By Jeff Marszal and Doug Denlinger

Almost to the date, 10 years ago this month, the Smith River Hotshots were born.

The crew, based in Gasquet and hosted by the Six Rivers National Forest, Smith River National Recreation Area, is an elite 20-person firefighting crew trained to respond to high priority wildland fires in remote regions with little or no logistical support.

Hotshot crews — there are more than 100 nationwide — are regularly exposed to the most extreme wildland fire environments, working long hours in the most demanding of fireline assignments. Starting out as 10-person Initial Attack (IA) and Fuels Crew in 2001, what was called then called SRF-NRA-Crew-1, expanded to a 20-person Type 2 IA in 2005.

Over the next few years, the crew trained and eventually became the Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC) it is today. Although most of the original crew has moved on, there is deep sense of gratitude owed to the early leaders and firefighters who laid the foundation on which the current Smith River Hotshot crew is built on.

These days, the crew is known for their hard work ethic and reliability. According to Douglas Denlinger, Smith River Hotshot Superintendent, “Our crew is built on a foundation of always being part of the solution; born in the tradition of hotshotting. We are a module that is at the very top of its game and operates at the highest levels of wildland fire support. We are specialists and our crew will always uphold the highest level of professionalism.”

The crew’s current leadership brings varied IHC experience from multiple regions. They value a diversity of culture and thought, and work to recruit firefighters from all over the country.

In any given year, there are approximately 10 permanent and 10 seasonal firefighters on the crew, many returning year after year. The crew’s motto is a quote from Rudyard Kipling, “The strength of the wolf is in the pack, the strength of the pack is in the wolf.” This quote strongly conveys the qualities of forming a strong hotshot crew and is deeply reflected in the ethos of the Smith River Hotshots.

With the 2019 fire season quickly approaching, the crew is currently training and gearing up for, what is expected to be, another challenging fire season. 2018 was California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire season.

The first two weeks of hotshot training are grueling. During the first week, the crew spends much of its time completing required classroom training; however, they also find time to begin their notoriously challenging physical fitness program. On any given day, the crew will run five to seven miles or hike two to five miles — mostly uphill. To be clear, these aren’t your average hikes. These are fast-paced, vigorous hikes with 45 to 50 pounds worth of gear — 75 for anyone carrying a chainsaw.

The second week of the season starts the field-going portion of the training. Each day begins with a workout and then a trip to the woods to “work harden” the crew. During the work hardening sessions, the crew trains hard on hand-line construction, chainsaw operations and medical emergencies. The crew also practices with fire shelters — how to use them, as well as how to pick the correct location to deploy them.

As an added bonus, much of the crew’s training program occurs on existing fuels reduction units, so not only is the crew training, they are reducing hazardous fuels as well. As stated by Denlinger, “We train every day to ensure we are always building and improving. We will never stop learning, as this is a very diverse and changing time in the wildland fire environment. Safety is our number one priority — the crew’s safety, as well as the safety of other resources.”

By the end of the second week, the Smith River Hotshot crew is typically certified and available for national assignments. This means they are ready to respond to any wildfire incident or natural disaster in the country.

As a Type 1 IHC crew, the Smith River Hotshots are required to hold higher qualifications for their positions, as defined by the Standards for Interagency Hotshot Crew Operations (SIHCO.This) operating guide ensures that all IHC’s are held to the same standard across agency boundaries.

Though primarily hosted by the Forest Service, IHC crews come from many different agencies across the United States, such as the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as some state and local governments.

After certification, the crew is available to work on wildfire assignments, which can last as long as 21 days. Depending on the severity of the fire season, there’s a strong chance the crew, after a few days’ rest, will immediately return to work on another wildland fire assignment.

During the 2018 fire season, the Smith River Hotshot crew spent more than 100 days away from home. The firefighters recognize that every morning they leave the house, they and their loved ones do not know if they will be home for dinner that night.

The bonds that form on the fireline run deep, according to Superintendent Denlinger, “We are family, we spend up to six months together, sleeping on the ground, eating in fire camps, traveling the US away from our loved ones and, over time, we just become a second family.”

Denlinger also recognizes the success of the crew is attributed to his highly trained captains, Jeremiah Mendes and Thomas Hawkins. The captains are responsible for ensuring effective, efficient and safe operations at all times. Keeping everyone safe is their number one priority.

The captains are the operations specialists on fires working directly with the crew members and continually adjusting tactics as the firefighting environment changes and objectives shift. Often, Denlinger is pulled away into different areas of the fire to have meetings and develop plans with other resources. With both captains possessing high-level qualifications and many years of experience, the captains are capable to act on Denlinger’s behalf on a moment’s notice.

“The captains are my right and left hand men. I trust them with my life,” says Denlinger.

One of the most valuable aspects of having a hotshot crew on a large wildfire incident is that the crew carries a wide range of skills and abilities. For example, current crew members have experience working in aviation as helicopter managers and crew members, communicating with the helicopters and air tankers and help plan the best application of aerial resources.

All the aircraft in the world will not put out a fire unless you have the right people on the ground to pinpoint the drops. Some crew members are qualified as heavy equipment bosses, who have the ability to work directly with bulldozers and excavators, showing them exactly where the crew wants a fireline established. This is especially beneficial when the operator is inexperienced in wildland firefighting.

The crew also has strike team leaders, who can lead less experienced fire crews. The Smith River Hotshots have a number of highly trained timber fallers, with agency timber falling qualifications of FAL1. The FAL1’s mitigate the biggest and most complex trees that are fire weakened or already dead and pose a hazard to firefighters.

Those same fallers are also qualified falling bosses that can pull away from the crew to help manage contract timber fallers that may be experts at falling trees, but not trained in wildland fire. The common theme here is the Smith River Hotshots have the many parts that go into putting out a large wildfire, and as problem solvers, the crew assists in putting all those parts in the right place to get the job done effectively, efficiently and safely.

While not on fire assignments, the crew works a regular schedule and, along with the other fire modules, performs other mission critical work. For example, the crew supports the fuels program by reducing hazardous fuels, both mechanically and through prescribed burning, to increase forest resilience and protect our communities from catastrophic wildfires.

The crew supports the recreation program by felling hazard trees away from developed campgrounds and buildings while clearing and maintaining trail systems. The crew works to open district roads, improve facilities, teach firefighting classes, and even assist with fire prevention programs in the local schools.

“The Smith River National Recreation Area is our host. We support the other functions of the NRA as best we can into our daily operations when we are not on emergency incidents, because it’s the right thing to do and we are part on the NRA family as well. We have up to ten permanent employees that live in the local area year-round, so we are also part of this community,” says Denlinger.

The Smith River HS crew is integral to the operations of the Smith River NRA and are a significant resource to the communities of Del Norte County — we are all very fortunate to have them here. As the District Ranger of the Smith NRA, I am can attest to the crew’s professionalism, integrity and work ethic. They are a remarkable group of leaders and individuals and we are all very proud of them. As the Smith River Hotshot crew embarks on their 2019 fire season, I ask that you all keep them in your thoughts and wish them a safe journey to, on and back from the fireline.

Jeff Marszal is district ranger, Smith River National Recreation Area and Doug Denlinger is superintendent of Smith River Hotshots.