Few people are willing to go toe-to-toe with the roaring hells of a forest fire, but for East Divide Interagency Hand Crew Squad Boss Josh Hochhalter, it’s a way to get out of the city once in awhile.
A firefighter with the Denver Fire Department, Hochhalter said he’s worked wildland fire crews for nearly a decade.
“I got into firefighting about 17 years … but I started wildland firefighting about eight years ago,” he said.
“Denver started really ramping up their wildland team, so I started going out as an (emergency medical technician), and then I got on a hand crew. I’ve been going out ever since.”
While the job provides opportunities to learn fire behaviors outside of the city, Hochhalter said it’s also a way to connect with nature.
“I’m big into the outdoors,” he said. “If you’re not into camping, this probably isn’t for you.”
Although the Keystone Fire incident command post is equipped with hot showers and catered grub, the firefighters sleep in tents and spend 16 hours a day hiking around the forest to complete their various tasks.
For East Divide Interagency Hand Crew member Adam Shore, the connection with nature keeps him coming back.
“I’m a wildlife zoology major,” shore said. “I came out, started doing it (and) enjoyed it. This is my backyard. I don’t want to be in an office. I don’t want to be in a cubicle.”
While hot shot crews fight fire with fire and smokejumper crews deliver rapid response from above, hand crews are a diverse ground response team, whose duties vary day to day.
Hand crews can be tasked to construct fire lines with hand tools and chainsaws, deploy structure protection systems and rehabilitate burned areas.
“We do multiple things, but today we’re doing structure protection around Keystone,” Hochhalter said Saturday. “We’re cleaning everything out away from the buildings that could catch fire and setting up sprinkler systems in case the fire does come through.”
If the fire jumps the red swath of fire retardant surrounding the mountain town, he said a crew could turn on the sprinklers to wet the area in an attempt to prevent structure damage.
As of press time Monday, no structures have been lost to the Keystone Fire, which was detected July 3.
Checking one of the sprinklers for pressure, Hochhalter traced a hose back to a pump sitting in Douglas Creek and tightened a couple fittings.
“It’s the adrenaline that keeps me going during the long days,” Hochhalter said. “It’s up and down. Sometimes we’re hanging out waiting on the next assignment. Other times we’re hiking super steep hills doing direct attack right next to the fire line.”
Rocky Mountain Type 2 Blue Team Public Information Officer Ben Brack said he’s not only fought wildland fires for almost two decades, but in the off season he also trains firefighters on wildland firefighting tactics.
“As wildland firefighters in the heat of the moment during the initial attack, we show up and our four basic rules of engagement — lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety zones — need to be in place before we engage the fire,” Brack said. “A lot these guys work on the razor’s edge. If anything were to change, we need to have those steps in place to help prevent catastrophes.”
Training can be key to surviving any situation, but wildland firefighters have a few other tricks up their fire-resistant sleeves.
“When we fight (residential) fires in a house, we’re right next to the fire,” Hochhalter said. “It’s super smoky, temperatures can get 1,500 degrees or more, we need that gear to actually go in and stop that fire.”
But on the wildland fire line, Hochhalter’s gear is light and flexible. His uniform consisted of green fire-resistant pants, a yellow fire-resistant shirt, leather boots and a black hard hat with a Denver Fire Department sticker slapped on the side.
Addition personal protective equipment decorated his outfit — orange earplugs stuck in his shirt’s top button hole, leather gloves dangling from a carabiner on his belt and mirrored sunglasses caked in dust.
“Out here, we need to have lightweight gear, because it’s hot and we’re in the sun all day,” he said. “But we still have to have some protection, so we use the Nomex (fire-resistant clothing) out here.”
Another tool wildland firefighters have at their disposal is deployable fire shelters made from anodized aluminum.
“It’s very limited use but the shelter is there to give you some reflection of radiant heat and provide you with some breathable air,” Brack said. “It’s very rarely the direct flame or heat that kills firefighters. It’s more often inhalation of super heated gasses.”
Shelter can be a deceiving word. What Brack removed from the fire shelter case did not resemble a small tent or other type of wilderness shelter, but rather a small tarp-like blanket he used to wrap himself up like a burrito.
“I don’t want my guys to ever have to use this — I never want them to think this is an acceptable alternative to getting to the safety zone,” he said. “With fire, heat and 60 mph winds all around you, this little shelter is all that stands between you and the elements. They are a last ditch effort.”
Each firefighter has their own reason for joining the line, but Brack said once there, they all share a common bond.
“I was absolutely afraid of being stuck in my major for the rest of my life, so I just kept switching schools and majors,” he said.
While attending college, he volunteered as a firefighter and made ends meet by attending training sessions.
Shore said he, too, paid his way through college by fighting fires in the summer, but also found firefighting fit into his studies.
“Back home we’re doing research on snake habitats and how burning lands affected those areas,” he said. “So I tied my experience here with that, and it worked out very well.”
After joining the fire line, home can be as distant as another country.
Hochhalter said his wife and three dogs were used to his sporadic schedule, whether in the fire house or on a wildland fire, but not hearing from each other was sometimes difficult.
“The main challenge is not being in communication,” he said. “Out here we don’t have cell service, but after doing it for eight years, we’ve gotten used to not being in touch for 14 days at a time or so.”
The time away requires preplanning and staying up on the honey-do list, so things aren’t too far behind when he finally returns home, he said.
No matter the reason, no matter the fire, Brack said the experience is the same and unique to wildland fires.
“Where else in the world can four strangers come out of the woods, sit down at a campfire, share their stories and walk away a few hours later like best friends knowing they may never meet again,” he said.
Firefighting is part training, part action and all tradition, but it’s the experience of challenging the elements with people you trust on your right and left that builds relationships and keeps people coming back each year, Brack said.
“It’s about the brotherhood and sisterhood,” he said. “Once you form those bonds in the fires of adversity, they never go away.”