Notes from the fire: Hotshot fighters recall life fighting flames

Image: Yarnell Hill Fire
A wildfire burns homes in Yarnell, Ariz. on Sunday, June 30, 2013. An Arizona fire chief says the wildfire that killed 19 members of his crew near the town was moving fast and fueled by hot, dry conditions.David Kadlubowski / The Arizona Republic via AP file

Nineteen Hotshot firefighters in Arizona died in a massive forest blaze this week, leaving behind family, friends and many questions about what went wrong. To better understand the work of fighting blazes in the wild, NBC News collected the stories of several wild land firefighters.

TERRY HOUGH, 62, Carrollton, Texas.

Current occupation: New car salesman for Park Place Lexus

Firefighter base: Magee Ranger Station, Idaho

In a split second, a wall of orange surrounded Terry Hough and his team while facing in a wildfire in Pumpkin Creek, Wyo. Circled by flames, the crew of 19- and 20-year-old firefighters doused themselves with water, closed their eyes and ran, hoping to escape the smoke and flames around them. 

“We ran as fast as we could and didn’t stop until we ran into each other,” he said.

Holding onto the shirt of the person in front of them, the Idaho-based Hotshot team – an elite crew of firefighters trained in wildfire suppression — made a train and ran 20 feet through flames that soared more than 10 times their height.

The terrain was mountainous with lots of trees, but the dry underbrush kept the forest fires roaring.

With burnt facial hair and plastic helmets melted down their ears, all 25 made it to open, scorched land alive.

“We all collapsed and were lying in an open patch between the fire and realized we were going to live. There was a lot of laughing and there was also a lot of crying,” Hough said. 

Hough took a job as a Hotshot during the summers of 1969 through 1971 to pay his way through college. The fire at Pumpkin Creek in 1970 was the largest fire he’d ever seen, let alone fought. 

Just over a week after flying into Pumpkin Creek in helicopters, Hough’s GS4 Hotshot crew, the intermediate level of firefighting in a Hotshot crew, found themselves trapped between the fire they were fighting and a backfire meant to contain the existing fire from spreading. 

“I kept thinking how devastated my family would be,” Hough said, as he recalled thinking about the possibility of dying in the flames.

Hough remembered that Jim, a 23-year-old who served as the crew’s leader, made the call to run through what he perceived to be the thinnest part of the fire in hopes of saving the lives of his 25 men. 

“To our left was solid flame, we would have all been dead.”

After escaping the flames, Hough, Jim and the others continued to fight the Pumpkin Creek fire for three more days until it was contained. 

“We were just so relieved we made it through that. We were never put in as intense an area again," he said.

MARK REED, 58, Roslyn, Wash.

Current occupation: Granite construction

Firefighter base: Wenatchee National Forest, Wash.

It has been 15 years since Mark Reed fought his last fire, but he will never forget the rush, the fear, the camaraderie of the nearly two decades he spent as a Hotshot. 

Reed was an original "Bushman" based out of Entiat, Wash.—the first Hotshot team formed in Washington to travel out of state to where the big fires were burning. 

“We used to make fun when they said Hotshot crews because those were generally just contract crews, but we had the title. The federal government called on us. We had the attitude too,” he remembered. 

With his crew, Reed went long hours with no sleep, sometimes running out of food and water, but not giving up. Each week was spent training. The crew spent hours and days on end rushing into the hottest part of the fire, through the rough, dry, hot and smoke-filled, terrain.

“It’s as close to hell as you can get when you stand on a mountain and you look out and see 100 acres are burning,” Reed remembered. 

He can still recall the crackling of needles from trees around him, the big rush of noise when trees broke out in flames, terror on the faces of grown men. The only comfort came from his crew.

“I always had the comfort of knowing that if I got hurt, my crewmates would gladly sacrifice their lives to try and save mine,” he said. “They become your family, your brothers and sisters.”

Together, saving one home, a town, a pack of animals from the flames, protecting the wilderness, fear became a rush of pride. It was an adrenaline rush that even today, at 58, Reed cannot forget. 

