Area 'Hotshots' hit the road . . .again - Tucson Local Media: Pima Pinal

Area 'Hotshots' hit the road . . .again

Crew working more days in busy fire season

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Posted: Tuesday, July 15, 2008 11:00 pm

One Ironwood Hotshot handed a CD to another just before the 20-man firefighting crew headed out last Thursday to battle yet another blaze.

The CD for the start of a long drive to a wildfire north of Wickenburg: “Chronicles” by the power trio Rush.

It seemed like the logical choice, really, because that’s what powers the local crew of wildlands firefighters — the rush. In the song, “Working Man,” the group sings, “I got no time for livin’. Yes, I’m workin’ all the time.”

And that’s how the members of the Ironwood Hotshots must feel this fire season.

As of last Thursday, July 10, the crew had worked 68 days in the field, battling blazes here in Arizona as well as in California, New Mexico and Texas.

At that pace, the local Hotshots will spend more than 120 days in the field this season, according to Northwest Fire and Rescue District Wildlands Battalion Chief Dugger Hughes.

“These guys have had some tough days,” Hughes said. “We use the heck out of them.”

Shortly before 9 a.m. last Thursday, the crew of mostly youngish-looking, sinewy men milled about the district’s Wildland Operations Center off Curtis Road south of the Rillito.

Coming off three days’ rest, the crew got ready to head up the road to Yarnell to battle a 15-acre, lightning-sparked blaze on Antelope Mountain, north of Wickenburg.

A small fire, yes, but one that could grow to 1,500 acres in a matter of two hours, according to Chief Hughes.

Northwest Fire’s crew, in its first year with official Hotshot status, gets all the “worst assignments,” the chief said.

Worse assignments, or choice assignments? It depends on whom you ask.

“We’re kind of an adrenaline junkies,” said Greg Smith, the Hotshot crew’s superintendent.

Smith is one of five full-time Hotshot crewmen. The other 15 sign up for action only during the fire season year after year.

When they’re “laid off,” according to Hughes, which is sometime in October or November, a few of them head down to Mexico for extended vacations. A couple of them ride professionally on the rodeo circuit. Still others do time as ski bums in colder climes.

“By January or so, they’re itching to get back,” Hughes quipped.

It’s hard work, fighting wildfires.

The Ironwood Hotshots on average work 16 hours a day for 14 straight days when in the field, trying to stay ahead of fickle flames.

Federal rules require each man to get at least one hour of rest for every two hours of work, Hughes noted.

The Northwest Fire and Rescue District has fielded a wildlands firefighting crew since 1995. But the group didn’t achieve the elite Hotshot status until this year.

There are about 80 Hotshot crews nationwide that get dispatched to blazes throughout the United States.

The business of fighting wildland fires has grown more and more sophisticated over the years, according to Dugger, who spent 32 years with the Forest Service, himself a former Hotshot.

In the old days, Dugger recalled last week, he and crewmen rode to fires in a rickety, open-bed truck. It was hot and dusty on the way to a blaze, he said, and the men only got hotter and dustier — and possibly even scorched — when they attacked the fire.

Today’s Ironwood Hotshots ride to fires throughout the West in a pair of small converted school buses. Not exactly rolling up in style, but a far cry from a rickety work truck.

Still the work’s almost old-fashioned, according to crew superintendent Smith.

The men camp out at a blaze until it’s under control. The time outside’s great, Smith added. “You never see the same ground every time out.”

But, “if you like camping, you won’t after about 10 years in this job,” Smith said with a chuckle.

Soon after, he and the others rolled out of the fire district compound, on their way to another blaze.

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