Cold Weather Fires Can Make You or Break You.
Stories from the line.
We’re approaching the time of year where it’s dark in the morning and it’s dark before you leave the hill. When you wake up, frost covers everything and everyone is moving just a little bit slower. The trucks start to warm up in the morning as crew members huddle in the back hoping that the heater starts producing life giving warmth quickly. We call this part of the season “the shoulder season”.
Cold-weather fires are nothing new. If you’ve been in the industry long enough you know you’ll see them in the beginning if you start early. If you roll long enough you’re bound to need warm weather gear by the time you enter the late stages of fire season. It’s never a bad idea to invest in a nice puffy coat, some gloves, and a lot of folks even provide their own cold-weather sleeping bag. Thermals are a must however, many make the mistake of leaving thermals on into the morning hike. It’s nice for the first four minutes of the hike but if it’s a 45 minute pull up a mountain you quickly realize you’ve made a fatal flaw.
I remember my first cold-weather roll as a Hotshot. I had already been in fire for two years at this point and previous to my first Hotshot season I had been working up in Montana. We had some interesting weather up in Montana while I was there but nothing like what I experienced my first year as a Hotshot. In Montana we had tornadoes, hail that destroyed all of our personal vehicles, and some late season snow. One fire we saw a tree that had been ripped in half by barded wire that the Tornado lassoed around it. However, as soon as the snow started to fall when I worked in Montana we were quickly gathered across the gravel driveway into our trailer of an office and were simply told “the seasons over”.
My first roll as a Hotshot we were called out of Region to Colorado. I was working in Region 4 at the time and people who had been on the crew for a while expressed that this was a “1 in a 1000 opportunity of a tour”. First…, we were getting out early. This means overtime would start to stack up quick and the initial paychecks would be fat. We drove for a day and ended up on our first fire of the roll. It had received some moisture by the time we arrived and there wasn’t much to do except for some mop up and maybe some limbing and bucking of some dead and down.
There were a lot of new people on the crew that year and overhead wanted to get us dialed in, build cohesion, and set the tone for the season. So on day two it was made known to us that there wasn’t a ton of work to do so we were going to take this opportunity to “learn how to hike as a crew”. So, that morning the crew hiked up the trail and as soon as one person broke off the whole crew turned around went to the bottom of the mountain and we started again.
We did this about four times before it was decided only the people behind the individual who broke off had to start over. My spot in line was second to last. So we hiked and we hiked and we hiked… and ultimately it was a test of mental toughness of the individuals on the crew. I had a buddy on the crew who was a Sawyer that had been with the crew for many years. As we made it to the top of the mountain I was at the back of the line talking to a Lead.
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As I looked up from staring at the boots in front of me I noticed my buddy standing on the side of the trail with his saw on his shoulder and a blank gaze looking across the valley. His lead was aware that I was good friends with him. As I got closer he asked for me to step out of line and have a chat with my friend. I asked him what was wrong and his answer was just simply “fuck this shit“.
Now, I knew that he was going through some rough times in his personal life. A lot of folks on the crew did not know exactly what had been going on. I was aware that his father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer recently. The weight of this reality and the mental strain of the hike that we had just done had pushed him to the breaking point. He just looked at me and said “Tim I’m done, sorry man”. We were roommates at the time and had signed a year lease and he said “I won’t be there when you get back but we’ll figure it out”. Then he handed off his saw, hiked off the hill, and took a truck to the airport. After a deep breath I looked up and had a large gap to close. I hustled as fast as I could to catch up.
When I did catch back up there was a crewmember who was also new who and turned back to me and asked “what happened?”. He was completely out of breath and a little panicky. I just told him “homeboy quit, walked off the hill, he’s done.“ This individual then turned to me and said “Tim I’m coughing up blood I think somethings wrong with me“. The sweep who is behind me simply said “no man you’re good happens all the time. Probably the elevation".
Not too long after that the radio squawked with the division supervisor on the other end. “We got another fire for you. Come on down and I’ll pass along the details.” Everyone was excited to be going to a new fire. We hiked off the hill, the overhead met with Division, got the information we needed, and they contacted dispatch as we drove off. It started circulating quickly that everyone needed to hydrate and take electrolytes because we were going to a very active fire. Turns out we had been called to South Park Colorado.
When we arrived on scene there was howling winds that literally were taking peoples buckets off their heads. One crewmember had to chase his bucket nearly 200 yards after it came off. Skycrane helicopters were dowsing us with water as we tried to chunk line into an Aspen stand. I remember distinctly a squad leader turning to me and saying “that pilot keeps track of how many Hotshots he douses with water”. We chunked in an incredible amount of line and got things fairly shured up before the shift ended. That’s when we got the announcement that a winter storm was moving in.
For those of you who are not in the fire industry it needs to be understood that the first role of the season is used to make sure you have everything dialed in. That means with your personal gear, the amount of socks you have, warm weather gear, and all of the odds and ends. People often take note of what they have an excess of and what they need more of during this first tour. A lot of us were sorely under prepared.
As we set up our sleeping areas the old conversation of “I’m not gonna set up a tent, only pussies use tents” started to make the rounds. A lead firefighter came to me and said “let’s set up a tarp system across the buggy bin doors”. So that’s exactly what we did. We put up a tarp latched into the bin doors when they were closed and we set up our sleeping area underneath that little hallway.
By the time the sun was down and the stars were out it was already 30° or lower. We were at 10,100 feet.
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