WEST FORK — With a thin ribbon of flames lapping around his boots and a drip torch in his hand, Bitterroot Hotshot Micah Leslie walked along the steep mountainside as it slowly became covered in fire and smoke.
Just ahead, two of his fellow hard-hatted hotshots had already set the hillside above Leslie aflame in the third day of a prescribed burning operation that cleared off low-lying fuels on close to 350 acres above the Bitterroot National Forest’s West Fork Ranger Station.
The elite wildland firefighting crew based out of Darby wasn’t letting any grass grow under the feet as they awaited their first call of the season that could send them anywhere in the nation.
On Monday, Bitterroot Forest fuels specialist David Fox was happy that first call hadn’t come yet.
“We only have a small window in the spring and fall to get these burns completed,” Fox said. “In the spring, it has to be dry enough so the fire will consume the fuels on the ground and before the vegetation begins to green up. You have to find that sweet spot.
“I’m happy they’re here,” Fox said. “We’ve been able to get a lot done with their help.”
By Tuesday morning, the hotshots were gone.
The Bitterroot Hotshots received their first assignment probably not all that long after they completed Monday’s project. The next day, they were on the road to North Idaho to help fight a fire that had escaped containment on state land.
That first road trip will likely mark the start of a five-month journey for the 20 members of the Bitterroot Hotshots that could take them to the far corners of the country to fight fire, help with flood relief, or help communities pick up the pieces following a hurricane or tornado.
On Monday, assistant crew supervisor Cache Gibbons of Missoula and squad leader Matt Michaliszyn took a few moments alongside a little-used mountain road to talk about the life of a hotshot. Both men have been working on hotshot crews for a decade or more.
The Bitterroot Hotshots are national resource. Their busy season typically starts about now and runs through October. During that time, they work two- to three-week stints before getting a couple of days off.
“Typically, we’re utilized for large fire support,” Gibbons said. “But we’re also a flexible resource that can be used to respond to a variety of incidents. We sometimes do initial attack on fires and support for natural disasters in all parts of the country.”
When the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated while re-entering earth’s atmosphere in 2003, the Bitterroot Hotshots spent time picking up its pieces. Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Bitterroot Hotshots were sent there to help. And in 2015, when bird flu killed millions of chickens, the hotshots spent long hours helping to bury their carcasses.
But 98% of the time, fire brings the elite team of Bitterroot Hotshots.
“Fire is definitely part of the allure for most people who want to become a hotshot,” Gibbons said. “When I started, I wanted to see a large amount of fire. I wanted to get that experience.”
For those who decide to stay on, it becomes much more than that.
“I think just in general, people who are hotshots like being in the outdoors,” Michaliszyn said. “They like traveling around. They like to do physical labor. And they like to get things done.”
It’s not easy earning one of the coveted spots on one of the 110 hotshot crews in the nation. There are often hundreds of applicants for the couple of openings that the Bitterroot Hotshots have annually.
“We take a hard look at their experience and what they would bring to our team,” Gibbons said. “The basic rule is they need to have at least two years of firefighting experience before they’ll even be considered.”
The men agreed that once you’re on a team, the challenges you face down together, the experiences you share, and the pride in accomplishments is something that can bring a person back year after year.
“It really does become part of you,” Michaliszyn said. “It’s a job that pushes you to perform at your highest level. … Our successes are something you can see. It means something when you know that you helped keep fire from entering a community and burning homes. That’s not an experience that everyone has.”
When you live half the year either on call or on the fire line, what begins as a job can turn into a lifestyle.
“It’s certainly a higher-paced lifestyle than many other careers,” Gibbons said. “Once you do this for a while, you get used to it. … You get used to a certain amount of excitement and a certain amount of stress.”
But, in the end, Gibbons said the bond that you develop working side by side with the same group of people through a wide variety of challenges is among the most important aspects of the being a hotshot.
“It’s that team environment where you work hard and accomplish tasks together,” Gibbons said. “You go through these high-stress times and then you look back and see what you’ve accomplished and you can feel good about yourself. It’s a rewarding job.”
And it’s one that offers a chance to see the country in a way that no one else does.
“That’s certainly been part of the allure for me,” Gibbons said. “I’ve seen so much of this country over the years. If it hadn’t of been for this job, I would have never gone to all these places. I’ve been from the Boundary Waters (in Minnesota) to the Everglades" in Florida.