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Taking The Heat

Last week, when multiple fires were igniting and winds were fanning an already bad situation, an attention grabbing post appeared on social media that asked a 3 word question in big, bold, almost panicked letters. It simply said, “WHERE’S THE FIRE?”

Elk Complex Ashley Smith - TN - Hotshots - Photo Credit Forest Service Federal Gov.Since then, social media has chronicled the fires with tragic, personal accounts of houses reduced to ashes; fences and barns destroyed; livestock, overcome by smoke and flames, who died on the spot where they stood; grown men crying as they had to shoot beloved horses and cattle who were too badly hurt to save.  

The images and stories are as frightening as they are heartbreaking, made all the more so by knowing another tragedy could strike anywhere at almost any time during fire season.

Yet, three things continue to stand between many rural residents and the devastation that fire can bring:  heavenly grace (or sheer luck, whatever suits one’s beliefs), prevention and preparation, and those firefighting men and women who leave their homes and families to protect the homes and families of others.

Media coverage of big fires often shows firefighting crews in full, undoubtedly hot and heavy gear with blackened faces who’ve been working for hours on end, weeks at a time. But what do we know about the experiences of the people behind the gear—men and women, some young and some not so young—whose job is to jump in the fire trucks and head toward the smoke that has everyone else thinking about what to do if the fire gets too close?   What do these firefighters encounter once they get to the site?  What are their jobs? Just how dangerous is fighting a fire out here on the plains?

In other words, what’s it like to fight a wildland fire?

With no two fires alike, the best place to get a sense of that experience is to learn from people who have fought a lot of fires in a lot of different situations.  And no fire crews have fought more fires in more difficult locations than Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHC).  

Part of the US Forest Department, an IHC is described as “an elite crew of 20 wildland firefighters that are the most highly trained in the country and are prepared to fight the most dangerous fires nationwide”.  Formed in the 40s, these crews got their names because they worked the hottest and most dangerous part of a fire.

There are a total of 100 hotshot crews in the entire U.S. with most stationed in Western states. The work is seasonal. Fire season typically runs from May 20 to late October. But, while fire is “in season”, these firefighters more than earn their pay.  

According to 2016 data compiled by the US Forest Service, out of the 135 days that make up the “typical” fire season, the average hotshot crew was assigned to fires for a total of 100 days.  No need for a calculator; that’s the equivalent of working 1 out of every 1.3 days.  During that same year, each 20 person crew helped treat an average of 6,087 acres through prescribed fire, mechanical thinning and other means.  That’s a lot of days and a lot of acreage to work in such extreme, challenging, constantly changing and potentially life threatening conditions.  No wonder they’re called the “elite”..

Kiowa County never ceases to amaze, and this is no exception.  As I recently learned, there’s a local resident who spent four years of his life working on the Roosevelt IHC, and he agreed to give a firsthand account of his experiences.  

Full disclosure: this firefighter initially agreed to the interview thinking the article was going to be about what’s involved in fighting fires in wildlands.  At the end of the conversation, when he learned that I was going to write about his experiences and actually use his name, he was reluctant, to say the least.  As he put it, he’s a “behind the scenes kind of guy”.  Luckily, as it turns out, he’s also a merciful kind of guy because he eventually agreed to the article appearing in the paper with the understanding that the focus would not be primarily on him.  

All I can say is, I did my best because, well, he tells a real good story.
Zach Kopasz in 2004 on the hotshot crew
HOLDING THE LINE

Most people would probably agree that it takes a unique type of person to be a firefighter. Zach Kopasz didn’t necessarily view it that way when, in 2002, he signed on to be a firefighter with the Canyon Lakes Fire District in Larimer County, Colorado.

Kopasz started off on the initial attack squad, which he describes as “six guys in a pickup”.  He didn’t provide many details other than to say that, whenever a 911 call came in reporting smoke up in the mountains, “we’d all drive up there and see what it was.”

The Roosevelt IHC was also based in Fort Collins, and, like all hotshot crews, was called to the largest fires.   If someone on the Roosevelt IHC got injured with “a broken ankle or a busted knee”, they called for fillers.  In that first year, Zach had the opportunity to be a filler with Roosevelt twice and once with the Alpine IHC out of Estes Park.  “We were really busy in 2002,” he said.  “We were fighting five or six fires a day.”

It took no time for him to know that he wanted to be on an IHC, drawn by the camaraderie of a small unit of highly trained, “mentally strong people who know how to get a lot done quick”.  He adds that it’s really not so different from the camaraderie he has working with his in-laws on their ranch.

