Hotshot crews are the best of the best of wildland fire fighters. They have been extensively trained to fight fires in remote areas with little or no logistical support in the most demanding conditions. Tragically, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were lost battling the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona this summer.
"In the world of wildland firefighting today, the hotshot crews are similar to the Special Forces in the military," said Dick Smith, a retired firefighter who spent 38 years fighting wildfires with the U.S. Forest Service. "They're highly trained and can meet the highest physical requirements."
Hotshot candidates must pass the arduous Pack Test and complete a series of physical activities, ranging from 40 sit-ups in 60 seconds to a 1.5-mile run under 11 minutes. The rigorous training ensures that the crews can perform in any location and under a multitude of circumstances.
“You run for miles and you put on all your gear, it’s about 40 pounds, and you walk straight up the side of a mountain until you get to the top and then you come back down and do it again,” said Frank Carroll, a retired Forest Service public information officer and former hotshot squad boss.
In addition to the strenuous physical training that is required, hotshots also are required to take classroom sessions on a variety of topics such as fire behavior, safety, communications and situational awareness.
Working in groups of 20, the crews are mobilized quickly. Within two hours of getting their orders, they are out the door. Because they are often dropped into remote areas and steep terrain, the crews learn how to fight fires with only the equipment they can carry with their hands.
"When the call comes, they don't know whether they're going to be at a fire 10 miles away or 500 miles away," said Smith. "That's what these crews are designed to be able to do. They are organized so that they're fully trained, fully ready and fully equipped."
Hotshot crews figure out how to get into their locations and begin constructing fire lines to contain fast-moving fires. For up to 16 hours a day, they arduously dig trenches and work in tandem clearing brush in the most taxing of situations. No matter how large a fire, there is always a need to have a firefighter with a shovel or chainsaw on the ground to see that a fire is out.
“There’s no amount of equipment that can replace what hotshots do. Someone has to put the fires out. God does it with rain, or we do it with our hands or our tools,” said Carroll.