A Hot Shot career as a forest firefighter
Dave Sloan doesn’t brag about being a Hot Shot, but he is grateful for the experience. That’s especially true this time of year, when the fire season starts in the northern tier of the United States, including the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
Dave, who is a forest technician with the United States Forest Service, was once a member of the Midewin Hot Shots, a group that traveled all over the country putting out fires that not only threatened huge stands of forests but lives and property as well.
“I loved being a Hot Shot,” he said. “I felt very fortunate that I was part of that group.”
Today, Dave lives in Minocqua and works in Park Falls within the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest as a forest technician. It is a profession he truly loves.
“I’ve always wanted to work outdoors within a forest,” he said. “I love being in the woods.”
Dave grew up in Harshaw, helping his family run and operate their Fawn Lake Resort. After graduating from Lakeland Union High School, he attended Fox Valley Technical School and earned an associate degree in Natural Resources.
“After I graduated I sent my resume all over the United States trying to get a job working in the woods,” he said. “The only response I got was a letter from the Midewin Hot Shots. I immediately applied.”
The Hot Shots are groups of 20 men and women who train together to fight forest fires. There are 100 Hot Shot groups stationed across the country and they are dispatched all over to quell blazes. The Midewin Hot Shots were based 50 miles south of Chicago, Ill.
“It is a centrally located spot where it is easy to get to other places throughout the country when fire season comes,” Dave said.
Dave started his six season Hot Shot career in 2003 and that first year he rented an apartment but found out he didn’t spend much time there. To cut down on expenses he decided the most economical way to live was to simply camp.
“A buddy and I stayed at a campground all summer when we weren’t putting out fires,” he said. “It was great. In the winter we were ski bums.”
The fire season starts in April and as a rule runs into September in the United States. Normally the first states that need help in are the west or south.
This is not a career for the faint of heart. The physical demands are rigorous and the working conditions are truly dangerous.
Since being a forest firefighter takes lots of stamina, Dave trained all winter long by snowshoeing or skiing. In fact he has participated in the Birkebeiner cross country ski race for many years.
This hard training paid off. While many times the Hot Shots were dropped into the thick of a blaze by helicopter or had to row over rivers and lakes by canoe to get to a fire, the majority of the time they had to hike many miles before they started their work.
“We carried everything in we needed including our equipment, food and water,” he said. “Our gear weighed about 50 pounds and sometimes we had to walk for miles.”
Once at the scene the group has to decide how best to fight the fire. Dave was a sawyer, branding a long-bladed chain saw he used to cut down trees to make paths for his fellow Hot Shots. Many times he used his chain sawing talents to create “breaks” so the fire would run out of fuel to burn.
The working schedule was brutal. When a blaze is burning a forest or threatening homes, Hot Shots work 14 days straight, 16 hours a day. They carry in tents which they sleep in at the scene.
“On the two days off you basically sleep and do laundry,” he said.
If the group had to stay on a fire for a very long period of time and ran out of the Army MREs they carried in, helicopters would drop down food contained in five gallon buckets.
“We would get buckets of corn, peas and even lasagna,” he said with a laugh. “Whatever the caterers were making at the base camp is what they would drop in.”
In addition to forest fires, the group was also often called to scenes of disaster where major clean up was needed. Dave has worked in areas where tornadoes and hurricanes have wiped out entire neighborhoods, always using his long chain saw to clear the way.
Dave admits that fighting forest fires has become even more difficult in the last few years. In the 28 states he has fought wildfires, he has seen a stream of people moving into more remote places creating what he calls the “urban interface.”
“Once you start having to fight fires around homes, it becomes more difficult because many times you have to change your strategy,” he said. “It’s one thing to fight a forest fire but it is really bad when you see property lost.”
Another reason why fires seem so big and out of control these days is because of how fire has been regarded is the last 100 years.
“Fire was always considered something bad,” Dave said. “But through research we are finding out fire is a very important component of the ecosystem. Fire is actually needed for many ecosystems to thrive.”
Even today, Dave continues to use the skills he learned fighting wildfires. If there should ever be a fire within the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, it is likely Dave will be first on the scene. In addition, since more research has revealed how important fire is to an ecosystem, Dave works as an engine captain on many control burns within the forest. He drives a big fire truck, hauling in 300 gallons of water at a time. That job also brings a big smile to this affable and engaging young man.
But it is this time of year that memories of his career as a Hot Shot are most vivid, when fires break out before the green leaves have emerged and the forest floor is dry with leaves and dead grass.
“I feel very privileged that I had the opportunity to work with such a fine group of men and women,” he said. “It was an honor working with those people.”