Calling all Alaska Hotshots!

ALASKA FIRE SERVICE CREWS ARE HOSTING A REUNION

CELEBRATING 40 YEARS OF TYPE 1 STATUS!
May 10-11, 2024
Alaska Hotshots Reunion
Alaska Hotshots Reunion

We are celebrating the 40 years of Type 1 status, but we recognize that the Alaska crews existed long before then — and that the program was built up over time. It’s an important part of our shared history!

Alaska 'Shots ReunionWe’d love to see anyone who was on the crews before, during, and after we were around, and anybody associated with AFS in any capacity since the beginning of time.

Horvath Pond – Chena River Lakes Flood Plain
(RV and tent camping on site)
64.71756964969562, -147.25810594061997

Alaska 'Shots Reunion
How much?
Our priority is attendance — so there will be no cost to attend.
We will, however, sell t·shirts, hats, and other stuff to help cover costs.

Alaska Hotshot Reunion 2024

► ► RSVP HERE ◀︎ ◀︎

*This is not an official BLM event, and the BLM is not endorsing or sanctioning the event. 

POWERFUL LESSONS FROM HOTSHOT SUPES

Here’s a piece by Mike DeGrosky that recently ran in Wildfire Magazine, reprinted here with permission.


by MICHAEL DEGROSKY

A late-summer road trip with my wife in 2023 brought us near the Smith River, Happy Camp, and Hoopa complexes in Oregon and California. Along the way, we encountered Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHCs) traveling to, from, and around these fires. There are more than 100 IHCs in the United States – highly professional, mobile, and skilled hand crews assigned to the most challenging and high-priority fires. Though organization can vary, IHCs are typically led by a superintendent who is often referred to as The Supe.

As we passed the hotshots going about their business, I reflected on my long association with these crews. I was a hotshot for two fire seasons, one as a crew member and one as a squad boss. I consider those two seasons to be foundational for me as a fire professional, a leader, and as a person. When I worked as a division supervisor, I was always grateful when I was assigned hotshots; an all-career experience came when I was assigned six IHCs, punching hotline overnight, over steep and rugged terrain and through the ugliest snag patch I can recall.

THE SUPE'S HANDBOOK by Angie Tom
THE SUPE’S HANDBOOK on amazon

Last year a friend gave me THE SUPE’S HANDBOOK:  Leadership Lessons from America’s Hotshot Crews, by Angie Tom. I am quite proud that I know or knew more than 20 of the people profiled in Tom’s book – firefighting colleagues, training cadre teammates, audience members and training participants, and consulting clients. (Sadly, some are no longer with us.)

I was immediately drawn in by a balanced, honest, on-point foreword by Anthony Escobar, who was the superintendent of the Kern Valley IHC and retired as the FMO for the Los Padres in California. It is worth the price of the book just to read the foreword.

Brit Rosso was the superintendent of the Arrowhead Hotshots and later retired as manager of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. Included in this book are Rosso’s lessons learned from the line-of-duty death of crew member Dan Holmes. Anyone leading a fire program or an agency with a fire program should read Rosso’s account.

One night while reading this book, I cried; the author’s story of her trip to interview Paul Gleason, right at the time of his passing from cancer, brought a flood of memories. Gleason was superintendent of the Zigzag IHC on the Mt. Hood National Forest in Oregon long before retiring from the NPS; he was later an adjunct professor for the wildland fire science program at Colorado State University. Gleason’s contributions to the wildland fire service are legendary, including pioneering sawyer certification and the Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes, and Safety zones firefighter safety concept commonly known as LCES. Gleason made it cool for firefighters to be “students of fire.”

Jim Cook, who had introduced Gleason and Tom, went with her to the interview in Colorado. Cook was the superintendent of both the Arrowhead and Boise IHCs, retired as the training projects coordinator for the USFS, and served as principal architect of the NWCG leadership curriculum.

Tom’s story of her interview with Gleason reminded me that around the time of his death, I spent a powerful, emotional evening in a hotel ballroom in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a group of his NPS  colleagues, reminiscing and processing his passing. It proved an extra intense experience because it just so happened that we were also doing the first staff ride of the Cerro Grande Fire on which Gleason was the burn boss. Some of the people present had been principal players and most were already processing some strong emotions. All these years later, I find myself hoping the people who receive the NWCG Paul Gleason Lead By Example Award have a deep and intense understanding of the fire service leader in whose memory they are honored for their own achievements – and what that means.

