America’s Wildfire Fighters – The New York Times

It was a relatively quiet wildfire season in the U.S. But there is no summer vacation for the Tallac Hotshots, a federal firefighting crew based near Lake Tahoe in California.

The crew members spent early July in triple-digit heat in Arizona, fighting a wildfire for 14 straight days. From there they traveled to a thickly wooded evergreen forest in Oregon; then to the dense, steep terrain of Klamath National Forest in California; and then to remote wilderness in Northern California, where they arrived by helicopter and fought fires in near-freezing temperatures. Their current assignment has taken them to Tennessee, where they will likely spend Thanksgiving Day swinging hand tools to contain blazes fueled by extreme drought.

“It’s really physical, but it’s extremely mental, too,” said Kyle Betty, the superintendent of the Tallac Hotshots, who has been a federal firefighter for 22 years. “The things that you see, the things that you face — every day you have to get up and do it again.”

The “hotshot” moniker, which dates back to the 1940s, describes firefighters who travel to battle the hottest, most treacherous and most technically challenging wildfires. There are around 100 such crews in the U.S., most of which work for the U.S. Forest Service.

During their deployments, the crews often have no access to cellphone signals or showers. They sometimes sleep in the open air. A standard shift is 16 hours, and crews can work three weeks straight without a break.

Base pay for entry-level federal firefighters is $16 an hour — far less than the amount earned by California state fighters, who battle many of the same blazes.

“They are the premier firefighting force in the U.S.,” said Evan Pierce, who helped write a University of Washington report on firefighter salaries. “But they are working longer and in more dangerous conditions — for less pay.”

Instead of fire engines and hoses, hotshot crews use hoes, shovels and chain saws to carve out dirt tracks to choke the progress of a fire.

The Tallac Hotshots crew members hail from across the country. Elsa Gaule, pictured above, is one of the crew’s captains. She spent her earliest years in Alaska in a house without a toilet or running water.

She and the other crew members are drawn to the outdoors and the deep sense of camaraderie. “I’m not a very good sit-at-a-desk person,” Gaule said. “Until my knees and back give out, I’ll continue doing this.”

Read the full story on the Tallac Hotshots.

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