A description of Hotshot crews in the 1940s

In looking through the 2018 edition of Hotshot Crew History in America, I was interested in a piece in the Historical Articles section. It was written by the Stanley Stevenson, the Fire Control Officer on the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California, possibly around 1950. It appears that Mr. Stevenson had an appreciation for the abilities of hotshot crews. I believe he was later promoted to Forest Supervisor.

“HOT SHOT” Crews

Stanley Stevenson

Fire Control Officer, Cleveland National Forest

Scouting revealed that the head of the Burma Fire of 1949, Cleveland National Forest, was spreading rapidly uphill through medium to heavy brush and would reach the rim of an adjacent watershed unless checked on a small ridge ¼ from the top. One “hot shot” crew under Foreman George McLarty, San Bernardino National Forest, had been working the northern flank from the bottom and would reach the top too late to effect the check. The Cleveland “hot shot” crew Foreman Leon Ballou, and 4 men were flown via helicopter from the southern flank of the fire to the ridge at the head of the fire. The 5 men hurriedly cut a line in front of the fire, back-fired it out and started a direct attack on the fire edge down the south flank to meet the rest of the crew. The crew on the northern flank meanwhile had pushed through and tied to the northern end of the fired out line. Although numerous spots occurred and the crews lost the south flank twice because of whirlwinds, they closed the gap and effected control on a 280-acre fire that would probably have more than tripled its size within 4 hours unless the check had been made and the lines tied together.

Since these crews are trained to subsist on the line with bare essentials, a sustained push taking advantage of lulls in fire intensity is possible. This was demonstrated by the San Bernardino “hot shot” crew on the Agua Tibia Fire of 1950.

Lightning started this fire in very steep to precipitous terrain covered with medium to extremely heavy brush and scrub oak. The west flank of the fire had slopped over the planned control ridge approximately ½ mile from the top of the main divide. Helicopter scouting at 10:30 a.m. revealed that if the slop-over could be controlled the lines being constructed from the top and bottom along the flank would probably control that side of the fire.

Foreman McLarty was flown by helicopter around the slop-over and he then jumped about 6 feet to the ground inside the burn above the slop-over. He subsequently cleared a landing spot and 4 additional men were flown in to begin work on the line. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew were started down the ridge top along an old trail. Helicopter coverage guided the crew to their destination where they split forces and started around the slop-over. Although this action was completed within 1 ½ hours after the initial scouting, the slop-over had spread to a perimeter of approximately 65 chains on a very steep rocky slope in medium to heavy brush oak type.

McLarty and his whole crew worked until dark. They were sent food, lights, and blankets by helicopter. The crew was fed and rested in relays until a “scratch” line was constructed around the slop-over about 11:00 p.m. Early the following morning, the crew was again serviced by helicopter and the fire line finished and mop-up started.

Stubborn aggressiveness on the part of this crew prevented the fire from crossing the drainage and establishing a new head on even more precipitous terrain.

These two examples illustrate the flexibility of “hot shot” crew action. Similar action has been taken many times during the past 4 years. Control possibilities such as these would have been impractical without well organized, trained, and conditioned crews.

One of the “hot shot” crews has been based during the fire season on the Cleveland National Forest. The following notes, although concerned primarily with the Cleveland “hot shot” organization and operational procedures, are representative for “hot shot” crews in the California Region.

The crew is composed of young men whose primary requisites are physical fitness and a will to work. Their lack of experience and conditioning are compensated by intensive training in fire line construction and use of hand tools and fire hose lays at the beginning of each season. These men are termed “fire fighters” and receive fire-fighter rates of pay while on a fire. When not engaged on fire suppression they are paid laborer wages and used on forest projects.

A sub-foreman or straw boss works with and has charge of from 5 to 8 fire fighters. The straw boss is an integral part of each crew and takes his days off at the same time as the crew. Two assistant foremen acts as crew bosses and are each assigned one-half the straw boss squads. One of the crew bosses is capable of assuming temporary charge of the whole crew during the absence of the foreman.

