Hotshots are accustomed to being the first responders to large blazes

By Kate Nash
Tribune Reporter

SANTA FE NATIONAL FOREST – Standing in front of a two-foot-high pile of piñon and ponderosa, James Champ reaches forward and unleashes a wall of orange.

Within 10 seconds, the pile is popping and the flames are licking a dozen feet into the air. The stack of logs and branches reaches 600 degrees, then 800, and sucks air like an industrial fan.Champ, a wildland firefighter, has started a prescribed burn in the far northern corner of Santa Fe National Forest.

As a member of the Santa Fe Interagency Hotshot Crew, Champ works for the U.S. Forest Service to fight fires.

But burning brush and trees is also part of his job, especially in a year like this, when underbrush and weeds are thick from a good growing season last year. By lighting a fire now, he is eliminating fuel from a future conflagration.

And where some might see the flames as a dangerous enemy, Champ sees beauty.

“It’s really a fun thing to manipulate,” he said. “It’s really an art form.”

Before 7 a.m. on a recent day, Champ drives a mint-green Forest Service crew carrier north of Espanola on U.S. 84/285. His destination is a patch of forest in a remote corner of Rio Arriba County.

The top-heavy machine resembles a locker room on wheels. Inside, the firefighters — guys in their 20s and 30s, some wearing Oakley sunglasses and listening to iPods — sit like athletes going to a game.

Tucked in their seats and surrounded by enough gear to keep them going for weeks, the Santa Fe crew members are ready for a day of what they do best: line work.

To battle wildland fires in places that often have no water, hotshots work in row, averaging 20 at a time, digging a two-foot-wide trench ahead of fire’s advance. It’s a way to box in the flames and eliminate the fuel source, Champ says.

The Santa Fe team is one of 20 hotshot crews in New Mexico and Arizona. They are often the first responders in big fires far off the beaten path, and they are often seen as the elite among firefighters.

A four-year veteran of the crew, Champ, 31, said the physical work is not the hardest part about the job, for which hotshots can earn $25,000 to $30,000 in a six-month season.

“It’s mentally tough more than anything,” he said. “It’s 16-hour days for 14 days sometimes. You’re tired.”

Those days often involve sleeping in tents or on the ground, being away from families and the familiar feel of sheets and showers.

The work takes them to remote places like today’s destination, in a woody but dry corner of Rio Arriba County, where PowerBars replace Starbucks runs, sandwiches stand in for restaurant food and cell phone reception is out of the question.

Champ’s “office” is often nothing but forest, thick and scratchy in some parts but thinner in the areas the hotshots have already cleared.

Today, the crew will stand in the mud from a recent snow and burn piles of wood and brush.

But on another day, Champ and other firefighters could find themselves driving or flying out of state to work. The crew members are assigned nationally and pitch in wherever they’re assigned, regardless of which federal agency manages the land.

Members of the Santa Fe group have been all over, from Minnesota to Mexico.

“We’re like a city fire department, but we cover the United States,” said crew superintendent Rich Tingle.

As the truck rolls up into the forest on N.M. 96, the firefighters hop out, dressed in fire-resistant yellow and green clothing, hard hats and 30-to 40-pound packs.

Everyone has rolls of white tape for marking exit routes from a fire. They carry hot-pink paper to signal to helicopters that might hover. Everyone has six quarts of drinking water.

On a cool spring morning, they break into pairs and descend into the woods to light piles.

As they tend each blaze, which will take several hours to burn out, they talk about what they like – and don’t like – about fighting fires for a living.

“You give up your summer,” said Dave Simpson, a Pennsylvania native who joined the crew in 2003. “When you’re in town, you see people going to a movie and you remember what the public does.”

Friends might be going on a bike ride, but the hotshots can’t, Simpson said.

“You’d do that, but you’d have to go in the winter.”

Tingle views the work from a different angle.

“It’s nice out here,” he said, taking in the morning light on a stand of magnificent ponderosa pines and a yellow field below.

“You don’t have the red lights or traffic or people.”

But in the same breath, Tingle said, he misses those people – or at least a relationship. That’s a common refrain from the men on the crew.

“I can’t even have a dog,” Champ says. “I’m never home.”

Like Tingle, Champ lists the good things as quickly as the down sides to spending most of his time away from his own home, and protecting those of strangers.

“It’s not bad. You just adjust your lifestyle. It ceases to be a job. It’s a living.”

Published April 20, 2006.