Crews that take the heat
Though decades have passed since Linda and Rick Pierce were hotshot firefighters, they can still remember it like it was yesterday.
They can remember the anticipation and thoughts that raced through their heads as a fire approached, the darkness of the ash-filled sky and the reward of fending off another wildfire.
They remember the people they met and every moment of their two seasons, in 1977 and 1978, as hotshots, the term given to firefighters who are specifically trained to respond to fires in remote regions with little or no support.
So when news broke that 19 hotshots based in Prescott, Arizona died on June 30 while battling a raging wildfire, the story hit home.
"It brought tears to my eyes," Linda said. "It was so tragic and no matter how many years go by I will always have that bond with that firefighter family. I just felt really bad for the firefighters and their families."
"They were just out there trying to do the right thing," Rick added.
The Pierces know about the dangers hotshots can encounter.
"I think the scariest part was when you have a [fire] line and the fire hasn't gotten there yet. If it goes over it and on top of you then that is not good, that is what you don't want to happen," Rick said. "It was suspenseful but what we did out there is so worthwhile."
Rick and Linda started their hotshot career after graduating as foresters from the University of Minnesota.
That summer had been very hot and dry in the Upper Midwest. When raging fires began to spread, hotshot crews from around the U.S. were called to help because Minnesota didn't have adequate resources.
"After that, Minnesota wanted to return the favor, so they set up a crew in the winter of '77. When we heard about it we decided to go for it," Linda said.
Hotshots are the courageous men and women who are willing to risk their lives and go into the hottest part of a fire. These are generally the best of the best and train hard to prepare for the worst.
This included mentally preparing to make quick decisions in tight spaces and have fluid communication with their crew and physical preparation, including running with equipment and hiking.
In order to be a hotshot, you have to be able to pass the U.S. Forest Service's "Arduous Work Capacity Test," which entails completing a three-mile hike with a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes. Some crews also have specific fitness tests that have to be completed to be on the crew.
"It was brutal. That is why you basically just see young people doing it because it was very strenuous," Linda said, recalling all of the exercise and training that elapsed during their two-week training at Fort Ripley.
Right out of training in the summer of 1977, the Pierces and the 18 other people in their Brainerd crew were sent to California. Their crew gave it their all under demanding conditions.
The first day out, Linda remembers reinforcing a line when a huge canopy of fire shot up over her.
"I just concentrated on working to put it out," she said.
During the night, the crew would sleep outside in paper sleeping bags and ate sandwiches.
Some of their tasks included reinforcing and flagging lines, suppressing fires, search and rescue and disaster response assistance.
"I remember this one time there was fire blazing a few yards away when it caught these huge trees and it just went up in flames. The only thing I could think was, boy, I hope that stops before it hits me," Rick said.
The hotshots worked hard - usually 14 to 18 hour days. After a while, days ran together to the point they couldn't keep track of the time.
"You look at your watch and you see that it is 2 o'clock and you see that it is light out so it must be two in the afternoon," he said.
Both continued to volunteer with forest fires after two seasons as hotshots. They held different forestry positions in Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota before moving to Alexandria in 1983 where Linda started Pierce and Associates financial firm and Rick worked as a DNR forester.
Currently, the U.S. has 110 hotshot crews, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Typically, crews consist of 20 members. Their core values of "duty, integrity and respect" have earned hotshots an excellent reputation.
The fact that hotshots are putting their lives at risk every time they're dropped into a fire zone gives them added insights into life and death.
"Most people plan their life out and expect to live to be 80 or 100 and think everything is going to be fine. But you go out there and you realize that isn't necessarily the case, something could happen any time. It really helps your perception on life because you learn to not take things so seriously," Rick said. "I don't think we could do it anymore but I would give it a shot."
"Oh, I know that we would try," Linda said.