Hot­shot crew fo­cuses on re­cruit­ing vet­er­ans

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - LOCAL - BY AN­DREW SELSKY As­so­ci­ated Press

After be­ing in fire­fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, mem­bers of one of Amer­ica’s new­est elite wild­fire crews are tasked with fight­ing fires in rugged coun­try back home.

On the U.S. Bu­reau of Land Man­age­ment’s only hot­shot crew fo­cused on re­cruit­ing vet­er­ans, mem­bers have traded as­sault ri­fles and other weapons of war for chain saws and shov­els. But, like in the mil­i­tary, they have ca­ma­raderie, struc­ture and chain of com­mand. And the oc­ca­sional adren­a­line rush.

“Be­ing in a fire­fight is way dif­fer­ent than be­ing in a wild­land fire, but both are men­tally tax­ing,” said Chris Schott, who served two tours in Afghanistan with the Army’s 7th Spe­cial Forces Group. “In a wild­land fire, no one’s shoot­ing at you, but con­di­tions can go fa­vor­able to un­fa­vor­able very quickly.”

The Lake­view Vet­er­ans In­ter­a­gency Hot­shot Crew, based in Kla­math Falls, Ore­gon, re­ceived its hot­shot cer­ti­fi­ca­tion after rig­or­ous train­ing and test­ing, the Bu­reau of Land Man­age­ment an­nounced last week. It’s now among 112 elite U.S. wild­land fire­fight­ing teams and the only tar­get­ing vet­er­ans for re­cruit­ment, the agency said.

Crew su­per­in­ten­dent Michael Mcgirr said he and other man­agers took then-pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ini­tia­tive to hire vet­er­ans to heart.

“We felt it was im­por­tant for them to tran­si­tion back home,” Mcgirr said.

Their ma­tu­rity and abil­ity to fol­low and lead are ben­e­fits that quickly be­came ap­par­ent when the crew started op­er­at­ing in 2012 as a lower-clas­si­fi­ca­tion unit, Mcgirr said. Their mil­i­tary ex­pe­ri­ence also means they’re used to en­dur­ing tough mis­sions.

“It’s a lot of ar­du­ous hik­ing in nasty ter­rain,” Mcgirr said. “The steeper the ter­rain, that’s usu­ally the ground hot­shots are on.”

Kenn Boles, a mem­ber of the crew since 2012 who did three tours in

Iraq as a Marine, agreed that vet­er­ans can with­stand the in­tense work.

“You’re work­ing hard, sweat­ing; the fire doesn’t stop be­cause of those things,” he said. “It’s like in com­bat – just be­cause you’re hun­gry, tired and thirsty doesn’t mean the fire­fight stops.”

The crew is on leave and hasn’t been bat­tling the re­cent deadly wild­fires in Cal­i­for­nia.

Of the 25 po­si­tions on the crew, 17 are filled by vet­er­ans, Mcgirr said. There are three ad­di­tional open­ings, and Mcgirr said he wants to re­cruit fe­male vet­er­ans, too.

Schott, the Army vet­eran, said the crew felt they had the po­ten­tial to achieve elite hot­shot sta­tus after fight­ing fires in 2015, in­clud­ing one in Ore­gon’s Crater Lake Na­tional Park that they al­most had con­tained when winds picked up and changed di­rec­tion, push­ing the flames be­hind them.

They worked two weeks in a row, digging fire lines and do­ing pre­scribed burns to de­prive the fire of fuel. After three days off, they worked an­other two weeks straight.

“After that, we thought we could be the first vet­er­ans hot­shot crew in the na­tion,” Schott said.

The crew usu­ally works for nine months, with three months off.

“We spend more time to­gether than with our fam­i­lies,” Mcgirr said. “It’s a gru­el­ing pace. We eat to­gether, sleep to­gether.”

That cre­ates a ca­ma­raderie that al­lows the vet­er­ans to share their wartime ex­pe­ri­ences with those who un­der­stand what they en­dured.

Boles lost a close friend a week after he left Iraq. That was the big­gest con­trib­u­tor to post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der that hit him later, he said, de­scrib­ing it as “a lot of sur­vivor’s guilt.” The vet­er­ans have each other’s backs when PTSD is­sues arise, act­ing as a sup­port group.

“In­stead of bot­tling it up, we’re re­ally re­cep­tive to hear­ing peo­ple’s sto­ries and prob­lems,” said

Boles, who was in the in­va­sion of Iraq and in heavy fight­ing in Fal­lu­jah and Ra­madi.

Schott, who served in Afghanistan’s Uroz­gan Prov­ince north of Kan­da­har, said, “A lot of times you think, this can’t get any worse. And yet you made it through.”

He was in an op­er­a­tions cen­ter when he heard ra­dio traf­fic about some­one killed in ac­tion. It was his best friend.

“My­self, I was in de­nial for quite a long time about my PTSD,” Schott said, adding that join­ing the crew and open­ing up to other vet­er­ans “helped me get my life back on track and where it needs to be.”

The Bu­reau of Land Man­age­ment is proud of the crew and ef­forts to de­velop a work­force of vet­er­ans, said Jef­frey Fedrizzi, agency deputy di­rec­tor for fire and avi­a­tion.

KARI GREER AP

The Lake­view Crew 7 is made up al­most en­tirely of vet­er­ans. After be­ing in fire­fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, they are bring­ing their mil­i­tary ex­pe­ri­ence to bear as they bat­tle wild­fires in the most rugged ter­rain back home.

AP

Chris Schott works in Utah with a fire­fight­ing crew out of Lake­view. “Be­ing in a fire­fight is way dif­fer­ent than be­ing in a wild­land fire, but both are men­tally tax­ing,” he said.

KARI GREER AP

Kenn Boles, a mem­ber of a Bu­reau of Land Man­age­ment fire crew out of Lake­view, Ore., works on the Cougar Creek Fire in cen­tral Wash­ing­ton state in Au­gust.

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