I had three takeaways from The Supe’s Handbook. First, I was reminded of how some really intelligent people are drawn to fire. Note I did not say “educated” people. Some people profiled in the book have or had formal post-secondary education. Others are or were self-educated. Formal higher education is not prominent in the group of hotshot supes featured in this book. However, intelligence is.

Second, whether those included overtly acknowledged it or not, they were and are passionate students of leadership, for whom the responsibilities of leadership weighed heavily; they took their leadership very seriously. The fire part seemed to come easily; their focus was on leading their people.

Third, I was reminded of how often I have seen this kind of intelligence and leadership savvy go under-recognized, under-utilized, or even dismissed – because people could not see past the big, sometimes rough and blunt personalities, educational credentials, or their own insecurities.

As a lifelong fire professional, including 20 years as a consultant to wildland fire agencies, I’ve encountered more than one senior leader who would have benefitted from some coaching and mentoring from people in this book.


Mike DeGrosky
Mike DeGrosky

Mike DeGrosky is a student of leadership, a lifelong learner, mentor and coach, sometimes writer, and recovering fire chief. He taught for the Department of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University for 10 years. Follow Mike on  LinkedIn.

Hotshots working under an ‘unsustainable system’

The first-ever review of the interagency hotshot crew program found that hotshots have been working under an “unsustainable system” and recommended 50 changes to improve current labor conditions.

The review, requested by the National Interagency Hotshot Crew Steering Committee, began on July 16, 2021, and the report was finalized in August.

Geronimo Hotshots
Geronimo Hotshots on the Big Windy Complex, Oregon, 2013.                                  USFS photo by Lance Cheung.

“The hotshot program is at a crossroads. In a time where more wildland firefighting capacity is needed, applicant lists for hotshot crews are less robust and the workforce is diminishing,” the report says. “If these challenges are not addressed in a timely manner, the current unsustainable system may leave crews unable to provide the leadership, expertise, and capabilities required in today’s wildland fire environment.”

The report summed up its recommendations in 12 points, which included:

    • Develop a specific wildland firefighter job series and increase pay
    • Provide a $40,000 minimum annual supply budget to each crew
    • Require a three-day rest and recuperation period
    • Allow crewmembers to attend personal events
    • Modify the hiring process
    • Start an outreach program to increase recruitment
    • Create a 30-day process to fill key vacancies
    • Update and clarify the Standards for Interagency Hotshot Crew Operations (SIHCO) so they are no longer misinterpreted by host units
    • Create an annual charter and program of work for the hotshot crew program to further limit gaps between leadership and the field
    • Update the repair and procurement processes for hotshot vehicles
    • Develop a minimum facility standard for hotshot crew facilities
    • Add housing, modify housing costs and create a consistent housing policy

The review addressed potential challenges to meeting the recommended changes, including lack of investment, systemic pushback, and cultural norms. Hotshot crew superintendents also said they’d prefer freedom and flexibility to make decisions for their own crews.

Without the recommended changes, the committee said agencies may not be able to sustain the current number of crews.

“It is important to acknowledge that while the fundamental reasons hotshot crews exist have not changed, the environment they operate in has,” the report said. “Unprecedented environmental challenges and increased social and political expectations contribute to IHCs finding themselves in high demand and short supply.”

The committee said similar reviews should be conducted by other program managers before the recommendations are broadly applied.

A bit of Bill Gabbert history

We got a note yesterday from Marty Parish, who knew Bill Gabbert years ago. He was amazed to see names here from his IHC days; he said he met Bill when he was with the Laguna Hotshots in the early 1980s, when Bill was working in Prevention and lived at Camp Ole, near the Laguna IHC camp.

Marty sent us this photo that was sent to him by another firefighter. He does not know where or when it was taken.  But that’s for sure Bill Gabbert at far left. Who can identify more of the guys in this photo?

Radar Squadron on Mt. Laguna
Radar Squadron on Mt. Laguna

“At 17 I became a Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC) member in late 1978,” wrote Marty. “We were based out of a work camp located off the same highway (Sunrise Hwy) about two miles north of Camp Ole (Al Bahr Shrine Camp, now gone after the 2013 Chariot Fire). We worked closely with the USFS as part of the program. I was hired in ’79 as an Engine Crewman (Corral Canyon) while working as a YACC with Mert Thomas in Recreation (Mert got me the job!) and I finished the second half of the season that year ending in early January of 1980. I returned in the spring to Camp Ole for my first Hotshot season.”

