On the front lines of California's fires: Smoke, chaos and comrades in arms

A member of an elite firefighting team describes what it's like to battle an inferno.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
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Eric Mack
7 min read
A Carson Hotshot with a wildfire in the background

A member of the Carson Hotshots works a fireline at the Slater Fire in Northern California.

USFS/Carson Hotshots/H. Kligman

With unprecedented fires burning millions of acres across the Western US the past few months, firefighters and other personnel from across the country have responded to the call to help contain the devastating blazes. 

Northern New Mexico, where I live, has managed to escape the worst of this horrifying fire season, with just a handful of smaller wildfires. That has freed up firefighting crews like the National Forest Service's Carson Hotshots, based in Taos, to help on those larger fires. 

The Hotshots are an elite firefighting crew specializing in wildfire suppression and emergency situations. The team's standards for physical fitness and training are intense. I've occasionally marveled when mountain biking around Taos with members of the crew, who carry on conversations as we pedal up steep trails and I struggle to breathe, let alone speak. 

The crew spent part of last month dealing with conflagrations in Colorado, and after just a short break at home to recuperate, traveled west to assist on the Slater Fire near Happy Camp, California. Since the fire started on Sept. 8, it's burned over 150,000 acres in a forested region along the California-Oregon border. As of Tuesday, the blaze was only 40% contained, and its cause is still under investigation.

I checked in with my local Hotshots team to see what it's like living, for weeks at a time, camped out in the shadow of an inferno, dealing with bugs, coronavirus precautions and each other.

Carson Hotshots and their "buggie"

The Carson Hotshots and their "buggie" in California.

USFS/Carson Hotshots/H. Kligman

Hannah Kligman, a Carson Hotshots senior crew member, took on the task of typing out responses to my questions at night on her iPhone after shifts fighting both the Slater Fire and a brain "feeling a little foggy from over a week breathing smoky air."

Kligman has been doing this work for more than five years. She also has a keen interest in fire archaeology and a degree in anthropology from Columbia University in New York, where she ran competitive track and cross-country. She's since graduated to running ultramarathons. In January, she won the women's division of the Arches 30K in Moab, Utah, finishing the race in just over four hours and 16 minutes. In 2012, Kligman was in a car accident with other firefighters that almost killed her. Doctors weren't sure she would be able to walk again, but she was back to running just six months later. This history of overcoming challenges makes it easier to understand how living under cover of constant wildfire smoke might seem tolerable.

Here are her responses to my questions, lightly edited. 

Hannah Kligman, a Carson Hotshot, fighting a wildfire

Hannah Kligman at work.

USFS/Carson Hotshots

What have your days been like recently? 
Each morning, we wake up around 6 and drive to a large camp to collect food and resupply our crew buggies with water and other essentials. 

Due to COVID-19, this season the crews and other fire resources sleep separately from each other, and we wear masks in fire camp. We park the buggies (a large green truck that carries 8-10 crew members) in rows with other fire vehicles in an open field, misty with smoke. 

Fire camps are ephemeral cities of tents plopped down in fields. Large fire camps all look similar, and orange signage labels the white tents. Especially when blanketed in smoke, a fire camp looks very familiar, and timeless, giving me creepy feelings of deja vu. 

Our squaddie (squad leader) pokes his head through the slider window connecting the front cab to the back of the box in the buggy. "Line out for chow!" 

We grab our masks and hop out, clattering on the back steps of the bug as we stumble in our predawn grogginess into our tool-order line. 

See also: Wildfires in California, Oregon and the West: Updates and how to help

Generator boxes for large scene lights squat on the corners, interspersed with lines of port-a-potties. Guys from each squad get boxes of bagged lunches for their trucks. Others carry the bags of yesterday's trash to dumpsters and huck them over the tall metal dumpster sides. Yet others hump our potable water jugs to refill them for the day. 

After we eat and resupply, we drive out to the fireline. 

Carson Hotshots amid wildfire smoke

Staying in touch amid the chaos.

USFS/Carson Hotshots

The two buggies are followed by our saw truck (a pickup). For the entire fire season, we live out of the buggies. Each person has their fireline gear, plus their personal gear in their own bin, and the trucks carry all the supplies we need to stay healthy and fed and watered and work-ready. 

Our superintendent and foreman are already out and about, talking to the division supervisor and other resources, and scouting our mission for the day. Each day, we construct fireline (a fire break or barrier) using various tactics (chainsaws, bulldozers, controlled burns, etc.), depending on the needs of the division and the safety of the crew as we move through the landscape. 

