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On the front line As fire seasons grow, tahoe's firefighting elite work overtime

On July 23, a vehicle “mechanical failure” sparked a fire in the Northern California community of Whiskeytown. As of Thursday morning, the Carr Fire has grown to 117,450 acres and is 48 percent contained.

So far 1,599 structures have been destroyed, and seven lives lost, including two firemen.

More than 4,700 fire personnel are battling the flames, and among them, Lake Tahoe’s elite crew known as the Tallac Hotshots.

Across the country, the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and state and county agencies sponsor more than 100 Interagency Hotshot Crews, teams of 20 highly-trained firefighters who respond to the toughest burns around the country.

The Tallac Hotshots are one of roughly 100 interagency crews used across the country. Claire Cudahy / Tahoe Daily Tribune

Hotshot crews were first established in Southern California in the late 1940s on the Cleveland and Angeles national forests.

They are on call 24/7 during fire season, and within two hours of receiving orders, could be en route to a fire anywhere around the country.

They maintain intense training regimen to stay in shape for a job that is physically demanding, to say the least.

The crews hike up steep terrain with 40 pounds in gear to respond to wildland fires, wielding chainsaws and other tools to remove brush and starve the fire. They work 16-hour days fighting flames while temperatures soar well over 100 degrees for two weeks straight. They throw sleeping bags down on the ground outside at night and get just two days off between each deployment during fire season.

But ask any member of the Tahoe Basin’s lone hotshot crew why they do the job and their answers are almost always the same: It’s fun.

Elsa Gaule is a squad leader for the Tallac Hotshots. Claire Cudahy / Tahoe Daily Tribune

Elsa Gaule, an Alaskan backcountry ranger turned hotshot, remembers how exciting it was to get her first opportunity to fight a fire.

“One minute I was at the station getting ready to hike a trail and then they are telling me, ‘grab your gear, we’re helicoptering you to the top of this mountain for a fire and we don’t know how long you’ll be out there,’” recalled Gaule, now a squad leader for the Tallac Hotshots.

“It was awesome, and it still is always so much fun.”

Though the job requires the firefighters to be physically fit — when not fighting fires, they train every day, usually with hikes in full gear up 1,200-1,400 feet — Gaule says the job is largely mental.

Left: The Tallac Hotshots hike off the Potosi Fire near Las Vegas in July 2017. Right: The crew climbs up a hill during the Earthstone Fire near Sparks in July 2017. Provided / Tallac Hotshots Facebook

“You’re dirty — there are times when you don’t shower for 14 days — you’re sleeping in the dirt, you’re getting eight hours of rest, but you might not be getting the best rest, and day after day it’s 100 degrees,” explained Gaule. “You could have 13 days where it’s just grueling and you’re thinking ‘what am I doing?’ and then you have that one great day and you can’t wait for the next 14.”

The hotshots hike into the most difficult wildland fires where they use the tools they haul in, including chainsaws and shovel-hoe hybrids, to remove brush and dig “lines” down to the mineral soil that won’t burn in order to stop the fire.

The hotshots fight the Hot Pot Fire, north of Battle Mountain, Nevada, back in 2016. YouTube / Tek9tim

Meanwhile, engine crews are responsible for hosing down the fire, while air tankers dump chemical retardant and helicopters drop water they’ve scooped up in large buckets from nearby bodies of water.

“You have the engine module and they can only go as a far as their hose does,” explained Tobias Moralez, a senior firefighter for the Tallac Hotshots. “With us, we can anywhere. We hike, we walk, we go to the steepest terrain there is and that’s when they call us.”

But the job comes with a high degree of danger.

Tobias Moralez is a senior firefighter with the Tallac Hotshots. Claire Cudahy / Tahoe Daily Tribune

“For our crew, we’ve had a pretty good safety record of people not getting seriously injured, but we’ve had people go down with heat-related injuries,” said Moralez. “I’ve seen some of the best people in shape go down. It’s serious.”

In 2013, fast-moving flames from the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona overran 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, killing all but one member of the crew.

Shasta County’s Carr Fire has already claimed the lives of two firefighters, and another two perished in the Ferguson Fire in Yosemite — an unprecedented number of fatalities this early in the fire season.

The death count is growing partly because this year’s fires have been bigger and more frequent. Firefighters are currently battling 17 blazes across the state.

Left: The hotshots fight the County Fire in Yolo and Napa counties. Right: The Eclipse Complex burned in Klamath National Forest back in August 2017. Provided / Tallac Hotshots Facebook

“In the early 2000s a 30,000-acre fire was a pretty big fire,” said Kyle Betty, Tallac Hotshots superintendent. “Now a 30,000-acre fire is a Tuesday.”

The Texas native has been in hotshot crews for the last 17 years, but recently, he’s noticed the seasons getting longer and the fires more intense.

Fire season used to last five to six months, he said, but now it’s more like six to eight.

“The largest fire in California history was in December last year,” said Betty, referring to the Thomas Fire that devastated 281,893 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara County, demolishing 1,063 structures and killing one.

Since making that comment in late July, the Mendocino Complex Fire — consisting of the Ranch and River fires — has surpassed the Thomas Fire, burning 302,086 acres with just 47 percent containment. Cal Fire estimates that full containment of the fire, which started on July 27, could take until Sept. 1.

Of the top 20 fires that destroyed the most structures in California, five of them took place in 2017.

John Castaneda has been with the Tallac Hotshots since 2010. Claire Cudahy / Tahoe Daily Tribune

The Carr Fire now ranks sixth, though that could change since the fire is still uncontained. The Tubbs Fire, which scorched 5,643 structures and almost 37,000 acres in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties last October, sits at number one.

This is despite best efforts from agencies like CalFire and the Forest Service — the Tallac Hotshots included — to treat overgrown forests through thinning and controlled burns.

“It makes a huge difference when you are fighting a fire in an area that has been treated. The less fuel, the easier the fire is to control,” said Brad White, who’s in his 13th season as a hotshot.

“But a lot of them are human caused, and that is going to keep happening.”

Brad White is in his 13th season as a Tallac Hotshot. Claire Cudahy / Tahoe Daily Tribune

In 2017, researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Earth Lab analyzed the U.S. Forest Service’s fire data between 1992 and 2012 and found that humans caused 1.2 million of the 1.5 million blazes — 84 percent of wildland fires during that period.

The researchers estimate that human-caused fires have tripled the average fire season from 46 days to 154 days over 21 years.

Runaway debris burns, campfires, arson, faulty power lines, lawn mowers, fireworks and target shooting are some of the causes in recent California wildfires.

Left: A hotshot stands near a vista while deployed for the Chaparral Fire in Utah. Right: The hotshots wait for a helicopter ride out from the Thompson Fires in 2017. Provided / Tallac Hotshots Facebook

Despite these challenges — the hours, the weeks away from family, the difficult conditions, the growing fire season — members of the Tallac Hotshots say they are in it for the long haul.

“What motivates me is working with these other people — finding out about their lives, how many kids they have, what they do on their weekends — and helping out other hotshot crews and saving our natural resources,” said Moralez.

“If we don’t have anybody saving those places, then we aren’t going to have anything for our children.”

“It’s one of those things that gets down in your soul and it’s hard to give up,” added Betty.

Left: The Tallac Hotshots fought at fire in Strawberry River Canyon, Utah this June. Right: A firefighter radios in while on the Pawnee Fire in Lake County this summer. Provided / Tallac Hotshots Facebook

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