WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. In the war against forest fires in the West, the Helena Hotshots are the U.S. Forest Service's answer to the Army's Green Berets.
They are the most highly trained, physically fit firefighter crews around. They go to the hottest, most inaccessible and dangerous parts of major wildland blazes. If they can't stop a fire, nobody can.
That is why Kenneth Chester and the 19 other members of the Helena Hotshots are here. A fire north of West Yellowstone has blown out of control, exploding from 80 acres to 2,000 acres. There is some danger the fire could march up the Gallatin Canyon through the resort town of Big Sky, consuming hundreds of houses along the way.
Chester and his crew are here to stop it.
They arrive on a Tuesday night, driving the 175 miles from Helena in three Chevrolet Suburbans and a fire supply truck. They set up camp in a tent city that has sprung up alongside U.S. 287 to manage the firefighting effort.
Among the 200 people dedicated to the fire, they are the crew with the most training and experience. Early the next morning they go to work digging fire lines in an effort to contain the blaze.
They cut trees, clear brush and scrape off topsoil in a strip, trying to deprive the blaze of fuel as it advances through the forest. Eventually, the fire will be surrounded by an unburnable ring.
Every crew digs fire line. It is the most basic tactic wildland firefighters have. But the Hotshots do it faster, better and under tougher conditions than other crews.
"They go into an area where you're convinced there's no way a line can be built," said Linda Williams, an information officer on another Montana fire, about her Hotshot crews. "Thirty minutes later they've cleared everything and built a wide line. I don't think people realize that what they do is backbreaking labor."
The U.S. government has 70 Hotshot crews around the country, based mostly in the West. Most work for the U.S. Forest Service, but a few belong to the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, tribal groups and states.
Ordinary crews may only spend a few months or weeks fighting fires, mostly near home. Hotshots work the entire fire season, from May as late as November, and go wherever they are needed.
The same 20 people work and live together constantly. They camp out either in busy military-style fire camps with mess trucks and mobile laundries, or deep in the wilderness with nothing to eat but MREs, military meal packets.
It's a tough job, and crew boss Larry Edwards has no time for whiners.
"Everybody that's doing it signed up to do it," he said.
On the line, helicopters thump overhead, ferrying 75-gallon buckets of water to the fire's hottest spots. Occasionally a crew member talks to a chopper pilot by radio to help him to his target.
It's this ability to do just about anything that makes the Hotshots so valuable, Edwards said. Hotshots can dig firelines, direct helicopters and perform the risky backburns meant to stop an advancing fire by consuming the fuel out ahead of it. Some Hotshots are trained to use explosives to blast a fire line when there isn't enough time to dig one.
The job can sometimes be terrifying. In northwestern Montana a few weeks ago, Chester said, erratic winds kept blowing the fire straight at the Hotshots, nearly overrunning them three times.
Being overtaken by flames is by far the most serious hazard confronting a Hotshot. Every firefighter carries a fireproof shelter that can be set up like a pup tent as the flames approach. But the prospects are summed up in the slang for the shelter: "shake and bake."
The danger is recognized. Chester said his four years in the Marines prepared him for life as a Hotshot, but his wife got so edgy about his job that she once tried to buy him accidental death insurance. No insurance company would touch him.
"The 20 of you have to watch each others' backs," he said. "That's your insurance."
The dangers are more than physical. The hours and travel can take their toll.
"My wife used to be a firefighter, so she knows what the job entails," said squad leader Shawn Pearson of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, a member of an Idaho Hotshot crew working in Montana. "But I can really only pick about five or six days since May that I've spent at home."
"My daughter just turned 9," said hotshot Glenn Tingley, also of Coeur d'Alene. "I've been to one birthday of hers because it falls in the summer."
The Helena team's fire season began May 7, when a fire set to clear brush on the Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico blew out of control, threatening nearby Los Alamos. By the time it was controlled, 245 homes had been destroyed.
After Los Alamos it was Colorado, then Idaho, then Montana. Chester can't even remember all the fires he's fought this summer.
"Pretty soon all the names become the same," he said.
This one is the Beaver Creek fire, named for a small drainage near the spot where a bolt of lighting sparked the blaze. Things go well for the Hotshots on their first day on this fire. By noon there is a distinct line in the forest separating green forest from a wasteland of charred soil, smoldering logs and a few crackling bonfires.
The Hotshots keep working along the fire front, using chainsaws to cut trees and logs and then pickax-like tools called Pulaskis to hack out roots. After that, they scrape the line clean with shovels and McClouds, tools that look like double-edged hoes with a jagged row of teeth on one side.
But a little after noon, the humidity drops rapidly and the temperature rises. Whole trees start to flare, igniting with a crackling sound and a whoosh as air rushes upward with the tower of flames.
"It's nice to see, but we're too close," Chester said.
By 2 o'clock, conditions have become too dangerous. The Hotshots shoulder their 30-pound packs, hike to the road and then drive back to camp, where they line up for a dinner of roast pork and mashed potatoes.
They'll be following this routine for two weeks, though most of their work days will run from 6 a.m. to at least 7 p.m. Then it's back to Helena for a single day of rest, and off to the next fire. In this historic fire season, it will be a long time before the Hotshots get more than one day off in every 14.
"One day," Edwards said. "That's about enough to pay bills and do your laundry."
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