Over the past few decades, the following letter has become the national standard for what it means to be a
hotshot and to work on what is known an Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC). For many decades these crews were
known as Interregional Hotshot Crews and the U. S. Forest Service (USFS) was the only agency that employed
such crews since they were first created by the USFS in Southern California in 1947- 48. Hotshot crews are
identified within the Interagency Incident Command System as Type 1 Crews. The vast majority of all wild land
firefighting crews are very good crews, they have to be, but they are not hotshot crews. Although most news
media do not seem to know the difference and usually to refer to all hand crews as they see saddling up to
hump up a mountain as "hotshot crews" in their reporting.
The following letter can be found on the Internet in several different variations and it is used by several
agencies in their information material when hiring hotshots, although some of the more objectionable parts that
were obviously intended to discourage women from applying have been edited out. And make no mistake, the
original purpose of this letter was to discourage women from applying to be hotshots on the Coconino National
Forest and it worked as intended...I guess?
I have included an example below of one variation that is used and like all variations in current use today, it lists
the author as "Unknown." Which is something that I find both humorous and interesting because I have now
lived long enough to know things that are otherwise lost to history.
The following is a copy of the original typewritten letter that was sent to me and was intended to be sent to all
of those who applied to be hotshots on the Coconino National Forest, Southwestern Region (R-3), in 1976. It
was written by Bill Buck, Fire Control Officer, Coconino National Forest, although Bill's ever-present assistant,
Steve Servis probably contributed to it.
I do remember that I was intimidated as I read the letter and seriously considered seeking other employment.
And although all of the individual words in this letter are true, somehow when they are all run together...it makes
them seem just a little more challenging. And after I received it...I was almost too afraid to show up for work on
the first day even though it was my second year on a Coconino Hotshot Crew. Fortunately for me...I had already
worked on the Happy Jack Hotshots for a fire season by the time I received the letter and although I had serious
doubts that I could do the job as described, I needed the money to continue to pay for my college education and
so I sucked it up and reported for duty as directed. After that experience, I got my second wind and I spent
another nine years on USFS hotshot crews...seven years as a hotshot crew boss.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission representative in personnel and the Coconino National Forest
Personnel Officer immediately jumped all over Bill and he was forbidden from sendng out very many of these
letters. I don't know how many of them actually went out...but it was probably just to the returnees who were
already on the list or maybe just some of us and I didn't know anybody else that received one? So Bill came up
with a new plan to keep women off Coconino Hotshot Crews. It was called the "2 Mile Pack Test" that all
hotshots were required to pass and I sincerely wished at the time that they would have just stuck with the letter.
I don't know how the other three hotshot crews on the Coconino implemented the pack test, but I know how it
was done on our crew, the Happy Jack IHC on the Long Valley Ranger District. They took a surplus military
wooden ammunition pack frame and taped a 60 pound bag of concrete to it using "100 MPH" duct tape which
would have made the overall weight about 70 pounds or more? The wooden pack frame was designed to carry
very heavy loads of ammunition long distances in rugged terrain and so it was up to the job...in spades. It had
canvas webbing covering most of the wood and it had heavy canvas shoulder straps. It did not have padding of
any kind on either the frame itself or the shoulder straps, although somebody taped some thin foam to the
straps using the same military duct tape.
So...anyway, we would take our pack out to the state highway (Forest Highway 3) that ran in front of the Long
Valley Ranger Station District Office between Flagstaff and Clint's Well and one at a time, we would jog/walk
south 1 mile up to the top of the hill and then turn around and run back to where the crew boss was waiting with
a stop watch. Another member of the crew would run along beside us and call out the time so we would know
where we were at because the test had to be completed in under 24 minutes. Jogging (some guys RAN) and
walking up the hill was hard enough, but coming back down it was even worse because the pack bounced and
banged on your back side as the straps cut into your shoulders. It was painful because that was your
opportunity to make up for the time you had lost going up the hill in an awkward jog back downhill to the finish
line and the principle of Newton's law of universal gravitation in combination with the weight of the sack of
concrete were your friends...sort of?
