Hotshots and smokejumpers are firefighting teams that specialize in suppressing wildland fires. Although “wildland fires” is a somewhat intuitive term, let’s look at three fundamental definitions to ensure we’re on the same page.
First of all, “wildland” is a term that represents an area in which development is essentially non-existent, except for roads, railroads, powerlines, and similar transportation facilities. Structures, if any, are widely scattered. More to the point of this article, wildland doesn’t include your local neighborhood park.
So, that makes “wildland fire” pretty simple to appreciate, but there’s even a definition for that. The term refers to a fire “originating from an unplanned ignition, such as lightning, volcanos, unauthorized and accidental human caused fires, and prescribed fires that are declared wildfires.”
And “prescribed fires” do not include your BBQ getting out of control. Although prescribed fires are intentionally set for a number of reasons, it’s not to cook hot dogs. Legitimately prescribed fires are set for firefighter training, managing forests, as well as other purposes. More specifically, these fires are created and managed according to applicable laws, policies, and regulations.
From a practical perspective, wildland fires occur in areas where there is fuel to be burned – such as trees and brush – since there are large desert wildlands that do not represent fire hazards due to insufficient fuel.
Wildfires are anticipated, seasonal occurrences in the western United States as well as many countries. Start with some hot and dry conditions and an accumulation of natural fuel and many wildlands around the globe are a potential wildland fire, simply waiting their turn to burn.
With the above definitions as a backdrop, it should come as no surprise that firefighting in wildland areas requires different techniques, equipment, and training than structural fire fighting in populated areas. Working in conjunction with specially designed aerial firefighting aircraft, wildfire-trained crews construct fire lines and extinguish flames to protect resources and natural wilderness. Let’s get introduced to some of the best of these wildland firefighters.
In the United States, hotshots represent diverse teams of career and temporary wildland firefighters (handcrews). They respond to large, high-priority fires across the country and are assigned to work the most challenging parts of the fire.
Hotshot crews are the most highly trained, skilled and experienced type of handcrews. They are qualified to provide leadership for initial-attack and extended-attack on wildland fires.
Hotshots are trained and equipped to work in remote areas for extended periods of time with minimal logistical support.
A hotshot crew consists of approximately 20–22 members, led by a minimum of one superintendent, one or two assistant superintendents, two or three squad leaders, and two senior firefighters.
Hotshot crews are proficient in a range of fire suppression tactics and tools, including the use of chainsaws, hand tools, ignition devices and water delivery equipment.
They are organized by agencies such as the United States Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, and state/county agencies. However, the National Interagency Fire Center coordinates hotshot crews at the federal level.
Hotshot Crews started in Southern California in the late 1940s on the Cleveland and Angeles National Forests. The name was in reference to being in the hottest part of fires. Their specialty is wildfire suppression, but they are sometimes assigned other jobs, including search and rescue and disaster response assistance.
While not fighting fires, hotshot crews typically work in their home units to meet resource goals such as thinning, prescribed fire operations, forest improvement, and trail construction projects.
Smokejumpers are already very experienced firefighters, having been recruited from other top fire crews, including hotshot crews, across the nation. But of course, their most distinguishing feature is that they are inserted at the site of the fire by parachute.
Furthermore, smokejumpers are supplied by parachutes with food, water, and firefighting tools, making them self-sufficient for 48 hours. Smokejumpers are usually on duty from early spring through late fall.
In addition to performing the initial attack on wildfires, they may also provide leadership for extended attacks on wildland fires.
Smokejumping was first proposed in 1934 as a means to quickly provide initial attack on forest fires. By parachuting in, self-sufficient firefighters arrive fresh and ready for the strenuous work of fighting fires in rugged terrain. The first fire jump was made in 1940 on Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest.
Today, Smokejumpers travel all over the country, including Alaska, to provide highly-trained, experienced firefighters and leadership for quick initial attack on wildland fires in remote areas.
Many smokejumpers have over 10 seasons of fire experience and some have over 20. Additionally, many have advanced degrees in fire management, ecology, forestry, engineering, sociology, biology, and various other sciences.
Some might consider it crazy to jump out of an airplane into a forest fire, but that sums up smokejumpers. On the other hand, fighting any kind of fire, regardless of the means of arriving, would also not be deemed a favorable way to earn a living for a large part of the populations around the globe, so I guess we’re talking about a relative amount of “crazy.”