California Hotshot Crews Are Important Line of Defense Against Wildfires


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.”

CaliforniaThese 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


16 Responses to "California Hotshot Crews Are Important Line of Defense Against Wildfires"

  1. Meryll   June 21, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    How disrepectful not to mention the Hot Shot crew, Engine 57, who perished trying to save a house from the Esperanza fire, 2006. Leave articles about Hot Shots, firefighting and fires to the experts!

    • Tyler   June 17, 2016 at 6:52 pm

      They weren’t a hotshot crew…. Hotshots do not operate off of engines. They are 20 person hand crews

  2. Seth   June 20, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    Not a bad article Vincent, but there are some corrections that certainly should be made. I, like Frank, would be happy to talk with you on a potential follow-up article. I honestly can’t say there is a article out there that writes about Hotshots with justice – it is time the public had one. What better way to write one than to talk to a Crew. If you are local to the Big Bear Lake, then Big Bear Hotshots will be the closest Crew to you. However there are three other Crews on the San Bernardino National Forest: Vista Grande Hotshots (between Banning and Idyllwild), Del Rosa Hotshots (on the foothills above San Bernardino City) and Mill Creek Hotshots (where Highway 38 heads into the Mountains). On behalf of Mill Creek Hotshots, I would be more than happy to talk to you in person to set a few things straight – things that are crucial to accurately portray just what Hotshots do. Hotshots aren’t vain. I don’t feel the urge to run up to every camera and reporter I see to get a little ‘hero’ time. However, if you do want to write about what I do along with my brothers and sisters, then I will make sure you have sound facts.
    Appreciate the article. The invite is there.

  3. Frank   June 20, 2014 at 10:59 am

    Vincent,It seemed to me you meant well. we have the Big Bear Hotshots on the north shore of Big Bear Lake in Fawnskin, if you would like to have a sit down i’m sure the crew would be happy to speak with you.

    • Vincent Aviani   June 20, 2014 at 11:12 am

      Thank you Frank. After hundreds of articles, I was really surprised at the negative feedback. I respect the readership, but still surprised. Thanks for your information. I know a couple of those guys back by Big Pine Flats, so I would live to do a sit down. My email is Would love to connect.

  4. RAM   June 18, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Many times stories are written about Hotshots and what they do. However, like in real life Hotshots are elusive because they are on the mountain next to the fires edge. Places where writers and photographers never venture. So unless you go to a Hotshot Camp/ Station your only gonna get the story from the pavement where the municipal/local government strike team engines are. The same guys that have 0 experience and 100 pathetic stories about taking refuge in houses when they shouldn’t of been there in the first place. Hotshots are like the Special Forces. They are highly trained and are physical specimens. Hotshots is where quality leaders stay or come from because of the experience slides gained from an array of fire in different states, countries, fuel types, and terrain. They are not limited to So. Cal like L.A. County and others who are limited by jurisdiction. And as for Smokejumpers. Most good smokejumpers came from Hotshot crews. Smokejumpers are also like Special Forces but would never put themselves above Hotshots. Lots of mutual respect. I know because I’ve done both and anyone worth there salt understands this.


    • Vincent Aviani   June 18, 2014 at 9:24 am

      RAM, great insight. Any connections with the Hotshots in the Big Bear Lake area of the San Bernardino County mountains? I would love to follow up with another story in the future.
      Thanks for reading.

  5. Sarah   June 17, 2014 at 10:25 am

    Vincent, the fact that you said one person should talk to a smokejumper proves that you are incorrect about hotshots “jumping” from planes. Hotshots and smokejumpers are two completely different types of crews! I have seen this article posted on various fire sites and I can tell you that the resounding feedback is that people are dissapointed with the article.

    • Vincent Aviani   June 17, 2014 at 10:29 am

      Thanks Sarah. Well, as I said, I live in the mountains and know these guys personally. However, if another article is warranted, I would love to talk to you, Jake, Ray and other’s who would give me the chance. I take my writing job very seriously, but many times we are on deadline. However, I wasn’t trying to shortchange the subject matter at all. My highest respect goes out to all firefighters (my uncle was a Battalion Chief for LACFD.)

      Thanks again. Vincent

      • Sarah   June 17, 2014 at 8:27 pm

        Vincent, you are welcome to contact me. I am married to a hotshot, so I’d say I know them pretty “personally” as well. There are too many stories out there that don’t do these guys justice. Let’s get one right! Also, I recommend removing a photo of a guy with an scba and turnouts on from the article. As I’m sure you know, hotshots don’t wear that type of gear.

  6. Jake Mandelko   June 17, 2014 at 12:11 am

    this is a terrible article… Poorly written and full of inaccurate information.

  7. Ray   June 16, 2014 at 11:16 pm

    This story full of bad, incorrect information. Hotshots jumping into fire??…..Negative!

    • Vincent Aviani   June 17, 2014 at 7:23 am

      Ray: Sorry you feel that way although the story was well-researched. Yes, Hotshots jump from airplane’s (not sure I said “into fires…” You can talk with smokejumper Ramona Atherton. I live in the mountains and speak with these heros regularly. Thanks for your comments, though.

      • Vincent Aviani   June 17, 2014 at 7:54 am

        heroes 🙂

        • George Atwood   June 18, 2014 at 11:17 pm

          No Vincent, Hotshots DO NOT jump from airplanes. Ever. Your article is the very definition of not well researched. Hotshots never have jumped from airplanes. Not even one time in the history of Earth have Hotshots jumped out of airplanes, Vincent. Not even by accident. And it doesn’t matter if you live in the mountains, or if you know somebody who knows a Hotshot, they still don’t jump from airplanes, Vincent. Smoke jumpers jump from airplanes. Hotshots and Smokejumpers are 2 distinctly different entities. Hotshots drive as close as they can and walk in. Often they are flown in by helicopter, but no, they don’t jump out of helicopters either. I am sorry for sounding aggressive, but your “article” is so poorly researched, so inaccurate, that it’s actually offensive to me. Please, don’t do a follow up article Vincent. Not if you’re going to stand up for this piece and claim it’s well researched. It’s not. Please spare us any more “well researched,” articles masquerading as journalism if you’re not going to take the time to do honest work. “Research,” by repeating other people’s hack jobs isn’t research. It’s just another hack job. Try real journalism- get out there and interview the real thing! I can’t seem to log in with my real name. My name is George Atwood. I spent parts or full seasons on Palomar IHC, Bear Divide IHC, Fulton IHC, and Mendocino IHC. Get it right Vincent!

  8. Coach Atwood   June 16, 2014 at 10:42 pm

    My thoughts? Ok. This article is awful, it’s a disservice and completely disrespectful to the men and women who do Hotshot work. It is so loaded with inaccuracies, distortions, half truths, and BS, that it’s pathetic. The author could have at least taken the time to show the professionalism and respect to do his research proper, instead of churning out a hero piece that is complete garbage. I could list the BS, but it would take too long. But a good start would have been for the author, or the editor to at the very least use a file photo of a wildland firefighter, instead of a structural firefighter in full turnout gear and SCBA. It’s so pathetically innacurate that I have to wonder if either the author was just making things up because it sounded dramatic, or perhaps an experienced “source” was having some fun at the expense of the author? Believe me, the real job is amazing and interesting and challenging enough. You could have gotten it right, with accurate information and made a much better article. One based in the reality of truth. I have been there and done that, and those are my thoughts.


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