BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - All it takes is one small brush fire to lead to a state of emergency during wildfire season, but one Kern County crew is getting prepared to help keep you and your family safe while making vulnerable communities more fire resilient.
23ABC followed the Fulton and Breckenridge Hotshot crews into the Sequoia National Forest to get an inside look at how they train yearly to get ahead.
When Hotshots get a call they head straight to a blazing wildfire, "The Chimney fire it was just so intense and I mean flame lengths double the size of me right next to me," Former U.S. Coast Guard Hotshot crew member James Lazaro said.
Hotshot crews are a ground team made up of 20 skilled fire fighters and several former U.S. service members who go where fire equipment can't go and only air resources can reach. "When somebody doesn't want to trek through the shoulder to shoulder brush that you can barely walk through ....they call the Hotshots,” Former U.S. Marine and first year Hotshot crew member Travis Herron said.
They are called the Hotshots because they are assigned to the hottest parts of the fire. A crew unseen by many, but for six months out of the year they are still working to stay prepared for fire season.
The crew also helps conduct prescribed burns with the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Park Service to create more fire resilient communities when temperatures are mild in the spring and fall.
As wildfire season approaches a total of four Hotshot crews in Kern County take part in a readiness review deep in the Sequoia National Forest.
Once a year members will simulate a hand line construction drill that they would usually have to do under thick smoke and fire conditions, using only a chainsaw, ax and team work.
“I carry a tool and I am following behind Casey who's running the saw. As he's cutting I'm pulling all the debris like you see we throw it onto the green side away from the black, the burning side," Herron said.
Crews create a dirt divide to keep fuel away from a wildfire. "So it was thick brush they clear all the brush out then you'll see this line of dirt so you can't have fire spread, fire won’t spread on top of dirt," U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Al Watson said.
Handmade lines are one of the Hotshots many tactical approaches to confine a blaze and keep it from spreading.The lines stretch for many miles and takes several hours to create, "Bustin it for 18 hour shifts you know sleeping for two hours then getting right back to it," Herron said.
It’s a job that requires a high level of physical fitness standards that each member is required to pass before they can even train with the crew, "You have to have a 45 pound pack, three miles under 45 minutes." Watson said.
Crew members have the ability to understand fire with their many years of experience. Some members have even worked on the most destructive wildfires in California including the Thomas fire that burned more than 10,000 homes and killed more than 40 people.
Others have fought against the Shafter and Chimney fires. Training like this makes it easier for crew leaders to spot deficiencies among their crews before they are called upon locally or nationally to assist with fire operations.
"FEMA might call upon them to use them to logistically be able to work a situation get it organized, Cal Fire will use them, any firefighting organization or any emergency relief could use them," Watson said.
"No one really knows how hard is out here," Lazaro said
"You don't realize until you step foot on the crew and they throw you right in it, a lot of civilians you know you watch the news you don't see a lot of Hotshots on the news we’re kind of the dark knights you know!" Herron said.
The U.S. veterans on the crew also told 23ABC that the militant style of the hotshot crew is what makes it an appealing job for veterans who are looking for an active job, that's no corporate and contains a sense of brotherhood.
If you would like to get involved with a Hotshot crew in Kern County you can visit this website.