It wasn't a particularly hard test to pass for every male who had been hired to be a hotshot and nobody ever
failed it...it was just a pain-in-the-ass and everywhere else to have to take every year until they abolished it as
well, which I think was three years later? And for every male who showed up and had already passed the
mandatory 1.5 mile run under 11 minutes and had a combination of the body weight and upper body strength of
the average hotshot, the test was very doable. I think that combination would have effectively prevented most
women from becoming hotshots although none ever showed up to take the test...so I guess it worked as
Some of the other WLF from the district helitack crew would also take the test with us even though they didn't
have to just for braggin' rights. The thing that was most interesting to me is that the "runners" and we had
some runners, which included the helitack foreman at the time, were all skinny guys who didn't weigh very
much and they put everything they had into it to try and make the best time and if not the best time, their
personal best time. And for some reason, and you would have to ask them "WTF", they all ran with their shirts
off. And the combination of their shirtless upper torsos, the continuous banging of the wooden pack frame with
straps that were very poorly padded and their enthusiasm to make the fastest time, produced small streams of
blood and sweat that poured down from the new wounds on their shoulders and backs created during that run.
But as you can imagine...they displayed their naked upper torsos and superficial but painful abrasion wounds
with a perverse pride that fit in with the whole hotshot attitude that dominates the hotshot culture.
I personally didn't see the point in any of that and so I timed my run to make it across the finish line with about
30 seconds to spare just in case I had a problem along the way. I always liked to conserve my energy just in
case we were called out to fight the "Big One" while I was in the middle of the test. I may not have looked like
much coming across the finish line, but I was like a cocked and locked steel spring and I was ready to leap into
action should the need have arisen...but fortunately it never did.
The other problem with the test was worrying the entire time if one the Southwest Forest Industries logging
trucks or giant motor homes from somewhere else would end your life right there and then on the spot if they
misjudged the distance they needed to clear you since there weren't any shoulders on the highway...or if you
stumbled and fell in front of them? We probably could have found a better place to take the test and I don't
know why we didn't? I wasn't in charge and one reason I made a good hotshot is because I never asked any
stupid fuckin' questions. I just did what I was told to do, when I was told to do it and how I was told to do it...end
of story. That formula made my life pretty fuckin' simple as a hotshot and I think that trait ultimately led to my
success in that particular field of endeavor.
Overall...I would have to say that my hotshot experience, at least during the three seasons I was a crewman
on the Happy Jack Hotshots, was a little bit like what I imagine Animal House meets Lord of the Flies at a
Special Operations Forward Operating Base would be like because of the duality of man due to the tension
between group think and individuality, between rational and emotional reactions, and between morality and
immorality. You know...the Jungian thing and the existence of a layered unconscious psyche, both personal
and collective, the latter being common to all humankind. So...
Question; What's a hotshot?
Answer; The official definition of a hotshot can be found on the U.S. Forest Service web site here at this link.
Question; What is your definition of a hotshot?
Answer; I think a hotshot is a cog in a highly developed, advanced and expensive wild land firefighting
machine comprised of 20 highly trained and motivated individuals who are able to selflessly supplant their own
individualism and self interests in order to promote the greater good and cohesiveness of the group as a whole
while furthering the overall objectives of their crew. And who are also fully capable of separating from their unit
(crew or squad) and seamlessly transition into modules as small as two or three persons while continuing to
effectively accomplish their crew's assignments by assuming appropriate leadership roles and utilizing best
practices in order to accomplish their goals in a safe, efficient and effective manner, i.e., reforming into small
helicopter initial attack or smoke chaser self sufficient modules with their own command and control structure
A hotshot crew is made up of ordinary people for the most part who are able to accomplish extraordinary goals
when working as a team because "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts." The typical hotshot crew is a
hyper driven program on steroids made up of people who have been convinced of their own superiority within
the wild land firefighting (WLF) community who demonstrate a confidence bordering on arrogance because you
can't do the job without it.
