suppression resources that the forest service uses while fighting wildfires," said Denise M. Tolmie, Sierra National Forest Fire Management Specialist. "They are a front-line resource that can be placed in locations where very few resources can reach the fire (due to) steep terrain (and) inaccessible areas."

There are 90 elite hotshot crews across the United States -- more than 40 of them in California -- and Oakhurst is home to one of those crews -- the Sierra Hotshots. Hotshot crews come from all backgrounds -- from surfers to architectural engineers -- and from all over the state. Crews are comprised of one supervisor, two captains, two squad leaders, four firefighters and 11 temps.

Sierra Interagency Hotshot Supervisor Kenneth Jordan feels he has one of the most experienced crews in the nation. A firefighter since 1974 and a hotshot since 1976, Jordan has been stationed in Oakhurst since 1989. He says he enjoys working with people he respects -- people that have integrity and a strong work ethic.

Why does his team do it? He says it's for the camaraderie, love of travel, adventure, hard work, danger and because every day is different. Jordan himself has traveled as far as Australia to fight fires.

Other reasons crew members risk their lives to fight fires include everything from helping preserve the environment and following tradition to the opportunity for travel and love of the outdoors.

Jordan said a normal day on the job with his team of 20 consists of getting up at 4:30 a.m. to brief them for the day on tactics, strategy, safety and incident action plans. Then, after chow, it's time to drive or fly to the fire line. The crew then fights fires for anywhere from 16 to 24 hour shifts, then settles down with sleeping bags on the ground for their mandatory eight hour break to catch some sleep, then they get up and do it all over again.

"Some of the best nights of sleep I've had are when I was sleeping under the stars," said Captain Chris Fernandez.

After 14-20 days in the field, they get to come home for R&R.

"To really be a hotshot, you've gotta have a lot of heart," said Jordan, who came close to losing his own life in at a fire in Big Creek in 1994. Finding himself surrounded by fire, he had to use what every hotshot hopes to never have to use because it is his last defense between him and the fire -- a fire resistant shelter that looks like a sleeping bag. He expanded his, wrapped himself up in it, and laid there on the ground for 20 minutes with 500 degree blasts surrounding and burning over him. By the time he crawled out, the fabric of his shelter had worn thin but thanks to its protection, he was alive.

Because a hotshot's job is tough, grueling work, it takes a tremendous amount of training. To qualify, candidates must have at least one season of firefighting experience, 40 hours of firefighting training, and they must pass a pack test -- a 45-minute walk with a 45-pound pack on their back.

Fernandez says you can't judge a book by its cover, adding that even some of the fittest looking people can't pass the test. Physical fitness is very important to hotshots who workout on a daily basis. But for Fernandez, that is what he likes about his job -- the challenge, along with the people, teamwork and camaraderie of the team.

"You're given a task that can make a difference in their life," he said. "Having that bond with people and accomplishing everything as a group brings everyone together."

Fernandez has been a hotshot for 10 years. Before that he was on a firefighting hand crew but after helping out the hotshots for one season, he says he fell in love with the job.

"Nothing had challenged me before like that, both physically and mentally," Fernandez said.

He remembers vividly fighting fires in Texas and evacuating people while trying to save their homes. He said there was more fire on the ground than they could handle and witnessing the human element -- from homes being lost to children being able to come back to their homes -- was very touching.

"Even if they lost their home they were still thankful and thanked us and our family," Fernandez said. "That really touched home."

Every time Fernandez leaves to fight fires, he has two children back home cheering him on. Knowing his children are home waiting for him makes him even more mindful of the dangers of the job.

Every year, to help families understand what being a hotshot is all about, a family day is held where children and spouses come together to learn about the not so ordinary job, and life, of a hotshot. Fernandez said without the support of his supervisor (Jordan) and his family, he wouldn't be able to continue on with his job.

When they're not out fighting fires, the guys are having jam sessions on their guitars and barbecuing it up. Sixth season hotshot Chris Sizemore of Fresno, says it's these friendships, and a meaningful job, that keep him coming back season after season.

Twelfth season hotshot Brian Laird, of North Fork, appreciates the teamwork of his crew.

"It's such a dynamic environment and never the same," Laird said. "I get to work with a corps group of people that want to work here."

The job is not for those who enjoy the 9-5 routine and that's why fourth season hotshot Eric Webb of Springville decided to become a hotshot -- because he couldn't stand the 9-5 anymore.

"I didn't really know what I wanted to do and saw a documentary on the Discovery Channel about hotshots so I started taking classes and working on engines," he said. "I'm from the mountains and like being in the woods. It's an exciting job and very fulfilling."

What keeps sixth season hotshot Gil Ribas of Delano coming back? Hearing his little boys say they want to be a firefighter like their daddy when they grow up.

The Sierra Hot Shots just recently returned to the area after fighting fires in Utah and Idaho and at any given moment will be called on to fight the next, big wildland fire. For them, the long hours and the danger are worth it.

"The sense of duty and service to others isn't what I thought about coming in, but its now one of the most gratifying parts of the job," said hotshot Scott Beckley. "Being in an elite group and putting yourself in harm's way is very satisfying."

The Sierra Hotshots aren't the only local crew. There is also a crew -- the Crane Valley Hotshots -- stationed off Bass Lake Road out of North Fork.

Details: www.fs.fed.us/fire/people/hotshots/index.html

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