Trying to defeat an unpredictable force that shifts, grows
stronger, and destroys homes, habitats and sometimes even humans
requires people willing to undergo the hardships that come with
such a task.
The hot shots, smoke jumpers and structure crews, known to most
as forest firefighters, who accept this duty of defeating massive
fires that plague the dry mountains in summer must endure intense
physical strains and emotional and psychological effects even after
the flames are put out.
“I was on six tragedy fires,” said Dan Robinson, part-time
professor in the CSU English department and a former hot-shot
firefighter of 14 years. Robinson wrote a book, “After the Fire,”
about his experiences fighting forest fires, the tragedies that
occur from them and how people deal with the effects.
“There’s no way you can deal with it, when in a fire and it
happens. You pull yourself inward and it’s not until after that you
begin to realize,” he said.
Robinson said his worst experience with catastrophe involved an
incident when he was a crew leader and one crew member got lost in
a fire and kept calling on the emergency radio line, which could
not be turned off.
“I had to listen to him be burned over and killed,” Robinson
said. “I turned my radio as low as it could, so my crew members
Alex Abols, a forestry fire science major who has worked for the
forest service the past six years while attending CSU in the spring
semesters, also experienced tragedy during his service as a hot
shot and smoke jumper.
“I lost two buddies this summer,” he said. Abols said he and his
crew-member friends, Jeff Allen and Shane Heath, prepared to jump
into last year’s Cramer fire in central Idaho, but windy conditions
prohibited them. Instead they rappelled into it. After Allen and
Heath landed, there was a shift in patterns and a miscommunication.
They were both burned on the hill.
The two used their fire shelters, which were later found with 10
of the 12 layers burnt over from heat indicated to be temperatures
of 1,300 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National
Interagency Fire Center’s Cramer Fire Accident Investigation
“It’s an awakening, a reminder of how precious life is. It’s a
lesson learned, but a lesson learned at the highest price,” said
Abols, who attributes his two friends’ deaths and the deaths of
many firefighters to transitional fires, those fires change from
type four to type three (less severe), which results in a command
change and different techniques of attacking a fire.
With fatality always being a possibility and having experienced
tragedy firsthand, Abols can never escape the thought that every
time he puts on his gear it could be the last.
“I think about (death) all the time. If you don’t think about
it, that’s when it’s going to happen,” Abols said.
The best way for him to get through difficult situations was to
concentrate on the objective and get it done, and in doing so, the
notion of catastrophe would subside, Robinson said.
“You think about the immediate and technical. You keep aware of
what’s going on around you always,” Robinson said.
Along with dealing with psychological issues of death and
tragedy, Abols and Robinson also learned to deal with harsh
Abols said the major physical strain on forest firefighters is
the extensive shifts that become a crutch to new fighters.
Crew members will fight fire up to 14 days, with 16-hour shifts
every day, from May to November, Abols said. He said the government
just implemented a limitation on hours because there were so many
injuries and deaths occurring from fatigue. So now, for every two
hours of work, one hour of rest is required.
Abols said that because of this, they have begun to bring in new
recruits to fight summer fires. He argues that this change will not
solve the problem because inexperienced workers will still struggle
with lengthy shifts and that more specialty shifts with
knowledgeable workers should be implemented.
“I pulled a 44-hour shift in 2000,” Abols said. “It was
ridiculous, but no one got hurt.”
There have been severe incidents with this issue though, he
said, citing a recent situation when a contact crew crashed en
route to a fire, killing all four passengers. The driver of the
fire truck fell asleep behind the wheel because she was too
exhausted from working 19 hours straight.
“Ninety percent of fires you go on, the most strenuous thing is
staying awake on a night shift,” Robinson said.
In addition to fatigue caused by lengthy shifts, firefighters
must tolerate numerous physical conditions that add even more to
their load, including smoke inhalation and absorbing carbon
monoxide through the rising smoke, Abols said.
While they’re on the ground, firefighters must carry
substantially heavy chainsaws and constantly hike through the
mountains while breathing in smoke without any oxygen tanks and
with foot blisters, Abols said. Robinson said that there is no way
to avoid cracked lips from the dry heat, meals ready to eat (MRE’s)
aren’t exactly delectable and that dole-mars, undergrowth in
forests that carry fuel, explode everywhere while hiking.
But after all of the troubles, after all the pain, after all of
the tragedy, both Robinson’s and Abols’s passion to fight fires
“It’s an adrenaline rush, a challenge, it’s pushing yourself,”
Abols said. “It’s so dynamic, anything could happen. That’s the
thrill of it, the unknown.”
Both Abols and Robinson said they love the thrill of not knowing
where they could be the next day, be it California in the redwood
forests or the Rocky Mountains of Colorado or Alaska working on an
Robinson said that if he were 20 years old again, he would be
back fighting again without any hesitation and Abols said he is
eager to get back to his latest position in Wyoming as a smoke
jumper this summer.
“It’s going to be a busy summer,” Abols said.