An Examination of the Motivations of Wildland Firefighters

The Associated Press ( examines the motivations that drive wildland firefighters.

In the wildland firefighting community, where men and women armed with little more than axes, shovels and chain saws face mountainsides engulfed in flames and, somehow, hope to bring that force of nature to heel.

"You ask yourself: Why are these people willing to put their lives on the line? For people they don't even know?" retired teacher Sharon Owsley asked last week as she stood on the courthouse square in this town north of Phoenix. "Why do they even do this kind of work that's so highly dangerous? Every day it might not be. But then there's that one day that you may not come home."

Veteran wildland firefighter Patrick Moore understands why some might wonder: Why do this? Surely no amount of money or adrenaline rush could be worth the risk of marching up a slope into the maw of death. He said an old joke helps him to keep things in perspective.

"How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time," said Moore, superintendent of the Pleasant Valley Interagency Hotshot Crew out of Mesa. "You just chink off a little bit and chink off a little more. And when you get 20 people all firing with some synergy, those 20 bites at a time add up. And before you know it, you're around the fire."

For many, like the three Prescott crew members who were following in their fathers' footsteps, firefighting is literally in their blood. Others, like Brandon Hess, are drawn by a sense of duty.

"I love the outdoors and I love feeling that I have a part in protecting the public lands out there," Hess, superintendent of the Tatanka Interagency Hotshot Crew out of Custer, S.D., said last week from the front lines of a wildfire in Colorado.

To Moore, the Hotshots' motto says it all: "Safety, Teamwork, Professionalism."

"When you become a Hotshot, it becomes a part of you," the 40-year-old former logger said. "It isn't just a job."

And there is nothing romantic about it.

For a Hotshot crew, a typical day begins before dawn. Wearing hard hats, long-sleeve shirts and pants, and thick boots in triple-digit temperatures, the teams cut through swaths of land for hours on end, said Eric Neitzel, a veteran firefighter with U.S. Forest Service.

"It's the worst yard work you've ever done, all day, times a thousand," said Neitzel. "They sleep outside on the line sometimes. No showers for weeks, very little change of clothes. ... You've got dirt in your nails, dirt in your ears, down your shirt, down your neck."

"Hottest, deepest, nastiest," said Moore, who's been with the Pleasant Valley crew 16 years. "That's where we go."

Read more here

Buyers Guide Featured Companies

More Buyer's Guide >

Fire Dynamics

Survival Zone

Extrication Zone

Tech Zone