The 19 firefighters killed battling a wildfire about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix Sunday were members of an elite group known as Hotshots, so named because they are deployed into the hottest and often most dangerous parts of the fire. The Granite Mountain Hotshots from Prescott, Ariz., which lost all but one of its 20 members in the still-raging blaze, are one of more than 100 Interagency Hotshot crews across the country. It’s a job that demands incredible fitness, teamwork and bravery.
“It’s definitely a family,” says Paul Cerda, Alpine Hotshot superintendent at Rocky Mountain National Park. “The wildland fire community is big in numbers, but it’s a very small community.”
To join a Hotshot crew, candidates must pass a physical fitness test that includes pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups and a 1.5-mile run, plus a three mile hike with a 45-pound pack in under 45-minutes. Most recruits have firefighting experience and many have studied fire science. But those are the minimum standards. Cerda says that his crew will often go for a 8-10 mile trail run at an elevation of over 7,000 ft. after finishing the 3-mile pack test.
When Hotshots deploy to a wildfire, they use several tools to deprive the fire of the three things in needs to burn: heat, fuel and oxygen. “The wildland fire environment is very, very dynamic,” says George Broyles of the U.S. Forest Service. “There’s fuel, topography and weather. We can manage the fuel; we can’t do anything about the topography and we can’t do anything about the weather.”
The crews cut firebreak lines–trenches dug into the ground down to the mineral soil — and work to remove the trees, grass and brush that act as the fire’s fuel. Once the firebreak is in place, another tool they use is called a backfire–a smaller fire lit behind the firebreak line. As the main fire draws in oxygen, it pulls the backfire towards the main fire, burning up all of the brush and grass. Then when the main fire reaches the firebreak, it often burns out.
Often the flames of wildfires can tower over the trees they’re consuming– Broyles remembers fires with flames 100 feet high–and crews keep a keen eye on their escape routes. But winds can shift rapidly, surrounding the firefighters. “It’s a dynamic environment,” says Mike Fritsen, a Missoula, Montana-based smokejumper, a firefighter trained to parachute into fire zones. “Even routine fires aren’t routine.”
Prescott City Councilman Len Scamardo told the Associated Press that a sudden shift in the wind trapped the Granite Mountain Hotshots around 3 p.m. Sunday, as the fire grew from 200 acres to nearly 2,000 in a few hours. As the firefighters were cut off, they deployed their fire shelters — small, tent-like structures made of fire-resistant material that cover them as they lay underneath on a trench in the ground. They are considered a tool of last resort, used only when there is no chance of escape.
“It’ll protect you, but only for a short amount of time. If the fire quickly burns over you, you’ll probably survive that,” Prescott Fire Capt. Jeff Knotek said to the AP. But “if it burns intensely for any amount of time while you’re in that thing, there’s nothing that’s going to save you from that.”
The shelters have been in use since 2003 and have been mandatory for those fighting forest fires since 2010, according to the U.S. Forest Service. They replaced older shelters, made of a laminate of fiberglass and aluminum foil, that had been in use since the 1960s. But those shelters weren’t very good protecting against convective heat, or heat that is transferred by hot air or gasses often by burning objects on the forest floor. The newer ones are composed of an outer layer of woven silica, designed to slow heat from entering the shelter, and foil, which reflects radiant heat, or the heat that is released in all directions by a burning object. The inner layer is fiberglass and foil, designed to stop flammable gasses from entering while keeping breathable air in.
Before Sunday, which marked the deadliest day for U.S. firefighters since September 11, 2001, only two firefighters had been killed using the new shelters since 2005, according to Tony Petrilli, an equipment specialist with the U.S. Forest Service. Out of 116 deployments, the shelters prevented burn injuries to 90 firefighters and saved 21 lives, he says. The old fire shelters were deployed about 1,100 times since and are estimated to have prevented burn injuries to 300 firefighters while saving about 300 lives. Approximately 20 firefighters were killed using the old shelters.
Petrilli says the shelters can fail if they come in direct contact with flames. In those situations, firefighters have to find a deployment site away from those direct flames. “If you’re in an area with a lot of flame contact,” Petrilli says, “that’s the type of scenario where it reaches its limit the quickest.”
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