Up In Smoke

 Wildland Firefighting

Name Larry Money
Age 38
Title Superintendent, Roosevelt Interagency Hotshot Crew
On the job 15 years
Location Fort Collins
Typical hotshot wages $15 per hour, plus hazard pay and overtime; around $40,000 per year
Slogging up a hill in 100-degree heat with 65 pounds of gear and water on your back while a wildfire rages beside you sounds like a cruel punishment. Except that it’s not—at least, not for Larry Money and his crew of 20 hotshots. These elite wildland firefighters (there are five crews in Colorado) train as a unit for deployment to the most critical fires in Colorado and across the country.

Money’s crew worked 19 blazes between May and October last year with only 20 days off. The shifts—Money begins scouting the fire line at 6 a.m.—are brutally long, typically lasting 14 to 16 hours. But fatigue isn’t necessarily the biggest danger, nor is the heat or flames. “On the line, it’s gravity,” Money says. “Falling trees, rolling rocks, stuff falling out of the trees. Fire is a threat, but you can kind of see it and keep an eye on it. The things that get firefighters hurt more often are anything rolling down the hill at them.”

By 10 p.m. on any given workday, the hotshots have been digging fire lines, hiking, sawing, and “mopping up” smoldering areas for nearly twice as long as the average American’s workday. Sleep is essential. But there are no shelters in the wilderness, and tents take too much time to set up. So the hotshots use nothing more than sleeping bags laid on the hard ground.

Since 2001, more than 200 firefighters have been killed fighting wildland blazes across the country. The Roosevelt Hotshots have suffered just two injuries that required medical treatment in 12 years, but even with their safety record, it’s still an extreme way to make a living. “When you’re down to that last four to six weeks of the season, you’re getting tired, you’ve been gone from home for forever, and you’re just kind of beat up all the way around—mentally, emotionally, physically,” Money says. “You’ll have days when you’re miserable, walking across the desert, looking at land that’s still burning, and you’ve got 12 hours ahead with no shade. But the next day you go to another fire and forget all about it. Hotshots have short-term memories. That’s why they come back every year.”