A hotshot’s life on the line | VailDaily.com

A hotshot’s life on the line


Don Rogers
Laura Mahaffy/lmahaffy@theunion.com | The Union

I know the guys in that crew picture showing up in newspapers and websites this week. Well, not them exactly.

That was us three decades ago, my crew on which I spent the better part of five years. I recognize the same mix of pumping up a little for posterity and laughing at the sheer silliness of it, too, in a light moment.

Wildland firefighters lean more toward wire than brawn, endurance over a weightlifter’s burst of strength. The hotshots’ business mainly is a marathon, with only the occasional sprint … while carrying 30-40 pounds of gear and beating paths down to mineral earth through grass or brush or forest where fire engines, bull dozers and such can’t reach.

When hotshots die on the job, the news crews call them elite and maybe even heroes. When they pull into fire camp or a fast-food place, they are as likely to be mistaken for cons.

The reality is hard, dirty work. Dancing with big flames is rarer than you might think. Far more often you are hacking fireline along a charcoaled perimeter, taking away a wildfire’s opportunity to spring back to life, ready to retreat into black, already-burned-over ground if it does flare up.

If you do this work, your enduring memory will be the view of your headlamp through a dark night, old age’s weariness imposed upon your 25ish soul, the tee shirt under your yellow, crusty fireshirt soaking wet and white-ringed with salt and shivering even on warm nights when you take a break.

The thuds, plinks and scraping sounds rise and fall with the chainsaws revving up and down just ahead, conversation doing the same as the hours stretch out.

When you sleep, you’ll flinch as if swinging a “P,” Macleod or maybe even a sharpened shovel. You’ll dream of brush, stumps, roots, rock, dirt. Your wrists will ache if like I did, you run a super-P, a customized version of the combo ax-mattock that with the shovel has endured as a primary fire tool for 100 years.

There is no app for … that.

I won’t remember their names. I never met them. I’ve been off the line for almost 30 years. And I know these guys as brothers. Some things don’t change.

I know this from the picture. It’s just like a bunch I have of my crew before blowing out a knee and meeting the young woman I’d later marry.

I also know choking smoke, confusion rising while in the wrong place, crazy wind gusts, fire taking off on the other side of the fireline, dodging runs at us, the edginess that comes with being any distance at all from active flames, watching a canyon we’d been in blowing out from the relative comfort of our safety zone, generally in the black soot where the fire had already been and we’d hustled to in time.

It’s nostalgia for me. Lucky me. My time on the LP Hotshots, one of the original five of these crews that now number over 100 — minus one whole one now — forged my later life, no question.

Guys from my crew went on to become captains, chiefs, lawyers, professors, engineers, at least one doctor, a journalist, along with a couple who went on to … jail. It was a diverse group. Just before my time, we had the first woman on any hotshot crew.

I’m thinking tonight as I write about near the end of my last season, when I had an assignment as acting superintendent of the 20-person crew on a big “control” burn, which pretty much is the same thing as backfiring on a regular wildfire.

I sent a couple guys up a little opening in a cliff side to a mesa above a creek we were firing from. Fire acts as a magnet, so you want to get flames going inside the perimeter to attract the fire you eventually ignite at the line so that it goes the right way.

I was in that hyper aware state one is when you are risking someone else’s safety, and waved them down quickly. We set fire then at the line.

The tornadic flash of flame came suddenly before it rose and chased the fire running on the plateau. I still feel the heat and the surprise. A little more punch there and perhaps we’d have been declared “elite” and “heroes” for my miscalculation even as we executed properly. There was no time to react.

Mother Nature impressed upon me how this goes. I still recall the moment like it just happened.

I remember this when I think about the crew in Arizona whose moment brought death. She’s a harsh judge, fire. Assuredly they strayed too far from their safety zone, didn’t read a thunder cell’s wind shifts and gusts in time, as they had done correctly so often before.

I know this, too, looking at that picture. We weren’t better or smarter. Just luckier.

Editor and Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at drogers@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2920.

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