As you have likely seen in the news, wildfires have burned rampantly through California over the past year. Looking at interactive maps provided by the state of California allows us to see just how widespread the fires have been. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the 2018 wildfire season was the most destructive ever. Nearly 8,000 fires burned more than 1.8 million acres of land.
Each one of the fires brought dozens of firefighters to the front lines, risking their lives. Wildfires tend to be much more challenging to contain than house fires. This is primarily because of wind and dry atmospheres. Wildfires spread at an average rate of 6.7 miles per hour and could spread even more quickly depending on conditions.
Those fighting these fires need to have the proper tools at their disposal. Below, we’ll detail the story of some of the men and women who recently challenged the California wildfires while also touching on the firefighter tools they used to keep themselves safe.
The Typical Day Of A Wildlife Firefighter
There’s no sugarcoating it: the life of a wildlife firefighter is not easy. Their days consist of hikes up and down hills. They can often hike upwards of 12 miles per day while carrying more than 50 pounds of firefighter tools on their back. A shift usually lasts more than 24 hours and tends to stretch as long as 48 hours.
There are no showers or locker rooms. Wildlife firefighters will often go for days without bathing. Their fire-resistant suit quickly becomes drenched with sweat. The constant smell of smoke and body odor is sickening. Temperatures often exceed 100 degrees, and dehydration can set in quickly. This is the life of the nearly 10,000 men and women who were recently deployed to fight wildfires in California.
Tools Unique To Wildfire Firefighters
Whereas a house fire is relatively contained to a building or two, wildfires are different because firefighters must work to hold them. Many teams rely on aircraft to drop flame retardant on the fire, but this is only effective when the fire is somewhat contained. This means that firefighters must continually work to prevent the fire from spreading.
That is perhaps the most significant difference between wildlife firefighters and firefighters that you see in your town. Wildlife firefighters are on the front lines working to prevent the spread of fire, while other firefighters work to extinguish flames.
Those who work to prevent the spread of wildfires are known as “hotshot crews.” These crews are tasked with cutting a perimeter around a fire, clearing it of brush, debris, and other flammable materials. Their goal is to create a line of defense that prevents the fire from spreading any further. As you can imagine, the tools that they carry with them are entirely different than the tools a standard firefighter uses.
One of the go-to tools for a hotshot crew is a chainsaw. Many crewmembers prefer something like the Stihl MS461. This chainsaw has a 25-inch bar and six horsepower. It’s efficient enough to cut down trees that are a maximum of four feet wide. It’s also lightweight enough to carry through the backlands of California. The crew must also bring:
- Bottles of two-stroke fuel
- Bottles of bar oil
- Tools to sharpen the chainsaw
There is typically one chainsaw for every three to four men. In addition to the chainsaw, crews also tend to carry a folding saw, such as the Silky F180. The chainsaw is often dedicated to chopping trees, while the folding saw is beneficial for clearing a path and removing brush low to the ground. Each crew member will carry a folding saw.
Hotshot crews will also carry a hot pack, such as the Mystery Ranch Hot 3. Wildlife firefighters appreciate this tool because it features a low-slung design, which makes maneuverability much easier. Additionally, the pack is made from 500 and 100-denier Cordura, making it lightweight and durable. These packs are deceptively large, often checking in at approximately 1,500 inches. This provides hotshot crews with more than enough room to carry a few days’ worths of supplies.
Lastly, hotshot crews will carry tools essential to navigation. For instance, each member will have a quality headlamp that projects light more than 100 feet into the air. Since hotshot crews work around the clock, this item is a must. Crew members will also carry a GPS and something like the Kestrel 3000. This tool provides them with essential weather information and allows them to predict where the fire will spread.
Who Serves On Hot Shot Crews?
Anyone can serve on a hotshot crew, so long as they undergo rigorous training. However, there was a crew that recently gained notoriety while fighting the California wildfires. This hotshot crew from Oregon, known as the Lakeview Veterans Interagency Hotshot Crew, is unique because 17 of its 25 members are military veterans. They are the first members of a U.S. Bureau of Land Management program that focuses on recruiting veterans to hotshot crews.
Practically every member of the crew has been able to relate fighting wildfires to fighting on the front lines. Veteran Kenn Boles, who has been a hotshot fireman since 2012, told the Statesman Journal, “You’re working hard, sweating; the fire doesn’t stop because of those things. It’s like in combat – just because you’re hungry, tired, and thirst doesn’t mean the firefight stops.”
The unit graduated to a hotshot crew after fighting the 2015 Oregon Crater Lake National Park fires. During this mission, members worked for two weeks straight using their chainsaws and folding saw to dig fire lines. They also utilized prescribed burns to help cut the wildfire’s fuel source. After the first two-week stint, members rested for three days and then returned for another two weeks. It was after this mission that members realized their hotshot potential.
Members of the crew also spoke of the camaraderie they find within one another. Members can spend up to nine months away from their family. The team has indicated that this experience has allowed them to create a brotherly bond outside of the military and cope with PTSD issues.