Every year, wild fires cause havoc in the USA. They cause people to flee, cost billions and can continue for weeks. When such a fire needs to be brought under control, the authorities enlist the help of the elite firemen – also known as ‘hotshot crews’.
In the USA they have a season we don’t have in Europe: Fire season. This is the time of year when cause havoc, particularly in the western part of the USA. In 2015, they had the worst season ever, when more than 40,400 km2 went up in smoke. And in 2018 it was even more disastrous, with the fires in California resulting in many fatalities.
More frequent droughts and increasing temperatures as a result of climate change only make the problem much worse. Therefore, combating wild fires in the USA requires a massive effort. And that massive effort in particular is what the so-called ‘hotshots’ provide. They are the fire brigade’s elite troops who specialise in wild fires and are called on to fight the worst and biggest wild fires all over the USA. In the wilderness they create ‘fire lines’ – i.e. Fire belts in the terrain, the purpose of which is to limit the spread of the fires. This is done by hand – using power saws and axes – or by means of controlled burning, when the direction of the wind is favourable.
The most dangerous tasks
There are around 100 hotshot crews in the USA, each of which comprises 20 firemen. They undergo intensive training in all forms of fire fighting tactics, and the physical requirements are rigorous. Normally, they are sent out into the wilderness without logistical support in order to create fire lines in shifts lasting up to 48-64 hours for several weeks in a row.
The firemen in every hotshot crew each have their own roles to play. Some of them are trained in first aid, while others are highly specialised lumberjacks who are able to cut down dead or burning trees. Others create fire lines by cutting down vegetation bordering the fire and moving the cut down trees into the fire.
They risk their lives
It is dangerous work, so even if you are one of the best, every now and again it costs human lives. Therefore, all hotshots carry a ‘fire shelter’ which they can use if the fire encircles them. It is designed to withstand flames and radiant heat and contains sufficient breathable air so that the fireman, in an emergency situation, can roll out the fire cover, crawl into it and survive.
However, there are no guarantees. In 1994, nine hotshot member perished in the flames in Oregon when a rapidly moving fire engulfed them. And in 2013, a particularly rapidly moving and violent fire cut a hotshot crew off from their escape route in the wilderness in Arizona. The fire spread more quickly than the crew were able to run and the violent wind created 70 metre high flames and temperatures of approximately 1,100 degrees. The crew were encircled and all of them perished.
If hotshots are the elite troops, smokejumpers are the parachute troops. They jump out of an aeroplane instead of driving or trekking to the fires. The rapid mobilisation means that they can often contain the fire before it grows too big and gets out of control.