Tuesday 2 July 2013

Respect to the Hotshots

What dreadful news about those courageous young firefighters in Arizona - it's just so awful. They were trying to do a job so few of us would even contemplate tackling, and it all went so wrong. Tragic. I hadn't heard of Hotshots before, but I did know about Smoke-Jumpers, who  if you can believe it  do a refinement of the Hotshots' job that sounds even more terrifying. Here's what I wrote about them for the NZ Herald:

If it weren’t so obvious that there’s not an ounce of fat on them, it would be tempting to call Washington state’s North Cascades Smoke-Jumpers well-rounded: how else to describe men who not only leap from small planes to parachute into dense forest wreathed in the smoke from a wildfire, but can also execute a nifty bit of top-stitching on the sewing machines back at base?

They have to make their own jumpsuits in this service because there are only 400 smoke-jumpers in the whole of the US, and there’s not much call, commercially, for yellow Kevlar boiler suits with capacious pockets, weighing over 80kg fully packed. Standard equipment includes a rope for rappelling down out of trees and a knife to slice through tangles, making simply sliding down a pole at the station and getting into a truck look like fire-fighting for wimps. Employed by the US Forest Service, these men – and women too – see themselves as the equivalent of the army’s Green Berets, an élite and highly-trained force who survive a brutally rigorous five-week boot camp to become tough and self-sufficient members of the team.

Jason is typical. Polite, modest, matter-of-fact, he shows us around the base at the airport outside Winthrop. A tin shed with two long parachute-packing tables, racks of jumpsuits hung ready to step into and a corner with computers and radios, it’s not fancy. Smoke-jumpers are all about getting the job done, not making an impression; and the hand tools they use to starve the fire of fuel – a rake, a shovel and a chainsaw – are equally practical. “We aim to stop the fires from getting on the TV news, ma’am,” Jason says simply.

An honours board hanging from the roof records the 800 jumps made by veteran Dale Longanecker, and the video we watch is exciting and awe-inspiring. It's all very macho. But upstairs are the sewing machines. These men are nothing if not versatile. Respect.


the queen said...

What I find most dreadful is the "final resort" shield they were supposed to get into: a drawstring cap of aluminum foil.

TravelSkite said...

Yeah. And we all know exactly what they look like, don't we? Plus shiny silver to make them easier to find afterwards amongst the ashes.


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