“I didn’t really know Bill well,” added Marty.  “We had lived for a short time in the same USFS realm on the Cleveland National Forest-Descanso District; he had left suppression before we met and was working in Prevention. He lived in one of the USFS employee residences at Camp Ole (on Mt. Laguna, San Diego County).”

“I was a Laguna Hotshot for three years, but not sure he was there all three years (we relocated for a year to Descanso, then returned to Camp Ole, only to relocate back to Descanso permanently after I left for FHS).”

Marty, who was also with the Flagstaff Hotshots 1983-1985, added this. “Not sure who is in this photo, but that’s definitely Bill on far left side. Again, my condolences for your loss. A couple of others from that era recently passed too, including my dear friend Brian Connelly from LHS and MCB/Camp Pendleton Fire. Let me know if you pick up other names of people in the pic.”

Hit us up if you recognize any of the other guys in this photo or can provide other details — just click “Leave a comment” under the headline above. THANKS!

 

One National Forest will have two 30-person hotshot crews next year

And, three 10-person engine crews

Angeles National Forest pilot program for Engine crew to have 10 personnel
Angeles National Forest pilot program for Engine crew with 10 personnel, working 12-hour days. “D/O” means day off.

During the last three weeks there has been a surprising amount of discussion about increasing the size of wildland fire crews. One national forest is hiring 30-person hotshot crews and 10-person engine crews.

  • October, 20, 2021: Tim Swedberg recommended 30-person hotshot crews in an article on Wildfire Today;
  • October 27, 2021: In testimony before the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Natural Resources, Jaelith Hall-Rivera, Deputy Forest Service Chief for State and Private Forestry said, “We need to have larger crew sizes, so that people can take time off so they can rest and have a work/life balance. That’s going to mean we are going to need more firefighters.”
  • November 9, 2021: Ms. Hall-Rivera sent a memo to all U.S. Forest Service Regional Foresters directing them to add five firefighters to Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHC) to bring the size up to 25.

However, the effort to increase the size of USFS crews had been seriously discussed earlier. Wildfire Today has learned that the Angeles National Forest (ANF) in Southern California developed a proposal in 2018 for 30-person Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHC). Not only that, but we have obtained two memos written August 12, 2021 by the Fire Chief of the ANF recommending a pilot program for IHCs to be staffed with 30 people and engine crews to have 10.

Below is the ANF memo dated August 12, 2021 about 30-person hotshot crews.

[pdf-embedder url=”https://wildfiretoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/ANF-IHC-staffing.pdf” title=”30-person Interagency Hotshot Crews”]

 

And next is the ANF memo dated August 12, 2021 about 9 or 10-person engine crews. (Since then, they have decided on 10-person engine crews.)

[pdf-embedder url=”https://wildfiretoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/ANF-Engine-Staffing.pdf” title=”ANF Engine Staffing”]

 

The Angeles National Forest (ANF) is not only proposing larger IHC and engine crews, they are stepping out ahead of the crowd according to a person who prefers not to publicly disclose their identity. In recent weeks they completed hiring to have two 30-person hotshot crews and three 10-person engine crews in 2022. The newly selected personnel (promotions of existing permanent employees) will be effective in January, 2022. The crews will be fully staffed to start annual training in April.

One of the ANF memos states, “Although this [20-person IHC] model was effective for decades the current standard does not provide the depth to meet the higher demands for crew availability to provide employee wellbeing or meet the needs of crew availability across the fire year…This proposed module will increase capacity from 12 pay periods (6 Months) of availability to 18 Pay Periods (9 Months) of availability. This proposal will significantly improve work life balance for Hotshot firefighters… Although the IHC will have a full 3rd squad, the IHC will maintain the current deployment/mobilization standards of 20 personnel. Adherence to the current mobilization standard of 20 personnel will allow for an ongoing rotation for the 3rd module to stand down and remain “local only”. This stand-down period will help to provide ample opportunities for hotshot firefighters to manage annual leave and balance work with time at home. This will also help to provide the workload pacing to sustain a crew for 9 months while better managing the effects of cumulative fatigue and burn out. Finally, it will provide increased capacity for employees to develop for the next level of leadership through single resource assignments.”

Configuration of the 30-person ANF IHC

Two ANF IHCs will each add seven apprentice/Permanent Seasonals working at least 18 pay periods, a third hotshot Captain, a third squad leader, and two senior firefighters.

