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the memo says, “our wildland fire system was not built to sustain this level of response activity and stretching our outdated model to meet the increasing demand for response is having a detrimental impact on our employees, on their physical and mental health, their opportunities for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=”” 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.

The US Forest Service introduces us to a Hotshot crew

First of a two-part series

Wildland firefighters
Wildland firefighters. USFS image from the video below.

The California Region of the US Forest Service has been prolific in generating videos over the last several weeks. Here is their latest, released today. In the first of a two-part series, we catch up with the Eldorado Hotshots to learn what a Hotshot crew is and how they fight wildfires.

UPDATE Nov. 10, 2021: Part two of the two-part series about hotshot crews is now available.

First year hotshot describes his fire season on the crew

Claremont-Bear Fire, Sept. 8 ,2020
Claremont-Bear Fire, Sept. 8, 2020, which eventually became part of the North Complex of fires. Photo by Lori Mallory Eckhart.

Esquire magazine has a story written by Robert Langellier who left the Ozarks for a job as a firefighter for one season on the Truckee Hotshot crew in California. He describes in very engaging detail what a hotshot experiences, and introduces us to several characters on the crew. One is a fifty-three-year-old sawyer who has been dealing with a decades-old shoulder injury which had become bone-on-bone. He needed replacement surgery but could not afford to be out of commission for an entire fire season.

You can read the entire article, which I recommend, but here are a couple of samples:

The brush, mostly towering willow and ceanothus shrubs, was thick. Adam Jarkow, then a fifty-three-year-old sawyer, slashed a tunnel through it, while I launched the fallen branches and leaves out of the way. The pace, due more to work ethic than imminent danger, was frantic. The whine of four chain saws obliterated a sense of time, and the crush of willows did as much to space, the sweet smell of coyote mint below swallowed by the waft of two-stroke fuel.

The seeming paradox of needing to keep western forests from burning too much or too little is part of all forest management, not just wildland firefighting.

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

How 30-person hotshot crews could help firefighters recuperate between assignments

And allow them more time at home during the fire season

KNP Complex of fires, Inyo Hotshots,
Inyo Hotshots on the KNP Complex of fires, Sept. 29, 2021. InciWeb.

Guest post
By Tim Swedberg

On September 26, Wildfire Today published an article titled, Survey of Wildland Firefighter Spouses Finds the Job Creates Stress for the Family. The Survey tabulated responses from 1,841 persons including 1,599 from the Forest Service. One of the findings was “78.1 percent of respondents feel stress due to wildland firefighters’ absence.” Respondents also identified the need for “less demanding work schedule that provides for more days off.”

The critical issue is fatigue and its effects

Much of the work/rest research was completed over 20 years ago at the Missoula Technical Development Center (MTDC) and the University of Montana. The Spring 2002 MTDC No. 5 Health and Safety Report provided recommendations focused on: work/rest, assignment length, shift length, and much more.

From this research the National Wildfire Coordinating Group provided a guidance letter dated February 6, 2004, which states, “for fatigue management purposes and in line with credible research recommendations, a 2-day-off-after-14-day assignment standard (exclusive of travel) has been adopted”. 

The 2002 research recommendations were a step forward, but (to the best of my knowledge) there has been little or no new wildland firefighter fatigue research commissioned or developed that could drive revision of the current policy.

Considering the increased deployment tempo, fire intensity, and size of current-day fires, it is both prudent and essential to revisit and validate or update the existing 20-year-old work/rest/fatigue recommendations with new and on-going research information. The Joint Fire Science Program, Forest Service Research Stations, and universities can lead in the development of critical new information to update fire management policy.

Is there a way to address the concerns of 78 percent of families that “feel stress due to wildland firefighters’ absence”? The answer is YES!

Back to the roots of Hot Shot crews

In the late 1940’s El Cariso, Del Rosa, and the Los Prietos Hot Shots were created as 30 person crews. In those early days all 30 firefighters would deploy to an incident.

1970 El Cariso Hot Shots
1970 El Cariso Hot Shots

Today, I suggest a return to the 30-person (3 modules) Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC) strength. 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.

Adoption of this suggestion means that Incident Management Teams will always receive a full two-module IHC Type 1 crew as is common practice today. The rotation also provides the IHC crew with 10 fresh replenishments every seven days exclusive of travel.

Clearly existing work/rest policies are detrimental to both firefighters and their families as evidenced by the Wildfire Today reporting of November 4, 2017 Suicide Rate Among Wildland firefighters is “astronomical.” The good news is, a fix could be developed and adopted without legislation. Let’s see if the rotating 30-person crew can diminish stress at home and on the fireline. I look forward to your thoughts.

Tim Swedberg is a retired Palomar Hotshot firefighter and captain, fuels manager on the Mt. Hood National Forest, and during his last 10 years served as Communications Director for the Joint Fire Science Program —  for 40 years of total service.

An introduction to the BLM’s 19 hand crews

Long Draw Fire
Long Draw Fire in Oregon. Photo by Kevin Abel, BLM.

By Steve Shaw, BLM Fire Operations

The perfect harmony of 20 souls. Each one with just a bit more sweat and grit as the one before. The simple gratification of achievement, thanks only to the will and power of heart, mind and muscle.

