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Elite fire crew joins effort to prevent Tahoe fires

Patrick McCartney

The HotShot crew based in Helena, Mont., spends most of its summer on traversing the United States – dispatched wherever a wildland fire is out of control.

An elite U.S. Forest Service fire crew, the Helena HotShots usually carve fuelbreaks and reduce the fuel in the way of rampaging forest fires.

But, for the past 10 days, the 20-person hand crew has had a new mission: preventing forest fires in the Tahoe Basin.

One of the first spinoffs of the Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum, the Forest Service redirected the HotShot crew as part of the Tahoe Re-Green efforts to reduce the risk of fire in the Tahoe Basin by removing dead and dying trees, and thinning out overstocked stands of trees.

The plan is to employ HotShot crews at Lake Tahoe until they are needed to fight forest fires in the West.

On a recent afternoon, members of the crew said they were happy to lend a hand, but said they’d still prefer to be on the front line of a forest fire.

“This is a good project, but we’re definitely a fire crew,” conceded John Knapton of Bozeman, Mont., who is a 10-year veteran of the HotShot program. “If there is a fire, we want to be on it.”

Crew members had a chance to satisfy, at least partially, their appetite for fighting fires Monday when they helped put out a roughly 3-acre fire off Kingsbury Grade.

The nature of their primary firefighting assignments are similar to the forest-health project of Tahoe Re-Green. Using chain saws and steel hand tools, such as the Pulaski and modified Pulaski, crew members rip through tangles of overgrown brush, and topple dead, diseased and surplus trees.

The crew is working on National Forest land in the hills above Rubicon Bay, one of the three areas designated high priority by Tahoe Re-Green officials, when they launched their fuel reduction program in 1995.

Larry Edwards, the crew superintendent, said the 65 HotShot crews in the nation have carved out a unique image since the Forest Service created the mobile crews 30 years ago. While the pay is low and the hours long, there is never a shortage of applicants. Half of the Helena crew are college graduates and could be pursuing other career options, but most will spend three or four summers on the fire lines before going on to other things.

“The HotShots are unique in America, not exactly like professional sports or the military, but something in between,” said Edwards, who started out as a HotShot himself in 1972. “They develop an esprit de corps. Like a Marine expeditionary force, they train together, work together and depend on each other. But unlike a sports team, there are no stars on the HotShots. Everybody depends on each other.”

During the fire season from May to November, the HotShots are on the road three-fourths of the time. The Helena crew has fought fire in every part of the country but New England. Working 14- to 16-hour shifts, the crew can earn 1,000 hours of overtime over the course of a summer.

Even so, the money is not good enough that the crew can take the winter off.

Tom Roach of Bemidji, Minn., traps beaver and muskrat in the north woods during the winter. Ron Casey, who lives in Wolf Point, Mont., taught English in the Czech Republic, but said he plans to take a break from teaching this winter.

“I like the hard work of the HotShots,” Casey said. “I felt silly in a classroom at 27; I felt like I should be outside.”

For Jennifer Martynick of Hammonton, N.J., the only woman on the Helena HotShots, the opportunity to work outdoors was also the reason she left behind her academic life after earning a degree in natural resources.

“I like working with the crew and traveling around,” Martynick said. “You get to see parts of the forest that other people don’t.”

Brian Garrett, the assistant urban lot manager for the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, said the forest health project is urgently needed in the Tahoe Basin.

“We could use a HotShot crew every pay period for the next 10 years,” Garrett said.


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