California has sun, surf and the elite firefighting force of the Hotshot crews that act as the most important line of defense against the notoriously dangerous California wildfires. Whether you live in Alhambra foothills outside of Los Angeles or Zinfandel wine country near Napa Valley, people who live in California know the reality of wildfires, and have a great deal of respect for Hothot firefighters who face the flames of fire with fearlessness.
According to CNN, the anatomy of a wildfire normally begins with a small combustible object as a match, cigarette butt, poorly extinguished campfire or even a rail spark from a passing train. Other causes include acts of God like lightning or by the manmade acts of arson. As the fire gains strength and searches for fuel, strong winds typically blow sparks and embers continuing the growth of the fire. If the fire lasts long enough, it heats the ground forcing warm air and smoke to rise, creating a current of strong wind that can travel up and down steep hills. If this fire induces microclimate grows large enough, it can even create winds that reach over 100 miles an hour, creating a virtual hurricane. These strong winds also help to heat up brush, homes or anything it its path, ahead of the flames so that when the fire arrives, the surrounding area only needs a breath of wind to ignite into a bomb-like explosion.
“These fires can literally create their own environment and become deadly,” said Dave Allen of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “”They can immediately change conditions from dry to volatile.”
These fires can also become deadly. According to the US Fire Administration, more than 200 firefighters lost their lives to wildfires in the past decade. Perhaps no incident better illustrates this fact than the tragic death of 19 Hotshots during the Yarnell Hill fire near northern Arizona. In addition, wildfires ravage millions of acres of land while being directly responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.
While wildfires are not exclusive to California, the National Fire Protection Association identified the largest and most expensive fires in the country since 1918. Out of the top nine wildfires in history, seven were in California. It is therefore no coincidence that the first Hotshot Crew was formed in Southern California in 1949 in order to help protect the Cleveland and Angeles National Forests. These original Hotshot firefighters quickly became experts at fighting fires in the most difficult terrain and in extreme conditions. They prided themselves on how they could dig, cut and saw the thick chaparral brush of Southern California. By 1961, the California Hotshot’s ability to be the most important line of defense against wildfires caught the attention of Washington, DC , and so nation’s capital created a new program called the Interregional Fire Suppression (IRFS) crew program. This new interagency organization was made up of six 30-man crews who were positioned near airports they needed to be flown quickly to assist in fighting fires anywhere in the United States. Throughout the years, these elite crews grew in size, strength and skill until by 1979, Hotshots were considered the most important line of defense against wildfires where fire trucks or other vehicles could not travel.
“These men are like the Special Forces in the military,” said Dick Smith, a 38-year veteran firefighter. “They are incredibly well-trained and have the highest physical standards. They can respond to fires in remote regions no logistical support, and they are routinely exposed to extreme conditions, long hours, lengthy travel and the most demanding firefighting challenges.”
The term “Hotshot” was coined after the original Hotshot crew fought a fire while in the center of the hottest spot of the fire. Firefighters call this location “the hotshot.”
Today, there are approximately 107 Hotshot crews across the United States who are grouped in teams of at least 20 men and women. They are on call 24 hours a day, and when a call comes in, they don’t know whether they’ll be fighting a fire in the next town or the other side of the country. Often times these elite firefighters are dropped by airplane into remote locations where they fight fires with only what they can carry. But the job is as important as it is rewarding.
“I like having a job that matters, and I believe we make a difference every day,” said Captain Matt Holmstrom of California’s American River Hotshot Crew.
Today, California relies heavily on the Hotshot Crews that are on the ready for the next large scale wildfire, acting as the most important line of defense against wildfires. These crews continue to be heroes in the eyes of many Californians.
By Vincent Aviani