ANF IHC staffing pilot program
ANF Interagency Hotshot Crew pilot program staffing pattern.

Configuration of the 10-person ANF Engine Crew

To the standard USFS Region 5 (California) Type 3 engine crew of seven people working five days a week, the upgraded crew will add three positions — a second Engineer, a second Assistant Fire Engine Operator, and a third Senior Firefighter. With the 12 hours per day staffing pattern, which we have been told the ANF has selected, they will work three days one week and four the other, with three days off in a row and four days off in a row during a two-week pay period. All of these staffing patterns call for five on each day.

History of IHC crew size

Since the early 1970s IHCs have been comprised of 20 people, or recently in some cases as many as 22 to help account for attrition, difficulty hiring, personal time off, sickness, and injuries. In 1970 El Cariso Hotshots had 36 people. When the size was reduced the next year, the story we were told was that the Forest Service wanted to use 20-passenger de Havilland Twin Otter aircraft, which began production in 1966, to move crews around. So their decision was to cut the size of the crews to fit that airplane. There may have also been other reasons.

As a crew foreman at the time, I thought 20 people was too many to work together efficiently as one unit to dig line in most fuels, and a 10-person squad was too few. I felt that 13 to 14 crew members was the most efficient size to work together while digging line, which you would have with a 28 to 30-person crew broken into two squads, allowing for the Superintendent and lookouts. Those numbers can change in very light or very heavy fuels.

Forest Service intends to increase size of Hotshot crews

Richard Spring Fire Montana
Richard Spring Fire in Montana, August 11, 2021. Burnout along Highway 212. InciWeb photo.

A document is floating around on Reddit indicating that the Washington Office of the US Forest Service wants to add five firefighters to Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHC) to bring the size up to 25.

The memo dated November 9, 2021 said the Agency has been investing in the modernization and standardization of national aviation resources for the past 10 years, but it is now time to shift focus to ground-based suppression resources, beginning with Type 1 hand crews, IHCs. With the growing length of the wildfire season, the memo says, “our wildland fire system was not built to sustain this level of response activity and stretching our outdated model to meet the increasing demand for response is having a detrimental impact on our employees, on their physical and mental health, their opportunities for rest and recovery, and their work-life balance.”

The new structure will have two GS-6 Lead Firefighter positions on the crews, creating a continuous career ladder from the GS-4 temporary firefighter to the GS-9 permanent full time superintendent. Another goal is to create a longer period of crew availability for these critical resources, and provide opportunities for mandatory stand-down periods and other controls to establish more deliberate work-rest ratios.

The memo recognizes that not all crews have the infrastructure to support 25 people per crew, so the minimum number will remain at 20 for those who can’t increase to to 25.

A copy of the November 9 USFS memo as seen on Reddit is below.

[pdf-embedder url=”https://wildfiretoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/IHC-increase.pdf” title=”Interagency Hotshot Crew increase 25″]

 

Another alternative to the the 25-person crew is the 30-person, 3-module crew advocated in an article by Tim Swedberg we published October 20.

Tim wrote:

Rather than dispatch all 3 modules, only 2 modules would respond. This leaves a 10-person module at home for a week of quality rest exclusive of travel. After 7 days the module left at home would replace one of the modules on the fire and one of the modules on the fire would return home for a week. This weekly rotation would continue throughout the fire season and could be accomplished without exceeding the 14-day assignment standard as no crewmember would work beyond 14 days. The rotation provides certainty for families that once every three weeks the firefighter will be working at their home unit.

In September of 2020, the first year of the pandemic, Area Command Team 2 led by Tim Sexton was assigned to the Southern California Operations Center in mid-September to assist with strategic planning for the rest of the fire year. They put together a wealth of information about resource availability, including the chart below showing how the number of available IHCs that year dropped from 113 to about 30 by late October, and to about a dozen by mid-November.

Interagency Hotshot Crews availability, 2020
Interagency Hotshot Crews availability, 2020. Data compiled by Area Command Team 2 September 30, 2020. Notations on the chart made by Wildfire Today.

One reason for the shortage of firefighting resources reported on fires this year was the large number of vacant positions. Many hand crews and engines were not able to respond because they could not hire people for the jobs, and many left for better pay and working conditions in state, county, municipal, or private organizations. It remains to be seen if the $3.3 billion appropriated in the bipartisan infrastructure bill last week for wildland fire will help turn around the hiring and retention problems.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.