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Hot Shots in Hot Spots

The heat is intense. The smoke fills their lungs, sometimes for days at a time. But it’s the wind they keep their eyes on. The wind that can blast raging flames right across their control line with little warning. The wilderness firefighters who make up the Los Padres National Forest Hot Shots work in the danger zone, encircling blazes with little more than axes, chain saws and hoses.

And the winter rains just add to their chore during fire season, which can stretch from May until November. Grasses and shrubs sprout quickly in wet weather and make up the fuel that carries fire to the bushes and trees in the dry months.

The shifts are long; each one has its own objective--stopping the blaze from jumping to the next ridge or getting it under control. The Hot Shots carry 40-pound packs on their backs as they scramble through the rocky crags and hillsides to clear the underbrush that feeds the flames, sometimes working through the night when the temperature cools. It can be grueling work, some shifts running to 72 hours. And even when the fire is under control, the hand crews must be alert for wind-driven embers that can spark spot-fires a mile away.

What makes it worthwhile? “If we’re able to stop the fire before it can do too much damage,” says Mike McMillan. “There’s not too many people that share that experience.”

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