In 2003, he interviewed to be on the Roosevelt IHC. But the U.S. went to war, and he was involuntarily called back to active duty for a year.  When he came back in July, he returned to work on the initial attack squad, getting a few more chances to be a filler. Eventually, in 2004, he landed where he wanted; he became a firefighter on the Roosevelt Interagency Hotshot Crew.

He started off as a sawyer, which is exactly what it sounds like. Two person saw teams cut down small trees and limbs, eliminating anything going into the canopy.  That first year, he comments with a chuckle that he was “pretty much on the JV saw team.”

As he describes it, “While the saw teams are doing their work, the rest of the crew will build a fire line 3 feet wide down to bare minimal earth. You actually create a line. Limb off the trees and eliminate anything going into the canopy.” But that’s not always the case.  “IHCs are usually working the big, roaring, crazy fires you can’t get close to,” he says, “so we work with natural barriers like rivers, ridges, roads or dozer lines that allow you to put fire on the ground to make a 500’ swatch of black.”  He adds that those big, roaring fires will have flame lengths that can be as long as 400 feet.

There’s one aspect of being on a saw team that sounds very unique. “A saw team will have one or two helicopters working with you,” he says.  “You’re looking directly at the pilot in his little bubble and he’s looking directly back at you.  You can literally point to where you want the water.  A helicopter may drop 50 times in a shift and put it right where you want it.” He adds, “And when I say they’re right over you, I mean they are right over you. If they drop something, it could fall right on you. And they’re dropping water, so you’re wet all day.”

With hundreds of fires fought in every Western state and others, a few still come to mind years later.  

One was in Alaska where, for 24 days, 2 IHCs—40 crew members—fought a fire that ultimately burned 4 million acres. The goal was pretty simple:  save a small mining town. Quick to dispel any misconceptions, Kopasz adds, “Don’t get me wrong. I was on a lot of fires and a lot of homes burned.  We just managed to save that town, that’s all.

There was also a fire in Central Idaho that was 5,000 acres the first day, 14,000 acres the second and 65,000 acres the third.  Sometimes, the fires just “blow up” and get so hot even the hotshot crews can’t get within a half mile.  A supervisor once said that, “if you’re not halfway done by 10am, might as well go back to bed because, by afternoon, the fire will be too hot and the relative humidity will be too low.”

Safety is the biggest issue.  IHCs emphasize something called LCES. Have a lookout. Communicate. Establish escape routes. Create safety zones.  With those things in place, firefighters should be safe 90% of the time.  “But it’s the 10% that will get you,” he says.

He describes a phenomenon that occurs with “big fires that are making big runs”. These fires create a big smoke column that pulls air in, creating winds going toward the center of the fire.  The lift from the heat will carry the debris, gases and smoke thousands of feet up into the air, creating something similar to a big thunderhead.  When it all gets to a certain altitude, it begins to freeze.  “If you start to feel a mist in the air,” he says, “you know the column is going to collapse.  You can’t see it. You’re too close, and it’s too big. Someone has to be watching from a half mile back.”  When the column collapses, which it will, winds will suddenly change 180 degrees and rapidly increase in speed from 30mph to as much as 60mph.  
Zach Kopasz on the Hot Shot Crew
He says what he’s said several times in the conversation. “Fires behave differently.  You just always have to make safety the main thing.  If everybody gets through the shift, you’ve done your job.”

Kopasz was kept on the IHC beyond the season, alternating his time between taking relevant, hands on classes and teaching relevant, hands on skills to volunteer firefighters in other districts.  That’s something he’d like to offer to the volunteer firefighters with the Kiowa County Fire Protection District. “If any young people want to start fighting fires,” he says, “I can connect them to people who could teach them a few things.”

As the conversation draws to an end, Kopasz observes that there have never really been enormous fires on the plains like what’s been happening in recent years. And while he’s clear that he doesn’t think about wildland fires anymore, at least not in the way one might expect with his extensive history of experiences, there’s still just a hint of something in this tall, understated, unassuming and somewhat soft spoken man that suggests the old saying might be true.  Once something like that gets into your blood, it never totally leaves.

Elections for two positions on the KCFPD Board are coming up.  Three candidates will appear on the ballot: Shannon Votruba, Teresa Witte and Zach Kopasz. Residents need to select the candidate of their choice and vote, for—heaven forbid—there may come a time when the KCFPD is one of the most vital organizations in the county. Interviews with Votruba and Witte will appear in next week’s edition.

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