The 19 firefighters who lost their lives battling a raging wildfire in central Arizona on Sunday were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite crew of U.S. wildfire firefighters based in Prescott, Arizona.
Hotshot crews—there are roughly 107 in the U.S.—consist of 20 firefighters who have been specifically trained to respond to fires in remote regions with little or no logistical support.
"In the world of wildland firefighting today, the hotshot crews are similar to the Special Forces in the military," said Dick Smith, a retired firefighter who spent 38 years fighting wildfires with the U.S. Forest Service. "They're highly trained and can meet the highest physical requirements."
Candidates for the Granite Mountain Hotshots had to show that they could pass the arduous Pack Test and complete a series of physical activities, ranging from 40 sit-ups in 60 seconds to 7 pull-ups to a 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) run in just under 11 minutes.
"We believe in rigorous physical and mental training, which allows us to perform at the optimum level in any location and under any circumstances," said the Hotshots' website.
"We are routinely exposed to extreme environmental conditions, long work hours, long travel hours and the most demanding of fire line tasks."
Becoming a Hotshot
The 2,000 or so firefighters who make up the nation's elite hotshot crews work in groups of 20, in crews scattered across the United States. During peak wildfire season, the crews are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (Related: Why is the West Ablaze?)
"When the call comes, they don't know whether they're going to be at a fire 10 miles [16 kilometers] away or 500 miles [804 kilometers] away," said Smith. "That's what these crews are designed to be able to do. They are organized so that they're fully trained, fully ready and fully equipped."
The training is grueling: Crews must be ready for field assignments in any type of situation, including those with extreme weather, environmental hazards and primitive living conditions. To prepare, they go on long hikes and practice dropping into remote locations.
"You run for miles and you put on all of your gear—it's about 40 pounds [18 kilograms]—and you walk straight up the side of a mountain until you get to the top and then you come back down and do it again," explained Frank Carroll, a retired U.S. Forest Service public-information officer and former hotshot squad boss. "You do push-ups and pull-ups and you run some more."
Because they are often dropped onto steep terrain, the crews learn how to fight fires using only equipment they can carry with their hands. (See National Geographic's wildfire pictures.)
"They don't have big equipment like bulldozers," said Carroll. "They use chainsaws and teamwork to get the job done."
A job consists of flying into remote regions with fast-moving fires. The crews figure out how to get in, set up camp, and then construct fire lines to contain the fire. For 12 to 16 hours a day, they dig trenches—down to the mineral soil, where nothing will burn. (Read: What It’s Like Taking Pictures Inside an Inferno)
"They act like a machine," said Carroll. "They can cut chain after chain of line—and I should say, a chain is a type of measurement and there's 66 feet [20 meters] to a chain—and together, they can do several chains per hour."
Working in tandem, the teams work to construct lines and clear brush away from encroaching fires. It's a demanding and physically exhausting job, one that leaves hotspotters with many muscle aches in the evening.
"At night, you're basically eating and sleeping," said Smith, remembering the summers he spent fighting fires in Wyoming and Idaho.
"You're putting in a long, difficult day and you know that tomorrow, you're going to be facing the same thing again. So at the end of the day, you want to eat dinner, have a shower if you can, and go to sleep. You're not thinking about any fears."
A Devastating Blow
But there are fears to be had: This is a dangerous job with many serious consequences. From 1990 to 2006, 310 people lost their lives during wildland fire operations in the U.S.
"I just know that these people—they just keep moving through the summer," said Vicki Minor, executive director of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, which works with families of the fallen. "They can't stop. If they stopped every time there was a fatality ..."
"This is devastating," she said. "Our community is nomadic. Our firefighters go everywhere in the United States. They travel from where they sign up to any fires that need them."
The firefighting community is a small one—but it's strong and tough, she said. They banded together in 1994 after 14 firefighters lost their lives in the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado. They'll come together again this time, for their colleagues in Arizona, she said.
But never before has nearly an entire crew been lost, noted the U.S. Forest Service's Carroll.
"That would be like a platoon of soldiers all getting killed at once," he said. "It's just unheard of."
But today, and tomorrow, and the next day, the hotshot crews will be back on the front lines of fire.
"There are worsening fires happening all across the West," he said. (Read about weather gone wild in National Geographic magazine.)
"No matter how many fast airplanes you get, no matter how many troops you get, you need a firefighter with a shovel or a chain saw on the ground, to see if a fire's out, and if it’s not, to put it out,” he says.
"There’s no amount of equipment that can replace what the hotshots do. Someone has to put the fires out. God does it with rain, or we do it with our hands and our tools."