These are the firefighters on the frontlines, that walk directly into dangerous fire on steep terrain to strategically plan the best course of action to tackle the flames.
These specialty crews are working some of the 87 active fires burning across the US West Coast, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. At least 25 of those fires are in California, where 25 people have died since the fire season began.
“We go into the places that are gonna take some thinking and some figuring out,” Superintendent of Kern Valley Hotshots Nate Nelms told CNN in a phone interview late Monday night. “Steep terrain … that’s where our bread and butter is … that’s where we do our business, in the steep rock, steep, nasty terrain with fire behavior.”
“We’re out there putting in those lines, building those lines and holding those lines,” Nelms said, adding that their goal is to figure out the safest, most aggressive way to fight the fire.
Fire lines are barriers established by scraping or digging into the soil.
Kern Valley Hotshots is one of many teams that has been deployed to the Creek Fire, burning in the Sierra National Forest. It’s already torched more than 200,000 acres across two counties in the ten days it’s been burning.
There are currently 20 members of the Kern Valley Hotshot crew battling the blaze, Nelms said.
‘Extreme fire behavior’
Nelms said this particular fire is unlike any he’s seen in his 18 years as a firefighter. It moves in unexpected ways, making firefighting strategy critical for battling the fires.
“A lot of extreme fire behavior” coupled with “different types of fuels and topography” are making it difficult for firefighters to manage the Creek Fire, Nelms explained.
“It’s hard to get in there and get close enough to be effective with it. We’re having to fall back … to try to get around and get in front of this thing,” Nelms said.
Smoke conditions are also complicating the fight, preventing air support in some instances because of low visibility.
“It’s hard when we can’t get air support due to the fact of the smoke – when the smoke sits in the air for the helicopters and airplanes can’t fly. And so, it’s dangerous, too dangerous for them because they can’t see where they’re going,” Nelms told CNN.
Nelms said that when there is “good air” and the team is getting support from aircraft, they’re able to get closer to the fire and knock it down, allowing Hotshot crews to get further into the fire and put line in to secure it.
The job is meant to be challenging, which is why Jacob Andrade decided he wanted in.
When the 24-year-old was looking for a change after being a firefighter for three years, Andrade came across Hotshots. He told CNN he wanted to challenge himself both “mentally and physically” and heard the crew had very high standards.
“You’re always doing something new,” Andrade said. “You’re always put in a hot seat, so you’re always learning.”
And he has challenged himself, sometimes working up to 48 hours straight to push back the growing fire.
“It’s been kicking my butt pretty, pretty bad,” Andrade said. “But, I love it. It’s a great experience. Everything about it.”