The WF culture as a whole is defined by their "Can Do Spirit", but the hotshot culture takes it to the next level
by always demonstrating a "Gung Ho Spirit", which is characterized by an excessively enthusiastic and eager
attitude and approach to every assignment they are tasked to undertake.
Hotshots are the best of the best, the grunts, the ground pounders, the knuckle dragger's, the elite WF front
line infantry and the tip of the WF spear...Hooah! And sometimes who and what they are...kills them. But
wildfires don't kill hotshots...hotshots kill hotshots.
Or more specifically...the unbridled hubris and unchecked ambition of three hotshot crew bosses in history
have killed 34 hotshots on the fire line and nine more hotshots were killed by deeply flawed agency policies and
a particular Incident Commander who should never have been assigned to that position because he was in way
over his head.
These numbers exclude individual hotshot deaths from random incidents such as tree strikes which is a very
common way hotshots are also killed while fightin' wildfires. There is no such thing as an "accident" that kills
hotshots there are only "incidents." Now...do you have any more questions?
Question; That's a very comprehensive definition! How would you describe a hotshot in one sentence?
Answer; A hotshot is someone who wants to be part of something bigger than themselves.
Question; Who sponsors and fields the hotshot crews of today, how many of them are there and where are
Answer; The answers to all those questions can all be found here at this link. Now fuck off...I've got work to do.
Question; Wait...I've got one more really important question now. Why do you say that there is no such thing as
an accident that kills hotshots...but that there are only incidents?
Answer; It's because I have yet to look closely at the death of a single hotshot in the line of duty where I haven't
been able to find a serious lack of common sense, deeply flawed training, and/or at least one and usually more
significant violation of the WLF rules and guidelines that have been developed over the last 100 years at the
cost of hundreds of WLF lives. Hotshots often kill themselves or each other in random incidents without the
help of their crew bosses or other overhead.
The most recent death that I looked at that met this criteria is that of Captain Brian Hughes of the Arrowhead
Interagency Hotshots based in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks who lost his life in an incident on the
fire line on July 29, 2018. At the time when the fatal incident occurred, Hughes and his crew were engaged in
firefighting operations on the east side of the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite National Park. I discuss this incident
in some detail in my upcoming book, "Betrayed by Our Fire Gods" as a good bad example of what can and does
go wrong when hotshots don't do the right thing.
Question; You are quite cocksure of yourself aren't you? And speaking of hubris...I can clearly see that you
haven't lost any of yours...have you? You don't make very many friends do you? And I imagine your Christmas
Card List is quite short?
Answer; Yes. No. No. I don't have a Christmas Card List. So...what's your point? I can't bring Captain Hughes
back...but maybe I can keep the next hotshot or other WF from killing themselves or others?
Question; How about you...have you ever made serious mistakes and have you done dumb things like you
accuse so many other people of?
Answer; Yes...in spades. But this isn't about me...it's about the WF who are still on the fire line today and will
be on the fire lines of tomorrow. Good...bad...or ugly...I won my race (it was all three) and now I get to sit in my
recliner and kibitz...which I'm pretty sure is French for offering unsolicited, unwelcome and annoying advice?
In addition...I specifically discuss the biggest mistake I ever made as a hotshot crew boss on the Valdez Fire of
1981 on the Santa Fe National Forest. I could very easily have killed some of my crew when in my enthusiasm to
attack the fire while it was still relatively small...I led my crew downslope to engage the fire while remaining in
the DEATH ZONE, which was in a canyon above the uncontrolled and unanchored fire.
And then a very strong and erratic wind suddenly came out of nowhere and the fire blew out as it climbed into
the crowns and we had to run for our lives back uphill in front of a racing crown fire. So...read my book and I
will discuss my theory about always "taking a knee" on initial attack as the Roman commanders used to make
their veterans do to keep them from running into battle and engaging the enemy before it was their time to do
so in their enthusiasm and lust for battle.
|"So you want to be a hotshot"