Laguna Hotshot Camp Weather

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Elite Firefighters tackle massive Zaca fire (in the news again)

They've been called the Green Berets of the wildfire fighting brigade.
When flames are chewing up rugged mountain slopes, they helicopter in behind enemy lines with chain saws and flares.
Sometimes, after 16 hours of cutting lines through the forest and setting backfires, they'll simply wrap a space blanket around themselves and sleep on the ground before waking up and doing it all over again.
For six months straight, 14 days at a time, they go wherever they are needed — Montana, Alaska, Wyoming, or this week, Ventura County.
They are the Hotshots.
"We definitely get to do the cool stuff," said Jamie Miller, a member of the Laguna Hotshots. Her crew was digging a line around the Zaca fire Thursday in a remote northwestern corner of Ventura County.
The Laguna team is one of a handful of Hotshot crews called in to do some of the most dangerous, remote frontline work in the Zaca fire. More than 100 such teams exist around the country, constantly being called in to whatever fire or natural disaster is making headlines that week.
Though Hotshot teams are based out of a particular national forest, they travel far and wide to fight fires.
It's hard work and long hours that end with dirt, grime and smoke embedded in every pore. And for those who want a mental and physical challenge, it's a perfect job.
"This is fun," said Christina Levesque, 30, who joined the Laguna Hotshots this year so she could be outside, travel and have a bit of excitement.
Being a woman in a heavily male-dominated profession isn't a big deal for her, and she says she's not treated differently. But she does go to the spa when the crew gets its two-day break after every 14-day shift.
Fellow crew member Chris Miller, 23, worked on a firetruck for one year, but hated that every time he saw a dirty Hotshot crew walking by, it seemed like that person was getting to do the most fun work.
Since he joined the crew that his sister Jamie works on, he hasn't been disappointed. There's a certain swagger when he walks through the fire camp with others looking and wondering what wild job he did that day.
"If you can't get firetrucks to the fire, you are going to call in the Hotshots," said Dennis Baldridge, superintendent of the Laguna crew.
Hotshots will hike for hours through rough, hilly terrain to get to where they need to cut lines or set backfires. They can stay out for days at a time, sleeping in "spike camps" near the fire with little resembling creature comforts. Other times, helicopters will drop them off in the heart of a forest so they can get to a remote part of the fire. When the work is done, they'll usually have to hike back to civilization.
'Pushed to your limits'
It takes a certain kind of person to get along with the 19 other members of a crew who work almost nonstop for six months.
"Not everyone wants to be a Hotshot," said Baldridge.
"You get pushed to your limits, emotionally and physically," said Laguna Capt. Jim Huston. In a typical fire season of fighting fires for six months, a crew member can earn about $40,000. Some use the money to help pay for college, others save it for a house. Greg Pelsma buys plane tickets.
Since joining the Hotshots seven years ago, he's busted his hump during the fire season and spent his down time traveling to New Zealand, Europe and South America.
But with the West deep in a drought and fire season a year-round phenomenon, there will be plenty of traveling within the U.S. for Pelsma.

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