In the wake of the wildland tragedy that took the lives of 19 firefighters in Arizona, common questions have arisen.
"You ask yourself: Why are these people willing to put their lives on the line? For people they don't even know?" retired teacher Sharon Owsley asked last week as she stood on the courthouse square in this town north of Phoenix. "Why do they even do this kind of work that's so highly dangerous? Every day it might not be. But then there's that one day that you may not come home."
I will answer this question based on my one year of experience as a member of something akin to today's hotshot crews.
First and foremost, though so many news organizations have labeled these crews as "elite," I think a lot of people are getting the wrong idea. Elite tends to mean crème de la crème (best of the best). While I'm confident that hotshot crew standards have changed since 1979 (when I served), I still believe that ANYBODY can apply. You don't have to have much or any direct experience. What you do have to do is pass an arduous physical stamina test and, if selected, you go through what we use to call Fire School, 80 hours of training and education.
If truth be known, I didn't pass the arduous physical stamina test and I only completed a little less than one-half of Fire School. I didn't pass the stamina test because I never took it! During the first week of Fire School, I broke my big toe in two places plus a bone in my right foot playing pickup basketball during "break time". I was sent home in a lot of pain and ordered to keep my foot elevated for the next two weeks, at minimum. Since I was a recent college graduate, I was given a free pass on the stamina test (which makes no sense) and provided with reading material so I could pass the Fire School final exam.
I ended up going back to work before my doctors wanted and I didn't miss one fire that my crew was assigned to. In fact, the first major fire we were sent to entailed hiking up a mountain several miles with 80 pound packs. I accomplished this -- far slower that the rest of my crew -- on a partially healed broken foot!
Being a wildland firefighter has a romantic tinge to it, but let me tell you, it is little more than slightly glorified grunt work. Fire pay isn't half bad -- currently $25/hour -- but the work itself is mainly drudgery. More often than not, you're working to put out a small fire with little or no water. This entails digging up the fire and burying it beneath the soil hundreds and thousands of times over. Really. You turn the soil for hour upon hour, sometimes day after day.
"It's the worst yard work you've ever done, all day, times a thousand," said Neitzel. "They sleep outside on the line sometimes. No showers for weeks, very little change of clothes. ... You've got dirt in your nails, dirt in your ears, down your shirt, down your neck."
"Hottest, deepest, nastiest," said Moore, who's been with the Pleasant Valley crew 16 years. "That's where we go."
These two firefighting veterans are not overstating it a bit! You sometimes get so dirty that it can take 4 or 5 showers just to remove the top layer of dirt, soot and smoke. It is the kind of job in which you breath, eat, piss and sleep dirt and, after a while, you don't even think about it because it is what it is. If you happen to be a clean freak, you will be driven mad in short order.
The big question to be answered is: Why do people put their lives on the line like this? In my experience, for the most part, the members of my crew didn't view the situation in this manner at all. Yes, we knew it could be a dangerous job and that a few people through the years had lost their lives, but we were young and full of ourselves. It couldn't happen to us. We had received good training (not me so much) and we had an experienced crew boss. Besides, most of the fires we worked on were small and, while we understood ANY small fire can blow up, we weren't going to let that happen. Therefore, the danger was minimal.
A lot of people do this job for two reasons: 1) It can be an adrenal rush, at times and 2) The money's not half bad.
I got into it for the latter reason. I didn't have a job lined up after college and, when my dad called to say he could get me a job working with the US Forest Service out west, I jumped at the opportunity. I thought it would be great to work in the great outdoors before embarking on my career as a social worker. Of course, if I had known that I was signing up for semi-glorified grunt work, I would have stayed put in Arkansas!
While the work itself tended to be monotonous and arduous, the camaraderie and money WERE enticing. The moment the fire call goes out for your crew, you immediately shift to hazard pay which is substantially more than your base pay. You receive hazard pay in route and it doesn't stop until you return to your compound. In other words, you receive the big bucks while traveling, eating AND sleeping (though you don't get much of the latter). Some weeks I pulled down nearly $1000 and remember that this was back in 1979! I bet, in 2013, some of these crew members can pocket up to $2500 or more in a week!
Another bonus of being a male firefighter is that it seems to make some (not odd me, of course) a babe magnet. Some of my crewmates were never wanting for a date. All they had to say is "I'm a firefighter" and the gals crowded around and swooned. During our off hours, most of my mates hit the bar and party scene heavily. Me? I spent a good deal of my down time at the public library.