Digging line, getting dirty cements friendships among wildland firefighters
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A special bond forms between the men and women who dig line and get covered with soot while fighting wildfires.
Kevin Thompson, a fire management officer with the Routt National Forest, is one of about 200 people helping fight and manage the lightning-caused, 2,061-acre Silver Creek Fire that is burning southeast of Steamboat Springs.
Earlier in his career, Thompson worked for seven seasons with the Craig Hotshots crew based west of Steamboat in Craig. The Hotshots are elite firefighters based in different parts of the country who are expected to be in top physical shape and to work hard.
“It was a lot of a lot of fun,” Thompson said. “It was a lot of work.”
From the middle of May to the end of September, Thompson would work 14 days on and then 14 days off at wildfires throughout the United States.
“You go see a lot of neat places,” Thompson said.
He recalled one fire at Yellowstone National Park where firefighters hiked for three hours and discovered a meadow.
“I don’t think too many people have ever been there,” Thompson said.
Fighting fires is dangerous and challenging, both mentally and physically.
“I definitely miss the camaraderie and the crew,” Thompson said. “I don’t miss the black-and-blue hips and the sore knees that come with hiking around with a 45-pound pack every day.”
At the end of a work day, Thompson said there was a sense of pride when he was able to look back and admire the fire lines he and the other crew members had built.
“That sense of accomplishment is everything,” Thompson said while driving toward the Silver Creek Fire. “Your office is this. You’re outside in some really cool areas.”
Close friendships get built along the way.
“You’re such a tight group,” Thompson said. “The 20 or 22 of you are spending the entire six months together.”
The job can be addicting, and getting out of the career is a big, often difficult decision.
Thompson recalled one of his colleagues passing the bar exam to become an attorney. Even with a safe and stable new career lined up, it was tough to give up firefighting but probably the right choice.
“We basically had to tell him, ‘You’re not coming back hotshoting,’” Thompson said.
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