Apr 152004
Authors: Danny Byers

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

couldn’t hear.”

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

physical hardships.

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

never ceased.

“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

island fire.

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.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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