Their faces, covered with dirt and soot, represent the nine grueling hours they’ve just spent chopping down trees and clearing vegetation. Yet, they push on to create a winding dirt path through a thickly-wooded forest. The 18,500 acre wide fire, which is their nemesis, has already burned hundreds of homes and threatens to consume more.
With every muscle in their bodies screaming in pain and their minds begging them to quit, they push on in the sweltering Colorado heat; a heat magnified by still-smoldering timber nearby.
The firefighters are committed to pushing through the exhaustion until 6 p.m., when they can go back to base camp for showers and a hot meal.
The crackle of the radio breaks the whirring sound of a chainsaw cutting through a tree limb. Crushing their hopes, a voice on the other end gives them the news that they’re not leaving at 6 p.m. after all.
For a fleeting moment, their will falters as a day’s hard work has already taken its toll. But then they look down the mountain and see the homes. Some have already burned to the ground, while others are still standing in exactly the condition their families hurriedly abandoned them. Seeing the homes reminds this elite team of their own back in California. The firefighters put themselves in the families’ positions and know they’d hope someone was on the mountain, fighting to save their homes.
And they push on.
This crew of sweaty, sooty firefighters makes up the Hot Shots from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and they’ve been called in to help put out the Waldo Canyon fires in Colorado Springs. They’re the only officially trained hot shot crew in the Department of Defense, and it’s their job to go on foot into the most dangerous sections of a wildland fire, where heavy equipment can’t reach.
“People always ask what we do, and it’s kind of hard to explain because they don’t really understand,” said Jesse Hendricks, the hot shots superintendent. “We hike up steep terrain, carrying 50 pounds on our backs. Some of us carry a 50-pound pack and a 28-pound chainsaw. You’re hiking up in 100-degree weather, wearing long-sleeved shirts, pants, boots, a helmet and carrying 75 pounds on your back. Then, most people kind of go, “Whoa! That’s what you do?”
The Hot Shots’ equipment isn’t composed of fire engines and water hoses. Their main tools are chainsaws, shovels and other hand implements they use to create dirt paths through sections of a forest to stop the fire from spreading. Other times, they may start a controlled burn to ensure the fire doesn’t spread out of control.
On one day, while fighting the Waldo Canyon fire, they managed to carve a break line about a sixth of a mile, a long distance, considering the intense heat, steep terrain and heavy vegetation they have to battle.
“Out here, it’s super, super rocky, so it’s really hard on our tools. We try to keep them sharp, but when you’re running your tool over rocks and who knows what else, they dull out pretty quick,” said Richard Strange, a former blackjack dealer who’s in his sixth season with the Air Force Hot Shots.
These firefighters must overcome another factor – the high elevation.
“This fire has been difficult for this crew because of where we’re from,” Strange said. “We’re at a really low elevation, and here we are at 7,000 feet. I think there’s fire burning up to 13,000 feet. It’s been really hard the first two days, but we’re getting used to it, and we’re pushing through it.”“Never in our wildest dreams did we ever think that anything like this would happen, but it just amazes me that people are willing to put their lives on the line.” – Robin Moran
The 18-person crew is broken up into two teams, each with a captain, squad boss, a sawyer, puller and several members using hand tools. The captains and squad boss serve as lookouts and keep track of weather and wind patterns that could quickly turn the fire onto the crew. The sawyer runs the chainsaw, cutting down limbs, trees and vegetation, while the puller follows, removing what has been cut down. The “tools” then come behind to take what’s left and ensure there’s only dirt left, which serves as the break line.
“One of our captains asked us to put ourselves in the residents’ shoes. He said to ask ourselves, ‘What would I do if this was my house out there? Would you be all right with it?’” said Chris Loung, a tool scrape, who, at 33 years old, is the oldest firefighter on the team. “You want to do your best because you know the implications.”
Every member of the crew has a different story to tell. Each person comes from a unique background and joined the team for different reasons.
Loung, a successful engineer for seven years, abandoned that career to follow his childhood dream to become a firefighter.
“Sometimes I look back and think, ‘I’m not making anywhere near the money I used to,’ but I always think of the end goal,” he said. “I’m happy when I come home. I don’t have to bring work back with me to my house; it’s not affecting me.”
Another reason Loung loves his new profession As an Air Force Hot Shot, it gives him a sense of camaraderie he never felt before.
“In my previous profession, I never had quite the brotherhood from my coworkers that we have here,” said Loung, who graduated from San Diego State University with a degree in mechanical engineering. “It pretty much boils down to (the fact) that you’re entrusting your safety into your coworkers’ hands, and there’s no greater trust than that.”
Others, like Eric Garcia, have already spent a career with the Hot Shots and have moved on to become a more traditional structure firefighter. Because the Hot Shots are currently undermanned, a few spots became available for this fire, and he jumped at the opportunity to have one more mission with the team.
“I volunteered because it’s some really hard work, and it’s really rewarding,” Garcia said, who was with the Hot Shots for eight years. “I look at these guys, and they’re motivating me. I’m trying to keep up with them, and I’d like to think I’m motivating them too. We all play off each other and give each other energy.”
That commitment to serve and put themselves in harm’s way doesn’t go unnoticed by Colorado Springs residents, whose homes are in danger from the fire.
“Never in our wildest dreams did we ever think that anything like this would happen, but it just amazes me that people are willing to put their lives on the line,” said Robin Moran, who stood outside a cordon looking at her house through a telescope.
Her house survived the fire, but both her neighbor’s houses and several others on her street burned to the ground.
“It really doesn’t seem real. I keep thinking about what it’s going to be like to go home,” she said. “Our house is fine, but then I realize that there are whole streets near us that are completely gone. It’s hard to fathom what it’s going to be like.”
The Hot Shots can’t save every house, but they push their bodies and minds to the limit to save every life and house possible.
“It can be rough sometimes. It can be really frustrating, but it’s what we all signed up for,” Strange said. “And we love it.”
Editor’s note: The Vandenberg Hot Shots was formed after three Vandenberg AFB leaders were killed during the Honda Canyon fire on base Dec. 20, 1977. Those who were killed were Col. Joseph Turner, the base commander; Billy Bell, the fire chief; and Eugene Cooper, the assistant fire chief. Heavy Equipment Operator Clarence McCauley was also severely burned and later died due to his injuries.