'Hotshot' Firefighters Are Elite, Close-Knit Groups

The 19 firefighters who died in Arizona were part of an elite "Hotshot" group. Kyle Dickman, an editor at Outside Magazine who embedded with one of those units, tells Audie Cornish about how the Hotshots operate and the type of people drawn to this line of work.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The deaths of the 19 members of the Prescott Granite Mountain Hotshots has drawn focus to these elite units. More than 100 Hotshot crews work around the country and they're often the first line of defense in a major wildfire. These back country firefighters go in with nearly all of their equipment carried on their backs and stay for days at a time.

Their intense training programs are sometimes likened to that of Special Forces units in the military. To understand more about these crews, we turn to Kyle Dickman. He was once a Hotshot crew member in Tahoe and returned to his unit last summer to write about it for Outside Magazine. Kyle Dickman, welcome.

KYLE DICKMAN: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So begin just with your own experience. Describe what it's like when a crew first arrives on the scene. What are the kinds of things that they're seeing?

DICKMAN: Well, usually what you see when you pull up is a big column of smoke, actually. And it's pretty chaotic and there's a lot of fire engines. There's typically helicopters, water tenders. There's logistics and operations units there. So the Hotshots will pull in and, you know, get orders for that day. And typically, they'll show up and within a matter of, you know, 30 to 45 minutes, they'll be sent out onto the line.

CORNISH: And so talk a little bit about the work that Hotshot crews do. How is this different, say, from smoke jumpers who parachute straight into burning forests?

DICKMAN: Well, Hotshots are sort of elite teams of 20 men and women and their job is to fight the most dangerous fires in the West and very big fires. You know, that's the most significant difference. They'll go out to these fires and they'll build line. And what that means is removing all the vegetation, using chainsaws and shovels to move anything that's flammable in front of a fire and to remove it so that when the fire does burn into this line, it stops.

CORNISH: What is the training like for this kind of unit and can any amount of training really prepare you for what you encounter?

DICKMAN: Well, the training is very intense. I mean, I think fitness is - in the world of Hotshots, fitness is sort of the first line of safety. It's what allows these men and women to operate, you know, and to work for 16 hours a day on the line. But there's nothing that can prepare you for what you're going to experience out on the fire line. You know, it's always very hot.

It's, you know, 100 to 105 degrees and it can be very windy. There's poison oak. There's bugs. There's bees. I mean, it's just a difficult and a typically uncomfortable job.

CORNISH: What are the relationships that are built and how tight knit is this community?

DICKMAN: The community is very, very tight knit. These guys, you live and you sleep and you work with these people. You know, it's day in and day out. Usually, when you start the fire season, you go out and you'll start the fire season and, man, you don't know any of the - or you'll know some of the people that you work with, but not all of them. And there's sort of this - it's like going to school at your first day of school.

By the end of the year, you know, some of the guys that you're working with are your best friends and some of them are your enemies. And, you know, the crew that I embedded with last year, the one woman on the crew was - she went through a divorce and that's actually very common in wildland firefighting marriages because both the husband and the wife spend so much time apart.

You know, Hotshots will spend six months of the year traveling between fires, you know, in all 50 states.

CORNISH: You talk about husband and wife firefighting teams. What kind of person is drawn to this work?

DICKMAN: Well, it's a very, very diverse crowd. I mean, on the crew that I was working with there was college-educated guys with Masters degrees who had left jobs making $100,000 a year in finance working right beside guys who were ex-cons. And I think what unites these people is that they're all very tough and I think they're also passionate about their jobs.

I mean, they love spending the entire summer sleeping out. You know, they're camping in some of the most beautiful places in the West. Those places just happen to be on fire.

CORNISH: Kyle Dickman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DICKMAN: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Kyle Dickman is associate editor at Outside Magazine. He spoke to us from Sante Fe.

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