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Have fire fighting, will travel
Hotshot crews ready to go at a moments notice
About a quarter mile from the White Barn on the right-hand side sits a compound of white and green roofed buildings where a crew of 20 members, known as “hotshots,” suit up, practice, and prepare for national calls.
This is the headquarters of the Springville Hotshot crew.
They can be dispatched locally and nationally during fire season which lasts from May until November.
Hotshot Superintendent Jack Medina, a veteran with 20 years of fire fighting experience, points out that “hotshot” is defined as a wildland fire fighting crew of 20 people.
He is very proud of his team.
“I’m pretty content with working with the best 20 people in the world,” said Medina.
Their main goal is to stay safe. However, they also want to meet their objective.
“Our objective is to meet the objective of the Incident Commander as best we can,” said Medina.
There are six hotshot crews in the Sequoia National Forest with three for the Forrest Service, one for the Arrowhead, one for Kern County, and one for the Bureau of Land Management.
In Region Five, which encompasses all of California, there are 42 hotshot crews.
National assignments differ greatly from local calls for the Springville crew.
The Geographic Area Coordination Center, or GAAC, will receive orders, which is sent to it from Boise, Idaho in a “systematic manner to North Opps or South Opps,” added Medina, who pointed out that this helps to coordinate resources.
Their most recent national fire was the Little Bear Fire in New Mexico in early June.
After a dispatch call, the crew suited up and headed out to help.
After a few days of driving they reached their destination and checked in at the Incident Command Post.
What followed was an in-briefing, then an assignment to a division, then another briefing, a fire assignment, and then engagement.
Their assignment was to prepare and burn a piece of ground to secure the fire. He explained that they had to make a six mile line in front of the fire.
“By lighting it, we headed it off and created a buffer,” said Medina.
Overall, the team was there for 10 days and six of those days were spent prepping and lighting the fire.
However, it’s not all burning as the crew is split into teams with a lighting boss and a holding boss.
“In Springville, we assign lighting and holding teams. There are up to five people in lighting, but the majority will be holding. The light boss watches the fire and dictates lighting. The holdings watch the green. If anything spots out they communicate to the nearest person with a radio and come up with a plan to put out the fire,” said Medina.
They can be dispatched a number of times usually two to three times a year as the Springville crew is on a list of 20-plus crews in Southern California that rotates for national calls.
“It’s a pretty systematic process,” added Medina.
For local calls, that are dispatched out of Porterville, they are used for the initial attack.
“We engage fire, anchor and flank, and provide overhead as needed for the fire manager incident commander,” said Medina.
Some of the tools they use on these fires include chainsaws, drip torches, coin guns which are used to shoot flares, handheld radios, and McClouds.
“The McCloud is a large modified hoe. It helps with moving debris,” said Medina.
Modified-hand tools also help to contain the fire. One example is the modified shovel.
He explains that the tool is bent at a 45-degree angle, moves dirt swiftly, and helps build trenches.
However, they do not carry water to fight the fire, but they carry small pumps for mop up.
When not fighting fires they engage in various projects.
As part of the Western Divide Ranger District or District One, they are responsible for fuel reduction in the Ponderosa, for road and trail maintenance, and are the primary crew for the maintenance of the Trail of 100 Giants.
Their tasks include cutting, stacking and piling brush around Camp Nelson, Ponderosa, and Sugar Loaf, cutting handlines, and reducing the amount of loading around communities.
They also remove debris, like tree limbs, from trails, cleaning up snags on trails, and helping other districts.
During the winter they burn the brush that is piled up and engage in training like handline construction, tree falling, and fire refreshing training course RT130.
This last training is required by law and it provides the firefighters with their red cards which enables them to fight fires.
On being a hotshot crew member, Medina is straightforward.
“It’s the hardest stop you’ll ever make in your career. It’s a challenge. If you overcome it you’ll move forward,” said Medina who joined up because he thought it might be exciting.
However, the dangers are very real as he remembers a turning point in his career.
At a fire in 1994, 14 firefighters died.
“I got there after it happened, but it definitely impacted everything I did after that day. It definitely made me more mindful and made me a more self-aware firefighter,” said Medina.