Fighting Wildfires – The Crews Behind The Action

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CalFire firefighter Bo Santiago lights a backfire as the Rocky fire burns near Clearlake, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015. The fire has charred more than 60,000 acres and destroyed at least 24 residences. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)

We often take their presence at a wild land fire for granted but behind the uniform and the equipment are a number of different units, each with their own particular skill set and responsibilities.  Some units are more highly specialised than others too.

It all starts with forest maintenance and fire fuel reduction.  In many states the Forest Service districts have seasonal summer ground fire fighting positions available.  Those that have prior fire fighting or wildfire experience or know how to operate equipment such as chainsaws, stand a better chance of picking up one of these positions but in general they will quite often take on college or even high school students that meet the requirements for the job, one of which is being physically fit.  Once hired, on job training is provided.

These ground crews are generally part of wildfire suppression and fuel management activities, which are both vitally important jobs in wildfire management.  It often involves some pretty intensive physical work in what can be quite harsh conditions, particularly over the summer months.  There is plenty of walking over rough terrain, through bush, and hill climbing involved.  Ground crews also use a combination axe / digging tool called the Pulaski Tool to dig fire lines.

Seasonal ground crews may also be deployed in the event of a wildfire.  In the event of this occurring, fire crew leadership becomes extremely important as ensuring that these less experienced members of the fire crew are kept safe is of paramount importance.  Even so, several seasonal fire fighters tragically lost their lives in the 2001 Thirtymile Fire in northern Washington state after they were trapped in a canyon.

When it comes to fighting wildfires though the units we most commonly associate with wildfires are the fire engine crews.  These are the guys who come with the trucks and the tankers and are seen in the thick of the front line fighting the fire fronts, putting in containment lines, back burning and so on.

Specialist Crews In The Wildfire Fighting Service

Other units that you may not be aware of that play a vital role in wildfire fighting are the hotshot crews, the smokejumper crews and the helicopter-based hand crews.  The hotshot and smokejumper crews in particular are highly experienced and highly skilled.

Hotshot crews are an elite group of fire fighters.  These fire fighters are extremely fit, intensively trained and very experienced.  They are the ones usually sent to the hottest areas of wildfires, hence their name.  Across the US today there are more than 100 of these crews.  Their deployment is co-ordinated by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), which is located in Idaho, and they are sent wherever they’re required, regardless of jurisdiction.

Another highly specialised fire fighting unit are the smokejumpers.  These teams are usually sent by plane to the remotest sections of a wildfire, areas that are unable to be accessed by the ground crews.  They then parachute into these areas with fire fighting gear.  The smokejumper unit has a long history of some 70 or more years with the first fire jumps taking place in 1940.  A training base for smokejumpers was also established in Montana at Ninemile Camp.  Needless to say, smokejumping is a highly dangerous job and those firefighters who join the unit are extremely skilled, extremely fit and extremely experienced.  Unfortunately, despite all their experience and skills, the unit has suffered its share of tragedy with the loss of 12 smokejumpers in the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire.

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