Hotshots get a briefing on the helicopter protocols during a training day. The firefighting team, recently returned from Alaska, reviewed how to load helicopters with supplies using nets and practiced other skills. (The Enterprise/Isabella Garcia)
VALE – It was routine procedure in a rugged, remote Alaskan forest where the Vale Hotshot crew was hard at work containing a fire. Matters turned dangerous with a change in the wind and, suddenly, a wall of fire began creeping through the trees.
It was time to leave.
“I mean it was almost like a half mile wide stretch of flames, just kind of burning its way towards the lake,” recalled Hotshot Morgan Brackett.
“The wind was not in our favor,” added Matt Page, a rookie Hotshot from Virginia. Page also remembers how the crew found themselves frantically breaking down the camp, preparing to be airlifted away.
That all may sound intense, but for the Hotshot crew based at the Vale district of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, one of 97 highly trained federal Hotshot firefighting crews nationwide, it was just part of a job that they knew they were signing up for.
Established in Vale in 1997, the Vale Hotshots are an elite firefighting unit comprised of 20 members.
The Hotshots were brought to the BLM in Vale given the district’s capacity to house and maintain a national resource.
The crew is deployed nationally where needed to fight wildfires. In addition to Alaska, the team has fought wildfires in recent years in places like California, New Mexico, Arizona, Washington, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.
“I think that’s like, the beauty of it, this job is unique,” Max Maeda, a Hotshot from Ontario in his fifth season, said. “We’re a national resource so we can go anywhere.” With the exception of Alaska, the Hotshots typically drive to wildfires in their two minibuses that have “Vale Hotshots” emblazoned on the sides.
So far this season, the Alaska fire was the first large out-of-region fire that the crew has been dispatched to fight. They have also reported to some smaller district fires as well, said Glenn Heitz, superintendent for the Hotshots.
When a large fire overwhelms a specific fire district, the district then orders resources from the National Interagency Fire Center based in Boise.
The fire center works on figuring out which Hotshot crews across the country have the resources to spare, and then they are deployed to fires as needed.
At the airport in Vale on a recent day, the Hotshots stood in a circle flanked by nets full of gear and received training on how to prepare sling loads that are used to transport supplies by helicopters.
The training came in the wake of their Alaska mission in which they were forced to evacuate their camp by air.
“Everything’s helicopter based in Alaska,” said Casey Eager, assistant superintendent for the Hotshots. He added that the only way for the crew to get supplies such as overnight gear, sleeping bags, tents, fuel and food is by lowering it onto the ground using nets.
In Alaska, “we ended up having to break down that camp… in like 20 minutes and then make a bunch of sling loads for the helicopters to come and grab our stuff and get us out of there,” Brackett said.
The training reinforced that specific skill, given that the crew, some of who were unfamiliar with the process, had to figure it out on the ground.
But this kind of extra training is what sets the Hotshots apart, and why applying to be on a Hotshot crew is a challenge. The job is offered to firefighters nationwide via USA Jobs, and is highly competitive.
Page said he was first exposed to working with firefighters in the Army.
Page said that he “always had a huge appreciation for what they did out here, and the more and more I worked with some folks the more it convinced me to come out and contribute.”
Three Hotshots, who were all in that remote Alaska forest together, sat side-by-side at a picnic table at the BLM and recounted their adventures fighting the wildfire.
“Crazy country,” Brackett said with a grin. “It’s a super unique firefighting opportunity for us. A great way to break in the new crew because it was some tough work,” she added.
“It’s definitely got its own terrain there,” Page added. “It’s dry but it’s also a swamp. So really you can be up to your ankles in water and still, that top layer is dry enough to burn over.”
The Hotshots learned just how difficult fighting fires in Alaska could be after the fire forced the crew to abandon its campsite and retreat. That experience and intensity distinguishes them from other firefighting crews.
“I think in general, we just crave hard work, and the crew is happiest at the end of a shift where we got our butts handed to us,” Brackett said.
This desire to work hard and face some of the toughest conditions in firefighting requires that the crew operate as a team, and the foundation of that team must be based on trust in each other and in “overhead” – unit leaders.
Despite the intensity, Maeda said, “I’ve never really been in a situation where I’ve been so scared, just because I have a lot of trust with our overhead. They have so much experience.”
Page added, “Everybody wants to do the best for the person right next to them.”
Heitz makes the ultimate decision on who gets hired on as a Hotshot and said that aside from experience, he is also looking for people who genuinely want to be part of the crew and with the right attitude.
“We sleep on the ground every day, so I always want… experience is great, but I’m really looking for attitude and people that really want to be here and really want to do this job,” Heitz said.
Heitz added that the job is a huge commitment and is physically and mentally demanding, given that the Hotshots must remain no more than two hours away from Vale in case they are called in for a mission.
They are “basically giving up their summer,” he said.
Heitz added that the Hotshots are held to higher standards given that they are usually put on the bigger hotter fires.
“We weren’t necessarily put in Vale to fight fires on the Vale district. We’re not an initial attack resource. We’re an extended attack resource,” he said.
“Kind of our bread and butter are big fires in remote places. Just kind of that real remote type areas where those fires are really big in the initial attack,” Heitz added. Hotshot crews are hired from a diverse pool of applicants and come from across the country. Once the crew is formed, firefighters spend time training and fighting fires together, bonding not only as Hotshots, but as friends.
“I mean, working 14 days straight, 16 hours a shift, like then going to bed and they’re in the sleeping bag right next to you, you just get to know everybody really well,” Brackett said.
Reporter Joe Siess: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.
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