Hotshots: What It's Like To Be An Elite Firefighter

Jul 1, 2013
Originally published on July 11, 2013 7:50 am

Most of us are learning a new meaning for the term “hotshot,” with the tragic news that 19 firefighters — most of them members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots – died fighting an out-of-control wildfire in Arizona yesterday.

The fire is believed to have been caused by a lightning strike on very dry brush and grass.

“The guys that you’re working with, they’re your best friends. It really becomes a family. It’s also incredibly difficult.”
–Kyle Dickman

Because it was close to the town of Yarnell, Ariz., population 650, officials marshaled an emergency management team and over 200 firefighters, including the elite group of firefighters known as hotshots.

The hotshots were apparently building a fuel break along the eastern edge of the fire when the blaze overtook them.

Kyle Dickman is an associate editor for Outside magazine. He was a hotshot before becoming a magazine editor — he belonged to the Tahoe Hotshot Crew.

“The last time we saw a major fatality like this was 1994,” Dickman told Here & Now. “So I think it’s very hard for the community.”

Dickman, who started fighting forest fires when he was 18, says there are about 117 hotshot crews nationwide.

Although the hotshots are based in different communities around the country, they are deployed like soldiers, to wherever there is a major blaze. Dickman describes hotshots as “the frontline troops.”

“They are the guys who go into the biggest blazes and fight the most dangerous part of the biggest fires in the country,” Dickman said.

Hotshots’ jobs — needless to say — are incredibly demanding, making the community of hotshots tight-knit.

“It’s simultaneously the best and the worst job I’ve ever had in my life,” Dickman said. “The guys that you’re working with, they’re your best friends. It really becomes a family. It’s also incredibly difficult. And I think that’s part of the reason you get to be so close to these guys, is you’re out there, working 18 hours a day.”

Despite the great tragedy of 19 lives lost so suddenly, Dickman hopes everyone remembers that the Granite Mountain Hotshots were doing what they loved.

“They really do love their jobs,” Dickman said.


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Well, they were called Hotshots, and it was the highest compliment. They were the elite, almost all of them members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots from Prescott, Arizona. And they died fighting an out-of-control wildfire yesterday. That fire has now quadrupled in size, with over 200 firefighters on the scene, more on the way. Officials have evacuated all residents in the way of the fire.

Kyle Dickman was a Hotshot, and then he wrote about them. And we want to spend a few minutes with him today, learning more about what these men and women do. Kyle Dickman joins us from his office at Outside Magazine, where he's the associate editor.

Kyle, 19 firefighters dead. This must hit very hard.

KYLE DICKMAN: Yeah, it really is tragic. I mean, it's - we haven't seen anything like this for a long, long time, and I think the last time we saw a major fatality like this is 1994. So it's - I think it's really hard for the community.

YOUNG: Yeah, and it wasn't 19 - well, you mean the community there in Arizona, but also across the country. Just tell us, how many Hotshot firefighters, about, are there?

DICKMAN: Well, there's about 117 crews nationwide, and, you know, it's a 20-person crew. But, you know, wild land firefighting is a much bigger community than just the Hotshots. It's, you know, anybody who's out there, you know, the guys on the engines, the smoke jumpers. I think anybody who has fought wild land fire really feels this tragedy.

YOUNG: Yeah. And what exactly do they do. Just distinguish them from a smoke-jumper, let's say, or someone else.

DICKMAN: Well, the Hotshots are - they're sort of - you know, you've got to think of them as, like, the frontline troops. So they're the guys who go into the biggest blazes and fight sort of the most dangerous parts of the biggest fires in the country. And they're, you know, they're really the ones who are out there. And they're a national resource. So it's - they're sent from - you know, a crew can be based in California, which is where I was based, and then they can be picked up and sent to Montana or Florida, or really anywhere that they're needed.

YOUNG: Yeah. And just tell us a little bit about you, because as we said, you were a Hotshot. You started with the Forest Service, engine crew when you were an 18-year-old college student, you know, worked a lot of fires, had a lot of - I mean, it sounds as if - we're thinking now of these deaths, but hard, hard work. You know, you have poison ivy all the time. You know, you're constantly suffering from other things.

DICKMAN: Yeah. I mean, it's simultaneously the best and the worst, you know, job I've ever had in my life. It's like the guys that you're working with, they're, you know, they're your best friends. It really becomes a family. It's also incredibly difficult. And I think that's part of the reason that, you know, that you get to be so close to these guys, is you're out there, you're working 18 hours a day. You're cutting line. You're sweating together.

You know, it's like you live, breathe, you know, everything for eight months. And so it's - I mean, it's a really intense experience. And - but it's also - these guys love it. I mean, that's - I hope that that's not forgotten, is that these guys, you know, these Granite Mountain Hotshots, really - I would bet to a man that, you know, they really do love their jobs. And they were out there doing what they - hopefully what they love. I mean, it's not a justification for the tragedy, but...

