Much of America may have learned about “hotshot” firefighter crews for the first time this past weekend, when 19 members of one such crew died in a wildfire in Arizona.
But Nick Cesare of Lawrence first heard of the hotshot crews last summer. That’s when he joined one.
Cesare, a 22-year-old junior at Haskell Indian Nations University and a 2009 Lawrence Free State graduate, fought wildfires with one of the elite, specialized hotshot groups for three months last year. He’s been waiting since then until the day he could return: this coming Monday.
And though he’s been carefully watching and reading about this week’s tragedy, he says, there’s no doubt he’s going back out there. He’ll be returning to his group, based in Logan, Utah, until October.
“I guess you just kind of realize that you still kind of have a job that you have to do,” Cesare said. “And in a way, you’re kind of respecting them by continuing to do that job.”
Cesare said he’s been fascinated by fire since he and his dad stopped on the way to a Little League game to watch crews battle a blaze at an apartment building when he was 7 years old. That’s when he decided to become a firefighter, and he hasn’t wavered since.
Cesare joined the Wakarusa Township Fire Department when he was 18. In spring of 2012, he was plucked from a training class at Haskell to join the U.S. Forest Service’s Logan Hotshots — one of around 100 hotshot crews in the United States that fight on the front lines to contain wildfires.
The Forest Service has an office at Haskell and offers temporary jobs each summer for students there, said Elaine Kiefer, the office’s clerk. A few of those jobs are in firefighting, and a few Haskell students over the years have worked their way up to the elite hotshot level.
But Cesare was picked for the hotshots right off the bat.
That’s because, Kiefer said, he impressed the Logan Hotshot leaders who run an annual training session at Haskell each spring. When a classmate started having a seizure, he announced he was a trained EMT and sprung to action to stabilize the classmate.
“The guys who were here teaching the course basically offered him a job on the spot,” Kiefer said.
Even though he’d been picked, Cesare still had to meet rigorous physical tests after a two-week training period, or he’d be sent home or transferred to a lower-level crew. He had to run a mile and a half in under 10 minutes, do at least 50 push-ups in one minute and more. And he passed.
'It wasn't a cloud'
Then Cesare, always entranced by fire, got more fire than he’d ever seen. He remembers approaching his first blaze last summer, near Pagosa Springs, Colo.
“It looked like a big cumulus cloud,” Cesare said. “And it wasn’t a cloud. It was smoke from the fire.”
Hotshots’ job is to hike or helicopter in to a wildfire and then keep it from approaching places where it could do horrible damage. They don’t use water; instead they build a “fire line”, cutting down trees or other plants the fire could use for fuel and digging a trench to cut it off.
“It’s kind of a chess game,” Cesare said. “The fire makes its move, and then you make yours.”
They sometimes work in the same place for up to two weeks, setting up camp and subsisting on pre-packaged military-style meals-ready-to-eat (MREs).
Cesare, at 21, was the youngest of his 20-man crew. Others ranged from their 20s to their mid-40s.
He went with them to fires in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Idaho. He doesn’t know for sure, but he believes that his crew worked at least once alongside the Granite Mountain Hotshots, whose fighters died this week.
A group photo of the Logan Hotshots hangs on the wall in the living room of Cesare’s apartment, and when he saw that members of a hotshot crew had died, he feared that it was his friends. Some of his other friends, meanwhile, texted him overnight to make sure he hadn’t been out there.
A dangerous job
But there was no question he was still going back, he says. He’ll just remember something he already learned last year: Wildfires can turn course and spread rapidly at a moment’s notice.
More than once last year, he remembers, he had to drop his gear and run to stay safe.
“It makes you want to work harder, and just realize that at any moment things can change out there,” Cesare said. “I guess, kind of keep your head on a swivel, and just trust the guys that you’re with.”
It is, after all, important work. As the Logan Hotshots left the site of a fire in Fort Collins, Colo., last year, residents whose homes had been saved held up signs that said “Thank you” and handed the firefighters cards expressing gratitude.
“I’m proud of him,” said Cesare’s girlfriend, Jessica Hundley. “It’s a good thing that he does, but it’s a very dangerous thing. So it’s scary, too.”
Though Cesare wants to work as a firefighter after he graduates from Haskell, he won’t be a hotshot forever, he says. He’ll do it while he’s young and in shape.
That’s what many hotshots are — and that, Kiefer said, is why the news of the Arizona tragedy shook her.
“They’re just in great shape,” Kiefer said. “They work so hard. And you think they have it all covered.”