Come evening, we return to the camp. I peer in the mirror behind the mobile sink bank as I squish soap bubbles between my fingers, hoping to get the poison oak oils off my hands after a day of pulling and clawing our way through the shiny green and red oak leaves. 

Each day, our eyes look a little wilder and have more lines of tiredness under them.

After dinner, we go to our camp spot and throw our sleeping bags out on the ground, on top of a tarp. Unless the bugs or rain are imminent, most of us sleep in the open on top of our tarps. Skipping a tent makes it easier to pack up our sleeping spot come the predawn wake-up.

A Carson Hotshot fighting the Slater Fire

One of the Carson Hotshots fighting the Slater Fire in September. 

USFS/Carson Hotshots

Does this record-setting fire season feel any different?
Each fire season feels different, although it does seem that climate change is causing increasingly drastic swings in weather. This summer it feels as though the long-term droughts that plague various regions of the West finally displayed their dryness in the plants and soils themselves. 

What are a few of the most challenging moments you've faced over the last month?
As a senior crew member, it is my job to be the liaison between the seasonal crew members and the squad bosses. I bridge both worlds of doing a little bit of the overhead leadership work (listening to radio traffic, making small operational decisions, and keeping people safe on a small scale within our daily tasks), while I also work as hard as I can at digging, swamping branches, cleaning to give the seasonals a good example of a hardworking hotshot. 

Holding down this middle-leadership role challenges the scope of my perspective. Sometimes, crew mates are irritable or lazy, sometimes everyone is struggling with being tired/hungry/nervous (and generally stressed in any number of ways, the most underlying reason often being smoky air and dust), and it is the senior's job to mitigate the situation and keep their squad happy and hardworking. 

Carson Hotshots rest on a trail after fighting a wildfire

The Carson Hotshots are one of US Forest Service's elite wildland firefighting crews, based in Taos, New Mexico.

USFS/Carson Hotshots

Any fond moments? 
Moments on dramatic night burn-shifts in Colorado, in August, stand out in my memory. On one night in particular, after tying in some fireline with a burn, my group of senior lighters and myself got some down time in a cold burned area (which is a safe place for us to wait and watch the fire we have just lit). 

As we waited through the wee hours of the morning we made a small fire in the black and sat in the dirt around the small fire to keep warm. 

In the distance the fire we had just lit roared away into the hills, doing the work of containing the main fire. After hiking as fast as we could to get the burn lit properly, gulping the cool air ahead with raging heat on the backs of our necks, the tiny warming-fire reflected a kinder version of our element, and one that we can quietly watch up close without fear. 

Our years of hotshotting may be limited due to our aging and work-worn bodies, but memories like these (and the pay and winter time off) make the job worth our time. 

What can we do to help you?
People often want to give us food or money, which we do not need and are not allowed to take as federal workers. Those items should be given to the victims of wildfires who lose their homes, landscapes and livelihoods. 

Seeing thank-you signs from the public when we drive through towns affected by fire is meaningful, and the cheers and signage help lift our spirits when we are working near populated areas. 

There (has been an) effort to get wildland firefighters recognition as firefighters (and not "forestry technicians"), and also to get our entire workforce, both seasonal and permanent, year-round affordable healthcare. The majority of the workforce remains seasonal employees, for whom year-round health care at a reasonable price is not offered. 

Carson Hotshots fighting a wildland fire

Fighting wildland fires can be the ultimate exercise in teamwork.

USFS/Carson Hotshots

What do you wish the rest of the country knew about these fires and the job you do?
Personally, I wish the public was more aware of the long-term effects of climate change on the forest regimes around them. 

We sign up for hotshotting knowing that the work will be difficult. Many of us thrive in the chaos of a burning forest, and the difficulties of hiking very steep terrain and digging fireline in rocky and rooty soil. We want these challenges because it makes us feel alive. It fills a void that a desk job cannot fulfill for us outdoor fanatics. 

But sometimes the public assumes their right to clean air and the safety of their structures, and assumes that we are the heroes to make their lives right again. I think that as climate change continues to affect the West, the public will be forced to accept that wildfire will directly affect their air, and possibly their houses or properties. Their drinking water may also be affected. 

There is only so much wildfire workers can do to stop a blaze before they must back off, allow nature to run her course, and decide how to use our skills alongside nature.