Facing the flames with a hotshot crew: Inside the Beaver Creek fire


The Beaver Creek fire burned up 108,000 acres of Idaho land in two weeks, but it looks like crews have finally gotten the upper hand.

That's thanks to the bravery and tireless work of guys like the Pike Hotshots, a tight-knit 20-person crew from Monument, Colo., who let me follow them as they battled the blaze in punishing terrain about 20 miles north of Ketchum.

I've been a red-carded wildland firefighter for more than a decade, and I can tell you that the conditions they faced were typical for a midsummer Idaho blaze: unpredictable, back-breaking and dangerous as hell.

Tuesday was a turning point in the fire that drove thousands from their homes, destroyed several buildings and threatened resort areas since an Aug. 7 lightning strike — but the day got off to a slow start because of a heavy smoke inversion in the morning.

The Beaver Creek burns brightly near the Idaho ski resort of Sun Valley. Al Henkel / NBC News

Eventually, though, that cleared. And by later in the afternoon, the winds had picked up in Division Tango.

When that happens, a big concern is spotting — embers crossing over from the burned area to start new fires. The lodgepole pines in our section are particularly susceptible to this.

Pike hotshots plan confer on the best way to attack the Beaver Creek fire. Al Henkel / NBC News

By about 8 p.m., some 14 hours since the guys started their day, they had a "slop-over" on their hands. That's when the fire slops over a control line — in this case, a road — to the unburned side.

It took four hours to get that contained, on terrain so steep and rocky that crew members were sliding into position on their backs.

A Pike hotshot talks on a radio as crews battle the Beaver Creek Fire. Al Henkel / NBC News

Rocks and burning sticks were rolling all over, and rocks were being dislodged by falling trees. A heli-tanker had knocked down the flames, but the hotshots had to make sure it stayed contained by clearing a 10-foot-wide line of trees — known as a saw-cut — and digging a 2-foot-wide fire line down to the mineral soil.

It was after 11 p.m. when we finally trudged off the line. My legs felt like they had been hit by a baseball bat as I made the mile-long hike.

Superintendent Bob Ayotte jokingly told me, "You are so old, Moses had you put out the burning bush."

A Pike hotshot watches a fire as crews battle the Beaver Creek Fire. Al Henkel / NBC News

There was a quick meal and then a 5-mile drive to the campsite, where there's nothing to do but sleep — until you have to get up at 5:30 a.m. and start all over again.

That's the routine for the Pike hotshots and members of more than 90 other crews across the nation, all summer long. They work 14 days in a row and then get two days off. The rookies get paid $12 to $13 an hour and might pocket $35,000 for the summer with overtime and hazard pay.

It's one of the most physically demanding jobs in the world. Imagine walking a mile or more uphill into the mountains with a 40-pound chainsaw, fuel, and a 40-pound pack with water, food, a shelter and other supplies.

But you won't hear any complaints from a hotshot crew. The fact is, for reasons that are sometimes mysterious to me, they love doing this job.

Some of the Pikes have been on the crew for a year. Others have been fighting fires for as long as 23 years. All of them are the most optimistic, smartest people you'll ever meet.

On Wednesday, there was good reason for that confidence. Officials reported the Beaver Creek fire was 30 percent contained and there was rain in the forecast.

Supervisors were getting ready to scale back resources, and send hotshot teams and other firefighting crews to newer conflagration across the West. The Pike crew was waiting to see what new challenges the evening and its down-canyon gusts would bring.

After all, as Ayotte says, "This is hotshot country."

Members of the Pike Hotshots, who are fighting the Beaver Creek Fire in Idaho. Al Henkel

See more photos and videos by NBC News Coordinating Producer Al Henkel on Instagram.

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