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, you know, it's interesting: A line from your article jumps out with new meaning today, because you talk about swinging a heavy tool for this, what, 18 hours a day. You left the Hotshots proud that you'd simply survived the work, but also the danger. I know you're not covering this fire, but it's believed to have been caused by a lightning strike. It was close to the town of Yarnell. We spoke of this small town, 650 people.

So there was an emergency management team, over 200 firefighters, including the Hotshots. They were apparently building a fuel break along the eastern edge of the fire. Again, you are not reporting directly on this fire, but what - we've heard that a wind might have turned the fire on them. Is that your guess of what happened?

DICKMAN: Yeah. I'll just reiterate what you said. I don't know - there aren't a lot of aren't a lot of details that are out there yet, but my understanding is that what happened is that - so these guys were out, you know, there were structures, and, you know, this is a high-priority fire because there were structures nearby.

And they'd sent these crews out to go protect these houses, and about 3:30 on Sunday afternoon, it looked like there were some thunderstorms developing to the northwest. And what happened is it looked like it was moving toward the southwest, and it was pushing these winds, 40 to 50-mile-an-hour winds down these canyons that then fanned this fire.

And in sort of a matter of moments it goes from something that's manageable and controllable to something that is certainly not. And I think these guys just, you know, they got caught up in a very, very bad situation. And one question that I think will be answered in the coming days is what is - if, in fact, it was a thunderstorm, why didn't we know about it? You know, why wasn't it - why wasn't there - why wasn't the weather service, you know, giving warnings about it, and that type of thing?

YOUNG: Yeah, that lightning. Well, you also noted a detail reported in the Los Angeles Times that the Wickenburg Community Hospital near the site was told to expect injured firefighters. It's painful, but what did that say to you?

DICKMAN: Oh, it's - well, I think - I was speaking to Rick Cowell, who's the superintendent of the crew that I was working with. And he said that, you know, we were talking about how it might have happened. And what he had suggested was that the superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, they were just focused on one thing, and that's getting all of those guys, his entire crew, to safety.

And so they weren't on their radios talking to the other - you know, the other crew members on the line. And they were just pushing, they were trying to get out of there, trying to find a spot where they could deploy their shelters that would be safe. And what he suggested is probably the first time that they knew that something really bad had happened was - it was the radio silence.

It's when somebody called the Rocky Mountain - or I'm sorry, the Granite Mountain Hotshots on the radio, and there was, you know, there was no response.

YOUNG: Yeah. And maybe their last communication might have been, you know, that there's trouble on the way. That's Kyle Dickman of Outside Magazine, also a former member of the Tahoe Hotshots, talking to us about what we can glean about the men and women we don't know, the 19 who died in the fire in Arizona, and what we can know more to honor the work that they did.

So, Kyle, we're going to ask you more about that when we come back after a break, what about the tents that they might have used. Tell us how these shelter tents work. If you're a Hotshot across the country and this is affecting you, we want to hear from you at Back with more of Kyle Dickman in one minute, Here & Now.


YOUNG: It's Here & Now. And we are talking about that fire in Yarnell, Arizona, today, actually overnight. Nineteen firefighters killed last night, including 18 members of an elite Hotshot crew based in Prescott, Arizona. We're talking with Kyle Dickman, who was on a Hotshot team in Tahoe, now an associate editor for Outside Magazine.

Kyle, we know this has been tough for you. Are you OK to talk more?

DICKMAN: Yeah, mostly it's the families I think we should - but yeah, absolutely.

YOUNG: Well, tell us more about that because, you know, we heard a woman finding out on the television her husband was one of those killed. And you write about, you know, there's divorces within these community even when firefighters marry each other. It's a tough life.

DICKMAN: Yeah, it is a hard life. They spend - the Hotshots spend a lot of time on the road. I mean, they spend six to eight months, you know, of the year traveling between fires, and I think, you know, that can be both - there's a lot of - frankly there's a lot of marriages in fire that don't succeed because of it.

I just hate - I hate to think of the families, who - you know, it's - I think the Forest Service and all of these agencies do a really, really excellent job of mitigating the risks, and there are a lot of them. And it's sort of amazing that we don't hear - we don't see more fatalities on the fire line than we do. And so when it does happen, it is just such a shock to the community.

And, you know, to speak to how tight that community is, last night after I got the news yesterday, you know, I went online, and I started reading about it, and the first thing I saw was a Facebook page that had been created, and this was hours after the news broke. And there was 56,000 people who got online and, you know, showed their support for the people who - you know, for the firefighters who died.

It is really, it's a really strong community of people.

YOUNG: Yeah, well, Kyle Dickman of Outside Magazine, you were once one of them, with the Tahoe Hotshots. Thanks for giving us a little sense of what the life of these 19 who have died was like. Thank you.

DICKMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.