What It Takes to Be a Hotshot

At fire season's peak, we head out with California's firefighting elite to find out what it takes to run in their ranks
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Oct 11, 2015 | By Zach Piña

"A man is like fire, because a man and fire are the only two things in nature that turn their obstacles into fuel."
Marcus Aurelius

“Going on 21 hours in the field, my eyes stung with sweat, my legs felt like jello, and my clothes were soaking wet. All I could hear through my earplugs was the sound of my own labored breathing and the synchronized hum of our chainsaws. Across the steep hillside where we were deployed, I could see the headlamps from the A-Mod team closing in, flickering through the tinder-dry vegetation that we were peeling back like skin.

"I let out a loud "hoot” at the top of my lungs to let them know our tie-in was approaching. As their hoots echoed back through the smoke, my weary body took on a fresh dose of adrenaline, giving me and my saw partner just enough strength to pick up the pace and finish the brutal task at hand."

For the uninitiated, the Hotshots are a company of the hardest, most elite firefighters in the U.S. Forest Service. Quite simply, they’re a selection containing the best of the best. We recently had a chance to get to know Gregg Boydston — a four-year veteran of the Hotshots who quit his day job at the Apple Genius Bar and found his calling "spiked-out" in remote stretches of wilderness, cleaving flora, rock and loam and engaging Mother Nature’s most destructive wrath in direct hand-to-saw combat. To say the least, Gregg is sort of a badass, but the soft-spoken Riverside, California native probably wouldn’t use those exact words. 

Think of a Hotshot in the same way an elite combat unit would be deployed in the most dangerous conflict zones around the world: strapped to the gills and equipped to hike, rappel, or parachute into the heart of the blaze and strike back with strategic, military precision. It’s well behind the lines where forest fires are most often beaten — using tactics like backfires, and brush-clearing to starve the fire of fuel, slowing or redirecting its movement, or stopping it outright. 

“I could tell we were almost at the finish line of this marathon, set ablaze two weeks previous by a lightning strike. As all four teams arrived at the saw cut, the A-Mod headlamps grew into a singular swath of light, and the cacophony of their saws began singing in tune with ours. Despite being soaked with enough sweat to look like we just got out of a swimming pool, we were all smiles and fist bumps as we knew we just earned ourselves a few cold ones at the end of this brutal assignment.

"We took the moment of respite to chug canteens and sharpen our saws. Not far behind us were the remaining Hotshots, chipping through the rock and poison oak strewn across the treacherous hillside. Their task was to create a two-foot scrape down to mineral soil, that ran down the middle of the saw cut we’d just finished. Combined with our freshly cleared cut, this scrape would effectively create a wide ‘moat,’ devoid of fuel that the fire would be unable to cross.

"'B-Mod, let's go!' The ten of us rose to our feet and prepared to take the fight further uphill to ambush the second of many fires that were sparked in this region of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in the same week." 

To say that being a Hotshot requires a certain set of skills is something of an understatement. In Gregg’s first season with the unit, he quickly racked up 900 hours of overtime. To scale: most people work 2,000 hours in a year, but a Hotshot works that in six months. Granted, most people also don’t call a raging backcountry wildfire an “office,” or fill their LinkedIn profiles with the skills demanded by the unit (re: "the ability to carry over 70 pounds of tools and survival gear over consecutive weeks of prolonged hiking in extremely high-stress environments”), but that’s beside the point.

What is the point, is that it takes some seriously special mental and physical fortitude to be able to stay calm and perform one’s duties under such strenuous conditions. “Being a Hotshot will definitely make you a man,” Gregg tells us. We’ll let him boast a little bit, because we’re not about to argue. [H]

As simple as it theoretically is, some of the easiest tenets of fire safety remain a foreign concept to many people, including those who spend a lot of time outside. Especially here in drought-stricken California, where many wildfires are started by avoidable triggers, it's crucial to have the basics down. Regardless of where you live, the next time you're out in nature, follow these straightforward tips from Gregg to make sure you're not accidentally causing any wildfires. 

Don’t have campfires where they are restricted

"Often specific areas and times of the year put out fire restrictions which don’t allow you to have fires even in designated fire pits. These restrictions can be issued for many reasons: wind, heat, and severe drought, to name a few. Many wildfires are started by illegal campfires."

Completely extinguish your fires when you are done

"Fires smolder for a surprising amount of time and could later start something much larger than expected. The rule of thumb is to have water and a shovel with you when having a fire. This lets you dump the water to extinguish it followed by stirring up the heat to be sure."

Call in any smoke you see that might be something uncontrolled

"The sooner something is reported, the quicker resources can get a jump on the fire. You would be surprised how many fires are reported by folks just driving down the highway."

If you are having car troubles on the side of the road, be careful where your vehicle is parked

"Quite a bit of wildfires are started by vehicles being parked in brush, whether it be your car overheating or your brakes." 

Keep those drones out of the fire's area

"I was on multiple fires this last fire season where aircraft were grounded due to drones flying in the area. No air support means a few things — no eyes in the sky, no water/retardant support, and no troop shuttles. Trust me, I love aerial footage and photography — but I also like a safe work environment."

Think you’ve got the mental strength and physical fitness it takes to be a Hotshot? Apply here at USAJobs.
Hint: Gregg’s application stood out thanks to his EMT certificate, degree in Fire Science, and a full summer’s worth of experience living out of his tent to work fire lines with a contract crew in the Pacific Northwest.

Zach Piña is Huckberry's Managing Editor and resident watch nerd.
In another life, he was a pastry chef on Zissou's Bellefonte. 
Follow him on Instagram here

Images ©: Gregg Boydston