Handcrews are a diverse team of career and temporary agency employees with solid reputations as multi-skilled professional firefighters. The crews consist of 18 - 20 men and women and serve as the infantry of wildland fire forces. Working side by side, the crews main responsibilities are to construct a fireline a strip of land cleared of flammable materials and dug down to mineral soil around wildfires to control them, burn out fire areas, and mop up after the fire.
There are 5 levels or types of crews: Type I Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHC), Type 1, Type 2-Initial Attack (IA), Type 2, and Type 3. Type 2 crews are often made up of seasonal firefighters whereas a Type I IHC crew are "Hotshots" and have at least 7 full time, career firefighters on the crew (Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent, 3 Squad Bosses).
Depending on their qualifications and skill levels, crews may be divided into squads (4 or 5 firefighters each). The more qualified crews will have specialized personnel such as sawyers. Crews and managers must always keep an eye on the fire, and their mind on safety so each crew also has a "lookout", which is someone with considerable experience who monitors the work of the crew and also the fire. The lookout's job is to help ensure crew safety. Type 1 IHC crews draw specialized assignments that reflect their higher levels of experience and training, and they're dispatched nationwide to fires. For information on Interagency Hotshots Crews click here.
A crew's day generally starts at sunrise. After breaking camp, crews are transported to the fire. Once on location, crews grab their hand tools (chainsaws, pulaskis, shovels) for working the fireline. With a backpack weighing 25 pounds or more, the crew's next challenge may be a hike of several miles. Once at the fire, handcrews may spend 12 hours or more digging line.
Crews begin constructing fireline from an anchor point. An anchor point can be a road, a lake, a stream or river, or a large rock outcropping. It is used to prevent the fire from flanking the crew as they construct line around the perimeter of the fire.
To help construct containment lines, handcrews often rely on airtankers and helicopters. Retardant and water drops can help reinforce lines. While retardants do not stop advancing fire, they slow a fire's progress allowing handcrews to do their job.
Besides digging fire lines, firefighting involves cutting open smoldering trees to put out the sparks and spreading water dropped by helicopters or supplied by engine crews. Water is not always available; at those times, firefighters move everything from a hot spot, separating burning limbs and coals and covering them with dirt. They also patrol fire lines "to make sure nothing creeps over into other areas."
The National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) sets standards as to how much fireline a type of handcrew should construct in an hour. Lengths are noted by numbers of chains. A chain equals 66 feet. A Type 1 crew is expected to complete 30 chains (1980 feet) of line in short grass per hour. A Type 2 crew should complete 18 chains (1188 feet) in an hour. In brush a Type 1 crew should complete 6 chains in an hour and a Type 2 should complete 4 chains. The fireline has to be taken down to mineral soil with no combustibles inside it.
In short grasses and light fuels, a 12" - 36" fireline should halt the advance of the fire. In denser and larger fuels a fireline is merely a starting point. It may take an area of fireline, void of combustibles, more than 100 feet wide to halt the fire's spread. To achieve this, firefighters often rely on burnouts. If conditions, such as wind, permit, crews will start a fire at the fireline and allow it to burn to the approaching main fire. With all of the combustibles in its path depleted, the fire should die.
Safety is the number one priority and all efforts are made to ensure crew safety. There are many safety requirements and having a safety zone is one such requirement. Safety zones are large areas where crews can move to should the fire threaten them. As crews move so should the location of the safe zone. Safety zones can be a clearing, a previously burned area, or an area burned of fuel as firefighters move into them.
Wildfire handcrews exemplify the American spirit. They are self sufficient. They are expected to work hard. Long days are the norm. They often eat and sleep where they work, without luxury. They face danger daily and are the backbone of the "firefighting army" and earn great respect.