It was an historic fire year across the Western United States and the Flathead Hotshots were in the thick of it once again.
The Hotshots just wrapped up their 51st fire season. All told, they went to 22 blazes, the latest was close to home — mopping up the still smoldering Sprague Fire in Glacier National Park. That’s more fires than usual — on average, they go to about 14 fires a year.
The team spends a lot of time on the road and in the woods a long ways from home. They went to a whopping nine fires in the first 14 days this year, following the fire season as it moved across the country.
This year was an historic summer, with well over 1 million acres burning in Montana alone.
Local fire managers said they saw fire behavior like they’ve never seen before.
The hotshots? Not so much.
“We see extreme fire behavior everywhere,” noted superintendent Shawn Borgen. This summer in Montana did come with some difficult blazes, for sure.
“We had fires burning at night with more intensity than in the daytime,” he noted.
The toughest blaze of the season they were on was the Sliderock Fire in the Sapphire Complex down in the Bitterroot.
“It wouldn’t stay in the box,” said squad leader Matt Delaney. The fire was burning in steep, challenging, terrain and kept jumping the lines, he noted.
The Sliderock Fire would end up being the smallest of the blazes in that complex, at a little more than 900 acres.
But fires are fires, big or small, and when called into service, the crew goes at it hard.
Hotshot crews in general have at least a couple of years of firefighting experience under their belts, with experience at the district level or on initial attack. They see an awful lot of incidents in the course of a season. In six months, the crew will rack up a whopping 900 hours of overtime on average. That’s a full year’s worth of work crammed into six months. They work 14 days on, with busy fire days running 14 to 16 hours a day. After a 14-day stint, they get two days off, and then they’re back at it again.
“It’s not that we do anything special,” Borgen noted. “We just do it with a much higher frequency ... If it burns, we go.”
There’s more than 100 hot shot crews in nationwide, with the average age of a crew member in the 20s.
The Flathead crew is older, more experienced, with more than a few in the 30s and older. They’re professionals and get the job done, but they’re not as militaristic as some other crews, they noted in a recent interview.
Joan Schumacher, for example, has been fighting fires, primarily as a Hotshot, since 1992.
There’s a general camaraderie among the crew. They get along, and it shows.
“We don’t sweat the small stuff,” noted member Jim Vanice.
The work is grueling at times, but rewarding. They lug around a lot of gear. An average pack runs from 60 to 80 pounds. Imagine taking all the stuff you’d need to go camping with for several days, and then add all the stuff to fight a fire, including a heavy hand tool or chain saw, a fire shelter, 24 hours worth of food, batteries, tape, compass, a radio, headlamps, GPS, toilet paper and water — lots of it — upwards of two gallons per person. That’s 16 pounds of water.
They sometimes take tents, but often don’t sleep in them. It’s just another thing that has to be broken down in the morning. So they often sleep under tarps.
“Sometimes you get a bug in your ear,” Borgen noted.
And it stays there the whole summer.
Danny Bondurant is one of the crew’s sawyers. His pack also contains a 30-pound chainsaw with a 28-inch bar.
He cuts down trees to build a fire line, while the crews dig and clear line behind him.
It’s dangerous, but rewarding work.
“It’s satisfying to look back and see a piece of line,” he said.
The role of Hotshots has evolved over the years. They don’t just go to fires. Today they go to hurricanes, search and rescues, and other natural disasters. Several of them are trained Emergency Medical Technicians.
But it can be tough to maintain a relationship or marriage, as they’re gone for six months out of the year.
“It’s all on my wife,” said Hotshot Tracey Simonson. “She’s running the household when I’m gone. I can’t do the job without her help.”
Simonson and his wife have a young child and another one on the way.
Being a Hotshot is a badge of honor.
None of them can imagine going back to a 9 to 5 gig.
“This crew represents a cross section of what the Flathead Valley is,” Borgen said. “We go across the country and crush it.”