The crew is under the direct supervision of an experienced fire fighter who can act, as one foreman put it, “from general to father confessor.” This foreman must be a skilled leader, fire-wise, and physically fit for very arduous work. He usually assumes the duties of sector boss on fires.

Crew members are hired only after full understanding and acceptance of the rigid rules set up. Camp routine is fashioned after that of athletic training camps with scheduled hours for meals, work, recreation and sleep. Although some men quickly drop out of the crew because of the difficulty of the job and the rigid discipline, three have returned each year since 1947 and ten others including the foreman have been on the crew for the past 2 seasons.

Conservation, wildlife, general forestry, and training films give the reasons for the “why” and “how” of forest fire protection. The crew is given instruction in the use and care of fire line hand tools, followed by intensive work-outs on practice fire lines. Several afternoons during the first part of the season are spent on illustrative lectures, orientation, fire behavior, safety, and correct fire line construction practices. Action on early season fires is discussed on the ground with a large part of the constructive comment coming from the crew members.

After several successful attacks on early season fires, crews begin to develop an esprit de corps and an eagerness to prove their ability. Several distinctive arm patches have been designed and worn by crews hailing their identity. The competitive spirit on large fires requiring more than one crew has provided additional incentive toward better production.

The following summary of work accomplishment, although reflecting considerable more suppression time during the heavier fire season of 1950, indicates the advisability of preplanning and budgeting forces primarily for fire suppression.

hotshot crew history Stanley Stevenson

The value of a trained unit of men that can be sent into difficult sections of a fire perimeter with a high degree of certainty that control will be effected, has been demonstrated many times during the past. The ever increasing demand for “hot shots” when the going gets rough is the fire manager’s endorsement of the “hot shot” program.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

2 thoughts on “A description of Hotshot crews in the 1940s”

  1. And we did it in JC Penny boots, blue jeans, and a tin hat. No fancy engines, no helicopters, no air tankers. No forty pounds of PPE to save our a** when the fire became a monster. Thousand acre fires were almost unheard of; not because of “global warming”, and because Smokey Bear did too good a job; because we fought fire all night and held it. I ask you Safety First minded folks today… “How much safer is a thousand acre fire than one that could’ve been a ten acre fire?” Take a look at the dispatch stats.

    1. I was a crew boss on Escondido hotshot crew in 1951 after being a crewman ,TTO,and a foreman on the Descanso district. my brother was one of the guys that jumped out of the helicopter with Leon Ballou on the Burma fire. he told me that when he hit the ground it felt like his legs and back had broke. he had a hard time maintaining his balance in the air. I was on Leon’s crew in 1951 . he was a good man and knew his job.He died of stomach cancer a few years later. his wife was the Descanso Distrit clerk. I started fighting brush fires for the USFS as a pickup firefighter. When a fire got big enougf forest service personnel drove a truck around skid row and other parts of town to employ anyone that said they would fight a brush or forest fire. Stanley Stevenson was the forest fire control officer. Dick Raybould was the Descanso District fire control officer.I believe Dicks son many years later was the District FCO. Most of us young firefighters faught fires in the summer and attended college the rest of the year if we made enough money to support ourselves and to pay school costs.If didn’t have about a thousand dollars saved at the end of fire season we could’nt go to school,so we tried to work for the USFS doing range improvement and repairing fire equipment. I also worked for Forest engineer Max Peterson who later became theUSFS Chief. In 1949 we had the Canayous fire. I believe it was the biggest Southern California fire. It burnt from Canayous canyon to the desert,about 640,000 acres There was a congressional investigation because people accused firefighters of keeping the fire going. Stanley Stevenson represented the USFS. A photo of my brother on the fire was shown in the hearing. The USFS was proven to have done all they could to stop the fire. sorry for mistakes and misspelling. I worked for and with a lot of good men that will never be replaced.


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