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Hotshots and Prescribed Fire

Tasking hotshots to tackle prescribed fire projects is too much to ask

By Dan Fiorito

Since July 6, 1994, and the tragic loss of 14 wildland firefighters on a mountain in Colorado, a lot has been written and said about national interagency hotshot crews. Millions of words have been written or spoken in books, magazines, newspapers, on the Internet, and in television documentaries about who and what hotshots are. But the first question we are often asked, when we tell a non-firefighter about our occupation, is "So, do you jump out of airplanes?" 

During the last week of February, a lot of hotshots got together in Reno, Nevada, for the 4th National Interagency Hotshot Crew Workshop. We worked on several issues and fellowshipped with people who actually knew that we were not smokejumpers. One important issue that came out of this time we spent together was the issue of the hotshot crews' identity. The question of the week, at least in my mind, seemed to be, "Who do we think we are?" I heard several variations of answers to this question over the course of the workshop. 

From the Washington Office, Dave Bunnell and Tom Zimmerman, the Fire Use Program managers for the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior, respectively, said hotshot crews are to become the workhorses of the National Fire Plan. We are to take care of all the various labor-intensive jobs involved in hazardous fuels reduction, wildfire use, all-risk natural disaster mitigation, international wildfire suppression, initial attack, and our usual occupation of large fire support. 

The Washington Office representatives have also suggested that hotshot crews be available for four pay periods before fire season (whatever that is) and two pay periods after to be able to cover spring and fall prescribed fire operations. That is 60-80 days longer that these crews could be exposed to smoke, fire, rolling rocks and all the other hazards that they usually face during the 110-day availability that is the current requirement for hotshot crews.

While it was flattering to hear that hotshots are being thought of as the chosen people of the Almighty National Fire Plan, I can't help but wonder if we might be needing a little help.

With the influx of millions of dollars under the National Fire Plan, fire managers are asking the national interagency hotshot crews to change their primary mission from providing "safe, organized, mobile and highly skilled hand crews for all phases of fire suppression" to "… all phases of fire management." Changing one word in an organization's mission statement may not seem to be a big deal at the first glance. In this case, however, changing from fire suppression to fire management changes the entire mission of the national hotshot crews. 

The hotshot crews were developed to provide fire suppression services on large fires, predominately in the Western states during the summer fire season. We have done this job extremely well for over 50 years because we concentrated on the mission. Hotshot crews have historically adapted to many varied and difficult tasks within the basic mission of fire suppression. The crews have gone from 30-plus members down to 20 members, they have developed new tools and vehicles, they have become leaders in recruiting diverse personnel, they have provided instructors for fire suppression courses, and - most importantly - they have lived up to the expectations of the fire community and the public by providing the best fire suppression hand crews in the world.

Last year, during the record-setting fire season of 2000, most if not all of the national interagency hotshot crews worked in excess of 100 days on fire assignment, logged several thousand miles of travel in various forms of crew conveyances, and worked over 1,000 hours of overtime. All this was done, remarkably enough, with very few injuries and no (thank God) fatalities. We were able to perform these tasks because we focused on our basic mission, large fire support, and did what we were asked to do in a safe, professional and efficient manner.

Add the possibility of increasing the amount of overtime worked by up to 200-300 hours on Rx fire operations and I believe the excellent safety record of the crews will suffer, not to mention the fact that they could be asked to be away from their homes and families for another 2-3 months a year. We are all ready on call 24/7 for six or more months out of the year. 

To say that hotshots should be available to be dispatched to Rx fires before and after fire season would be too much to ask of these dedicated professional fire suppression specialists. Hotshot crew personnel must have down time to recuperate after heavy fire seasons, as well as to attend training, recruit and hire new employees, and plan for the upcoming season. Co-lateral duties of acting as burn bosses, writing burn plans, prepping burn areas and other non-suppression duties will take valuable time away from the IHC program.

If anything, we should be spending more time concentrating on building better training courses and developing a hotshot academy similar to the Engine Academy and the JACT Academy. 

Additional duties should be voluntary and assigned on a case-by-case basis. If a member of a hotshot crew needs experience in planning or implementation of Rx fire projects, then they can detail to a burn module or other position as the opportunities arise. 

To mitigate the adverse impacts to safety and the overall program management of the national interagency hotshot crews, I offer the following:

  • Prioritize burn projects by need, NEPA documentation, season, funding and location. A lot of the Big Rx Burn Plan acres are going to fall by the wayside because of smoke management problems, public input and NEPA, just to name a few.
  • Identify individuals nationwide who wish to participate voluntarily in the Rx fire plan and build a database of those who are willing and able to detail away from their home units. These people need not be only from hotshot crews.
  • Build geographical area Rx fire modules of 5-20 members out of the firefighters who respond to the call for detailers.
  • Develop a dispatch protocol and tracking system for the Rx fire modules based on closest resources, availability, contingency needs, etc.
  • When local federal resources are not available in sufficient numbers, use other local resources such as state and local firefighters, contract crews, out-of-work forest workers, etc. This will spread the workload out over a higher number of people as well as build the skill levels of those who participate.
There are many hotshots out there who want to help carry the load of the National Fire Plan, including me. I just don't believe that the hotshot crews should or need to be the main players. We hotshots, because we are hotshots, have a hard time saying "NO" when asked to do difficult tasks. We carry a heavy burden in fire suppression, willingly and in the spirit of service, especially in this era of few quality Type II crews. 

I have spent half of my 27 years as a firefighter on hotshot crews. We need to count the cost of changing our mission before we accept additional duties and responsibilities, not after. I would hate to see our programs suffer because we are not willing to say "ENOUGH!"


Bio: Dan Fiorito is the superintendent of the Union Interagency Hotshot Crew, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

Ab Note: This article was printed in Wildland Firefighter Magazine and is posted here at the request of the author.

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