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Unicoi-based Hotshots elite firefighters keeping eyes on Arizona tragedy

July 3rd, 2013 1:30 pm by Brad Hicks

Unicoi-based Hotshots elite firefighters keeping eyes on Arizona tragedy

Cherokee Hotshots being support by helicopter on a western wild fire. Contributed Photo


UNICOI — The Unicoi-based Cherokee Hotshots are off duty for the next few weeks, but crew members have been keeping a close eye on the situation in Arizona, where 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighting crew were killed while attempting to contain a wildfire that started this past weekend. 


“As you can imagine, we’re all kindly taken aback by this,” said Cherokee North Zone Fire Management Officer Guy Street. “It was certainly a tragedy that’s happened. Most of our crew here, it’s kind of a small world, and most of them are wondering if they knew somebody personally that had died. ... It’s certainly a tragedy that everyone’s affected by.”


The fire near Yarnell, Ariz., began on Friday. On Sunday, word came that 19 members of the Airzona-based crew were killed while attempting to contain the spreading wildfire. The incident marked the largest loss of firefighters in a wildfire event in nearly 80 years. 


The Cherokee Hotshots crew is not expected to be called out to assist with the fire in Arizona. 


“We will not respond as a crew to that fire,” said Cherokee Hotshots Assistant Superintendent Chris Witkus. “Some people may take a single-resource assignment if needed. Basically, they would go out on their own, they don’t go out with a crew, but most of them are probably spending time with their families right now because when we’re on, we’re in travel status the entire time.”


Throughout the year, the Cherokee Hotshots are on duty “four months on, two months off,” Street said. Witkus said the crew is on non-pay status for the eight weeks of June and July. He said the approximately 20-member crew typically resumes duty in August, when it usually heads to the western part of the country to assist with fires there through October.


Sometime in October, the crew returns to this region and works until December. The crew goes back on duty early in the year and, through May, assists in the Southeastern region of the U.S., Witkus said. 


Hotshot crews across the country are typically called upon to help contain fires in more remote, rugged and dangerous areas, Witkus said.


“Bascially, they don’t have the support of, maybe, an engine there because they couldn’t drive it there,” Witkus said. “They’ve had to hike in there or they’ve took a helicopter in, so it’s more rugged terrain. ... There’s an inherent risk in what we do, and when we say we’re a Hotshot, there is an inherent risk with that.”


Street said this description of the terrain where Hotshots are typically applies to the area in Arizona where the wildfire is still ongoing. 


“Any fire of that magnitude is going to have some points on it that’s naturally more dangerous than other points and, in deploying crews such as the Cherokee Hotshots there, that’s their normal mode of operation that they move into some of the roughest and most outback country that’s on fire.”


Witkus said the Cherokee Hotshots complete various training opportunities throughout the year. Each year, each crew member completes a minimum of 40 hours of refresher training, he said. Witkus said crew members are always involved in some type of training, whether it is project work or in a classroom setting, and crew members work to maintain their physical fitness throughout the year. 


Those hired to be a part of the Cherokee Hotshots team typically have three to five years of firefighting experience prior to being brought onboard, Witkus said. He also said superintendents usually possess 15 to 20 years of experience, and that a 20-member crew can have well more than 100 years of experience combined. 


Street said Hotshots crews develop escape plans and establish safety zones whenever called to assist with containment of a wildfire. He said sometimes bulldozers are brought in to construct safety zones in the event things go awry.


Street also said members of Hotshots crews are self-sufficient and will bring a tent, sleeping bag and enough food and water for three days. He said every wild land firefighter is required to also carry a fire shelter, a portable aluminum-foil like device firefighters use to cover themselves to deflect heat from a nearby fire. According to previous reports, the firefighters killed in Arizona were forced to deploy their fire shelters. 


“In past years, we’ve had people survive some pretty horrific fires with being in those shelters and being in the right place to deploy them,” Street said. “We teach to be away from whatever you can get away from that’s flammable, a lot of heavy brush or something like that. You need to find a place that’ll give you a little bit of protection and is away from what’s going to burn close to you.


“Who knows what happened in Arizona, but apparently they couldn’t get to a good spot to deploy and survive the fire.”


Teamwork is also consistently reinforced, Street said. 


“We constantly drill on crew cohesion,” Street said. “Most of these people live, eat, sleep and work together, and you’ve got to have pretty good crew cohesion for them to get along with each other and do exactly what their supervisor says when they tell them to.”


And while the Cherokee Hotshots likely will not be brought in to assist with the Arizona fire, Witkus said he previously spent time with the Arizona-based Globe Hotshots and is familiar with the region. He said no matter where they’re located, firefighters across the country have been affected by the events in Arizona. 


“Our hearts go out to their brothers and their sisters, their moms and their dads,” Witkus said. “Firefighters are a close-knit community. If you don’t know someone directly, you know someone who does.”


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