A firefight is like wilderness warfare: foot soldiers do battle on the ground while military-grade aircraft attack from above. Here’s how the fight is won (or lost). —Brian Kevin Read more about Kyle Dickman's adventures with the Tahoe Hotshots in the July issue of Outside.
Hotshots dig firebreaks, called lines, to starve a blaze of fuel. Their signature tool is the Pulaski, which has a steel head combining an ax and an adze, so it’s equally suitable for chopping wood and displacing soil. It was named after Forest Service legend Ed Pulaski, who saved 36 firefighters’ lives in 1910, leading them to shelter in a mine shaft and threatening to shoot anyone who left.
Each hotshot carries line gear—a canvas pack containing flares, rations, water, chainsaw oil and gas, an emergency fire shelter, and a warm layer—everything needed for a night on the line. The packs weigh 30 to 50 pounds.
Clothes woven from heat-resistant Nomex, a lightweight version of Kevlar introduced in 1967, can withstand 900-degree temperatures without charring or melting.
Smoke jumpers leap from DC-10’s to fight small fires before they get big. They use one of two parachute designs: jumpers with the Forest Service stick to the classic round chutes of an army paratrooper, better for straight-vertical descents. Those with the Bureau of Land Management use “ram-air” chutes, which are similar to paragliding wings and offer softer landings and better maneuverability.
Commercial-grade planes and military C-130’s drop fire retardant. Sometimes known as red slurry, the highly pressurized, nontoxic mixture of water and ammonium phosphate is colored for visibility and slows fires by coating unburned areas. Two air tankers, one built in 1955, crashed last year, killing six and prompting calls to modernize the fleet.
To burn out fuel between a wildfire and the fire line, helicopters drop pellets of potassium permanganate—known to firefighters as Ping-Pong balls—that ignite on impact or use a helitorch.
This aerial flamethrower consists of a 55-gallon barrel filled with a mix of diesel, gasoline, and a gelling agent, suspended 22 feet below a helicopter, such as a Bell 206 Jet-Ranger. When the pilot flips a switch, the fuel flows through a nozzle equipped with an electronic ignitor, sending a stream of fire onto the forest below.
Off-road fire engines, like the 30-ton, six-wheel-drive Tatra, are used to access remote blazes. The trucks can carry six firefighters and 2,800 gallons of water. A remote-controlled nozzle on the bumper can shoot water 100 feet.