When will Colorado be hit by another devastating wildfire? No one knows for sure—but we do know that the probability is high due to our naturally dry climate, a summer weather forecast of potential drought conditions, and the tinderbox effects of ubiquitous pine beetle kill. Here's what to expect—and how to make sure you're ready for the heat.
So You Think You're a Hotshot?
Three of Colorado's finest wildland firefighters, in their own words.
When the flames rage beyond the capabilities of local units, they set off a byzantine, zealously followed communications process that summons firefighting's elite: aka, the hotshots. The 20-person Interagency Hotshot Crews—Colorado has five of the 105 crews nationwide—are deployed anywhere wildland blazes have the highest priority. Extensive and rigorous training ensures that they are strong enough—mentally and physically—to endure the harshest conditions for days at a time without relief. With up to 45 pounds of gear per person, the crews attack each fire with a carefully devised strategy, often hiking miles of perilous, smoky terrain, digging endless trenches, and clearing acres of ground fuel from the fire's path. The labor is intense and exhausting, and seasonal hotshots—those on crews for six or eight months a year—don't even get government health insurance. But year after year, they return to battle the blazes. Here's why.
Paul Cerda, Alpine Interagency Hotshot Crew, Superintendent Based in Rocky Mountain National Park
As a supervisor, I'm thinking about how I'm going to get 20 guys home safe and complete the task. It comes down to how I'm going to make it home to see my son and my wife. You're married to the crew as well as to your significant other. You have two families, and you have to weigh the options. Right now the crew is important and I've got to take care of them; other times, the family comes first. Some people may look at it as crazy, but we're public servants—not necessarily thrill seekers or adrenaline junkies. It's a job, there are risks associated with it, and we have a specialty skill set: putting out fires and protecting life, property, and resources.
I was on a crew helping out in Arizona in 2004 when four guys were hit by lightning. Those are impacts you can't plan for—even the weather service didn't expect lightning in that area. We've had more close calls with the environment than with fires. You never know when a tree is going to fall or a rock the size of a Volkswagen comes down at 40 mph toward a group of guys. To plan for that, you need situational awareness—a 360-degree approach to the hazards. We plan for the worst; we don't hope for the best.
Thomas Dillon, Alpine Interagency Hotshot Crew, Lead Firefighter Based in Rocky Mountain National Park
We learn from past mistakes and try to be students of fire, always building on experience and making a mental "slide show" to just pull up and recognize certain things—weather conditions, fuel types, fire behavior—so you can adapt and react to your current situation.
In San Bernardino [California] in 2006, they lost five folks on the Esperanza Fire. Our crew got called in after the tragedy. Going to a week's worth of funerals and memorials made an impression that won't go away anytime soon.
It's the hardest job I probably ever will have as far as being physically and mentally challenged and staying sharp and positive. You're worn out, fatigued, away from home in close quarters, and living, eating, and sleeping with 20 other guys. It's a crazy atmosphere, but it becomes the norm. It probably seems more dangerous and crazy to outsiders than it really is.
When I look at having a personal life and sitting in an office 40 hours a week versus not having a personal life and loving what I do—traveling the country and being dropped off by helicopter in the wilderness where someone might not have been for 100 years—I hope to do this until I physically can't anymore.
Alissa Roeder, Pike Interagency Hotshot Crew, Superintendent Based in Monument, Pike National Forest
There are times when I think, "Wow, we're really on the edge." I can't guarantee anyone's safety, and rocks are rolling, trees are falling, planes are overhead. Digging line for miles and miles and miles, you wonder if you're going to make it. There have been times when I've felt like my insides were going to fall out.
You work so hard and get so tired. But you [rely on] adrenaline. What drives us is a sense of personal satisfaction; when you can turn around and see your work, it's something tangible we can all be proud of. A hotshot crew reminds me a lot of the military. I think it's the family aspect that enables us to band together the same way.
For many of us, we're driven by a fascination with a force of nature. Last year, we were on assignment, camped way up in the wilderness. The trees were full, and all of the sudden I looked up and it seemed like the trees were raining fire. It was incredibly beautiful, and seeing that made all those hours of pain and hard work worth it. It's part of the natural world, which means there's kind of a battle that you fight internally. I love trees...but there are too many of them in some places.