A small group of men and women hold one of the most highly sought after jobs in the National Park Service, but the work is also some of the most challenging anywhere in the country. This year the Arrowhead Hotshots celebrate 30 years of service as one of the elite wildland fire crews in the U.S.A.
We've all seen the TV images of wildland firefighters in their hardhats and yellow Nomex shirts, facing off against the smoke and flames of a blazing wildlife. It's dangerous and arduous work, so Labor Day seems an appropriate time to recognize an anniversary for some of the best in the business of wildfire fire.
Thirty years ago, most of the federal expertise in wildland fire fighting was found in the ranks of the U. S. Forest Service (USFS), and when a fire broke out on National Park Service land, the NPS usually depended on a combination of loosely organized local crews and help from other agencies.
That situation began to change in 1981, when the NPS decided it needed to have its own fire crews to develop the expertise for fire response. That decision led to the organization of several wildland fire suppression crews which later received the title “hotshots."
According to the USFS, "Hotshot Crews started in Southern California in the late 1940s on the Cleveland and Angeles National Forests. The name was in reference to being in the hottest part of fires."
One of the first NPS hotshot crews was established in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks; others were established in Rocky Mountain National Park (the current Alpine Hotshots) and in Yellowstone (the now disbanded Bison Hotshots). These three crews were the first non-Forest Service hotshot crews to be formed.
Initially, the three crews were called Arrowhead Crews 1, 2 and 3 – so named to honor the NPS arrowhead shield seen on uniforms and signs. The Arrowhead Hotshots name remains with the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks crew today.
A serious commitment by the NPS in wildland fire management in the early 1980s posed some unusual challenges. Although the USFS was pressuring the NPS to shoulder more of the responsibility for fire response, the park crews needed to prove themselves to their interagency firefighting peers.
Hotshot crews are often referred to as “elite” firefighters, expected to meet exacting and demanding skill and fitness standards. Several tough assignments in the early going helped quiet those concerns about the Arrowhead Hotshots.
The first Arrowhead Hotshots camped in tents while they built their barracks at the Swale Work Center in Sequoia-Kings Canyon. Today, the Arrowhead Hotshots are one of 110 hotshot crews in the nation and are available as initial response for fires throughout federal lands.
It's clearly not a job for everyone.
Applicants are cautioned, "The work performed is physically demanding and emotionally taxing. Together for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 6 months, the crew eats, works, travels, and rests as a unit. Under these conditions, compatibility, camaraderie, understanding, and crew pride are an absolute necessity."
Crew members better enjoy spending time on the road. "A typical fire season requires the crew to be away from the duty station for the majority of the six month period. Long drives in crowded conditions must be endured and travel by airplane and helicopter often occurs."
Potential crew members are also advised to be in top physical condition before even applying for one of the few available positions.
"A physical evaluation will be conducted on the first day of work," which includes completing a three mile hike in under 45 minutes, while carrying a 45 pound pack. Each crew member is also required to run a 2.5 mile fitness course and perform a minimum of 40 sit-ups in 60 seconds, 25 push-ups in 60 seconds, and 4 pull-ups. "The first day of work is the easiest day of physical training and the real work begins thereafter."
The crew's base camp is at an elevation of 6240 feet, which provides an additional conditioning factor during the hour and a half of intense physical training that occurs each morning the crew isn't assigned to a fire. In addition to weight training, the regimen includes fast-paced runs covering three to five miles, sprints, and quarter-mile agility laps. One run involves a 1000 foot vertical climb in 3.8 miles.
There's a solid reason for this emphasis on conditioning. A spokesperson notes, "Through the years the Arrowhead Hotshot Crew has built a solid reputation for doing good work, having a professional attitude, and getting things done safely."
"Firefighting involves working under very hazardous conditions for long periods of time and Hotshot crews are expected to accept the most difficult and hazardous tasks. A typical shift is 16 hours and working for 32 hours without relief often occurs."
"Firefighters often endure hot, smoky, dirty, dusty working conditions with little sleep and poor food. Sleep deprivation is the norm and working with sharp tools, in the dark, on a steep hillside, under hazardous conditions is a common occurrence. Hotshots are frequently required to work for days at a time with only the 40 pounds of equipment carried in a fire pack."
Despite the challenges, annual competition for the available slots on the Arrowhead crew is described as "fierce." A wildland fire crew normally has only 20 members, and crew members usually work for about six months, beginning in early May and ending in early November.
"If you want to work hard digging dirt, breathing smoke, and have a good time doing it with 19 other like minded individuals, then apply to be an Arrowhead Hotshot. We care not about your race, religion or sex...as far as Hotshots are concerned there are two kinds of people: those who work and those who don't!"
An NPS spokesperson notes, "The formation of the hotshot crews for the NPS has had significant impacts on NPS fire management beyond the initial response that these crews provide. The hotshot model helped formalize NPS fire response within the agency and without. It has broadened the NPS perspective on fire management by responding to fires for different agencies, within different fuel types, and in a range of environments such as complex wildland urban interfaces. The hotshot program has provided training opportunities for firefighters throughout the parks and has helped develop generations of leaders within fire management in the NPS."
“It is a great honor for me to run this crew,” said John Goss, superintendent of the Arrowheads. “I follow in the steps of the incredible leaders who instilled pride, safety, and teamwork into the foundation of the crew. I work hard to ensure that the Arrowheads continue to be respected in the firefighting community.”
Kudos to these men and women, and all who work to help preserve and protect our public lands.