The Bureau of Land Management Fire hand crew program consists of 19 crews spread across BLM’s diverse landscape, from Fairbanks, Alaska to Bakersfield, California, to Worland, Wyoming, and to Jackson, Mississippi. Each location offers hand crew members endless opportunities for professional and personal growth along with direct access to some of the best recreation on the planet. The hand crew program consists of Interagency Hotshot Crews, or IHC, and the only federal hand crews specifically established to provide opportunities for our nation’s military veterans.

The 2021 fire year starts in Jackson, Mississippi with the Jackson Interagency Hotshots. Established in 1997, the crew is the BLM’s first and only wildland fire resource east of the Mississippi River, with a mission that includes providing employment opportunities for students at historic black colleges and universities. The Jackson IHC typically spends the first half of the fire year in the eastern states assisting interagency partners with prescribed fire and wildland fire suppression. The latter half of the year, Jackson makes the annual trek west to join western firefighting forces for the normal peak of the fire year.

Silver State Interagency Hotshot Crew
Silver State Interagency Hotshot Crew igniting the 2016 Airport Road South Prescribed Fire in Nevada. BLM photo.

Interagency Hotshot Crews are some of the nation’s most highly trained, experienced, and physically conditioned wildland firefighting resources. The first IHCs were established in southern California in the 1940s by the USDA Forest Service and have since multiplied to near 110 total crews between all federal agencies and three IHCs hosted by Utah and Alaska. All IHCs meet the requirements found in the Standards for Interagency Hotshot Crew Operations. BLM’s IHC program began in the late 70s with the Silver State IHC in Nevada. Silver State’s home base and fire station is tucked on the east slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, just south of Carson City. The Silver State fire station was built in 2012, purposely designed and constructed to house the diverse gear, equipment, and employees assigned to IHCs. Additional IHC hand crews with purpose-built IHC fire stations are the Diamond Mountain IHC in Susanville, California, Ruby Mountain IHC in Elko, Nevada, Craig IHC in Colorado, and Snake River IHC in Pocatello, Idaho.

In southern Arizona, BLM’s newest hand crew, the Aravaipa Veteran IHC, also begins the annual fire year in March. Joined by Lakeview Veterans IHC in Klamath Falls, Oregon, they comprise the only two hotshot crews that blend traditional IHC traditions with an environment and atmosphere for military veterans. The two hand crews meet all IHC standards but add a mission that strives to be comprised completely of veterans. Aravaipa’s home base is uniquely situated on the Fort Huachuca U.S. Army Installation in Sierra Vista, a location that benefits both the Army and the BLM.

Devils Canyon Veteran Hand Crew
Devils Canyon Veteran Hand Crew in 2017. Photo by Bryan Nealy, BLM.

The BLM Veteran hand crew program began in 2012 with the establishment of the Vegas Valley Hand Crew in Las Vegas, stationed in the picturesque Red Rocks National Conservation Area. Like all BLM hand crews, Vegas Valley spends the summer months crisscrossing the western states in a fleet of specially designed wildland fire vehicles. The fleet includes two pickup trucks and two custom built crew carriers, designed by the National Fire Equipment Program at NIFC. The crew carriers become the adhoc home for each crew member, each with a specific seat and window to thousands of miles of the country. The BLM Veteran hand crew program also includes the Folsom Lake Veteran Hand Crew in Placerville, California, Medford and Spokane Hand Crews in Oregon/Washington, Montana’s Billings Hand Crew, and Devils Canyon Hand Crew in Worland, Wyoming. While all hand crews meets the same National Wildfire Coordinating Group, or NWCG, standards, each one brings their own diverse skillsets, specialties, and traditions.

As the fire year trends towards the hottest months, the remaining BLM IHCs begin their fire year in early May. Joining the above mentioned IHCs are the Kern Valley IHC in Bakersfield, California, Vale IHC in Oregon, and Bonneville IHC in Salt Lake City, Utah. The two remaining BLM IHCs are jointly stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Midnight Sun and Chena IHCs were established in 1985, both hosted by the BLM Alaska Fire Service. Both IHCs spend the first half of the fire year suppressing wildfires across the Last Frontier. These IHCs commonly travel via airplane and helicopter through the Alaskan tundra and spend up to 21 days in remote fire camps. Summer rains in Alaska see both IHCs fly to the “Lower 48” and retrieve crew vehicles at NIFC before joining summer firefighting efforts.

BLM Jackson Interagency Hotshot Crew
The BLM Jackson Interagency Hotshot Crew at the 2018 Spring Creek Fire near Blanca, Colorado. Photo by Jamie Schnick, BLM.

BLM hand crews find closure in October with seasonal employees embarking on well deserved time off and permanent employees starting the annual refurbishing of gear and equipment and starting planning and hiring for the next fire year. The application period for crew member positions begins in early fall, with most selections made in February. Permanent hand crew positions are rare and are advertised on

Whether a single fire year or an entire career, BLM’s hand crews provide much more than a modest paycheck. The real value lives in the lifelong memories, friendships, and sweat soaked footsteps across some of the most remote and stunning corners of our beautiful planet.

For more information visit to learn more about #FireJob opportunities. It’s #NotYourOrdinaryJob.

BLM Folsom Lake Veteran Hand Crew
Photo by the BLM Folsom Lake Veteran Hand Crew in 2016.

Note from Bill: The title of the article was edited to correctly indicate that not all of the BLM crews are Interagency Hotshot Crews.