“It is awe inspiring. It’s raw mother nature, it’s primal, it’s you and your guys against a monster that doesn't care about you—whether it kills you, scorches you, or leaves you alone, it does not care,” Reed said.

JEFFREY FALK, 60, Phoenix, Ariz.

Current occupation: St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center

Firefighter base: Apache Sitgreaves National Forest based near Alpine, Ariz.

All fires were memorable in one way or another to Jeff Falk, who took a job as a Hotshot in 1976 as an opportunity to leave his life as a city boy and “try to get back to nature.” Still, one stood out. 

Falk and his crew arrived to a fire in Lakeside, Ariz., in the White Mountains, in the late afternoon. The area was green with mixed conifers and ponderosa pines. Falk and another Hotshot stood guard along the widest part of the fire line that night. 

“It was pretty quiet. We talked to each other to stay awake. Suddenly the wind came up,” Falk remembered. The super-heated air had dried out the green trees and in what seemed like no time at all caused them to explode in an orange wall of flame two stories taller than Falk and his crew. Suddenly, a voice over the crew walkie-talkie told the men to get out of there. They ran.

“On truly dangerous fires there is a heightened sensibility like you just downed 20 cups of coffee,” he said. 

“If it’s your first fire experience, being able to speak intelligibly goes out the window immediately. Maybe you panic a little. If you are experienced, yes the adrenalin is there, but you still have your wits about you, and your mind kicks into a thought process based on your training,” he explained. 

“The smoke can choke you to tears but what I remember most was less about the smoke and more about the color of the fire.”

In that color, despite the danger, Falk also found an unexpected beauty. Falk recalled nursing a summer fire in Arizona.

“I sat on a boulder taking a break, looking out over an endless plain. It was beautiful. The moonlight so bright I could see the whirl of the fingerprints on my hand. I heard the howl of a coyote in the far distance. At that moment there was absolutely nowhere else I wanted to be. Yes, we were brothers in arms. But we were in nature. We weren't ‘weekend’ camping. This was not a vacation. We were out in real, true life,” he said.

ROBERT SCHOUT, 72, Ada, Michigan. 

Current occupation: Self-employed as a market researcher and investment banker

Firefighter base: Modoc National Forest and Klamath National Forest, Calif.

During the summers of 1960, 1961, and 1962, Robert Schout worked in fire fighting for the U.S. Forest Service in Northern California. By the end of the summer of 1962, when he was 21, Schout was a foreman, which meant training people who were a few years younger than him, and crew boss qualified, giving him the ability to run a fire crew of 20 people—the same size as Hotshot crews today. 

“Training was very intense in June and July. We would run two miles in the morning and two miles at night. We were in a remote area. During the day we cut brush with axes and other tools in order to get ready for the fires in August,” he recalled. 

By early August, Schout and his crew had lots of fires, all caused by lightening since there were no people around. The fires kept them out in dry conditionsfor days at a time, sleeping when they could, working with local ranchers to get water from mountain springs, and delivering supplies to the lookout towers.

“The danger is always there, you can almost taste it, but on the other hand you train for it,” he said. “We were in a couple situations and where only had one way out and that was to jump into a lake.” 

Looking past the danger and fear, Schout remembers the summers he spent as a Hotshot as some of the best years of his life.

He spent his last year with the Forest Service on the Salmon River in California. 

There, he would hire local American Indians and walk and ride horses into the fire when the fire season started. Since there were no roads, Schout and his crew would walk all night and get to the fire in the morning, just in time to see the smoke jumpers drifting down to help them.

Those days were nothing like the years he has spent since as a businessman and investment banker.

“I learned something in the Forest Service. You can be tough as nails and you can also be a nice guy. I was surrounded by great people those three summers, and they taught me a lot. I learned to load a pack mule, and learned how to chase bears, fight fires, keep the peace along the river and how to live with others,” he said. 

“On reflection, not too many people went from running a pack string to working on Wall Street, where every day I thought of my times on the trail, running a string of 20 mules, jackasses, and horses, as well as the men who ride them,” he said.