Group hot on the fire trail
If you ask Eric Rice and his colleagues if they perceive themselves as heroes, they smile and say “no” in a matter-of-fact way.
But when calamity such as a wildfire strikes anywhere in the country, Rice’s team from the Tahoe Hotshots braves the odds to save American wilderness from destruction.
“We are a nationally shared resource who fight wildfires,” said Rice, 32, captain of the Tahoe Hotshots, a group of 20 crackerjack firefighters based in Camptonville.
“We are mostly out there saving people’s properties and stopping fire from scorching large patches of land, ” said Graham Worley-Hood, 25, lead firefighter with the group.
Rice and his team fought the recent Angora Fire at Lake Tahoe for eight days.
When they arrived at Tahoe, they had to first drive through a desolate, fire-ravaged neighborhood to reach the area where the fire still posed a threat.
“It was eerie,” Rice said. “There was nobody there. The smoke was all around, with low visibility. You got power lines all over the place. It was pretty hard to drive through there. You could see it was a big deal. It was like a moonscape.”
Shelving the image of ruin in their mind was a challenge, Worley-Hood said. So was dealing with the all-enveloping smoke and progressing cautiously up the fireline, he added.
Despite the wide publicity the Angora Fire received, Rice’s group has been in more challenging fire situations.
The Tahoe Hotshots have fought fires as far east as Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi, Rice said. The group provided services after Hurricane Katrina.
“The thing I like about the job is where we get to go,” Rice said. “You get to meet a lot of good people. It’s exciting. It’s physical. That’s what drives me to do it.”
For Andrew Arriaga, 26, who’s spent a year with the Hotshots, “the challenge, the sense of doing something good and job fulfillment” keep him going.
“You meet a lot of nice people,” Arriaga said. “And you get to help others out.”
But being a Hotshot is hard work.
Throughout the fire season – May to November – Hotshots work at various locations in the country, often 16-hour shifts a day. They may be away from their families for months.
While on the job, they travel 10 people per crew truck, which also carries food supplies, sleeping bags and tools, Rice said.
To become a Hotshot, one must pass a rigorous test, Rice said. The Hotshots also have a physical training program that includes running and hiking.
“Eventually, the mental side of the job is probably a bigger challenge,” Rice said. “We identify (those who are stressed) and talk to them. We’re always in communication.”
For many such as Worley-Hood, being a Hotshot is a matter of choice. With his bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, Worley-Hood could well do something else.
“When I first started, I was in school and didn’t have a lot of job options,” he said. “But once I graduated, I stuck with the job for the camaraderie.”
To contact Soumitro Sen, e-mail email@example.com or call 477-4229.
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