July 2, 2013


IN THE LINE OF WILDFIRE : Drought and climate change have turned western forests into firebombs that go off every summer. Even with new technology, the essential weapon in the fight against flame are the Hotshots, an elite group of wilderness first responders who head straight for the heat. (KYLE DICKMAN, 6/13/13, Outside)

I ROLL OUT of my sleeping bag at 5 A.M., waking to the smell of dry grass and woodsmoke. I spent last night in the open, camped on rodeo grounds in the tiny Northern California town of Stonyford. Flames are visible on a ridge half a mile away. Time to go to work.

It's July 12, 2012, and I'm about to be sent to my first forest fire of the season. I arrived yesterday to meet up with the Tahoe Hotshots, an elite group of wilderness fire-fighters based about 120 miles east of here, in a Sierra foothills town called Camptonville. The Tahoe team is part of a sprawling, multifaceted army: 177 federal, state, and county crews who must try and stop a fast-moving, 17,000-acre blaze before it spreads into Stonyford. Known as the Mill Fire, it was started on July 7 by lost hikers and raced east through the Coast Range and the Mendocino National Forest. Drought conditions and 60-mile-per-hour Pacific winds have fueled its advance; already, five buildings have burned on the edge of town.

The U.S. Forest Service, which usually runs the show when a big fire breaks out on federal land, has declared the Mill to be a national priority, and there are 1,500 wildland firefighters from around the West assembled to battle it. Some work on engine crews, manning the trucks that deliver water to the front lines. Others are smoke jumpers, who parachute straight into burning forests from cargo planes to stop small fires from growing. Some, like my group, are hotshots, backcountry firefighters who use chainsaws, Pulaskis, and rakes to cut firebreaks of bare earth around a blaze.

At the moment, though, all of us seem to be standing in the same line waiting for coffee and breakfast, which is being served at a mess tent staffed by high school students from inner-city Oakland. I work my way to the front, fill a Styrofoam cup, and head toward a set of rodeo bleachers to meet my boss, Rick Cowell, the 55-year-old superintendent of the Tahoe Hotshots.

"Dickman, you should have been here yesterday!" he says when he sees me. "We had a hell of a shift!"

Back before I had a desk job, I was a full-time hotshot. In 2006, I worked with the Tahoe crew, and this year Cowell agreed to let me rejoin. I arrived here too late for yesterday's action, when the crew cut a line around a spot fire that started after an ember flew over a firebreak.

A six-foot, 170-pound man of Karuk Indian descent, Cowell has a broad chest, a beaked nose, and hands that feel like elephant hide. He's fought nearly 800 blazes in his 36-year career, and his experience and leadership are a big part of why Tahoe is one of the best hotshot crews in the country.

Our job today is to cut and dig a line while engine crews hose down the fire, air tankers dump chemical retardant, and helicopters drop water from above. Once the Mill is surrounded by firebreaks and established logging roads, hotshots will intentionally burn brush and trees inside the perimeter, starving the fire of fuel. The stakes are high. If we succeed the flames stop. If we don't, Stonyford, a town of about 150, and a forest the size of Boston will burn.

Posted by at July 2, 2013 7:17 PM

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