Exposure

The Tools They Carry: Wildland Firefighters’ Most Important Gear

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Photo: Max Whittaker

You need the right gear to go trail running, skiing, or mountain biking. You really need the right stuff if you spend weeks fighting infernos in the middle of a forest. To find out what wildland firefighters rely on, we hooked up with Kevin Mecham, a 12-year veteran with the Tahoe Hotshots.

International Crew Haul

Mecham and the Tahoe Hotshots named their 2006 two-wheel-drive crew hauler Eight Ball. The squad boss drives, the captain rides shotgun, and the eight crew members sit in the back, with the most senior toward the front and the newest guys in the back. All of their tools go into side compartments, while their personal gear fits in racks and nets above the seats.

Photo: Max Whittaker

Chainsaws are so beloved that they’re named during their first fire. This Stihl MS461 is called Cheeseburger. With six horsepower and a 25-inch bar, it can cut down trees up to 48 inches wide, yet it’s light and nimble enough to carry far into the backcountry. Most sawyers sharpen their chain every chance they get to keep it running at max efficiency. Every crew member carries MSR fuel bottles filled with two-stroke fuel and bar oil; nobody wants the saws to stop running.

Photo: Max Whittaker

The Mystery Ranch Hot 3 pack is specifically designed for hotshot fire crews. The Tahoe Hotshots love it for two very important reasons: its durability and low-slung design. The pack is made from 500- and 1,000-denier Cordura, and the weight is positioned low for stability. At 1,500 cubic inches, the packs are just big enough to keep the hotshots self-sufficient for a few days on the line.

Photo: Max Whittaker

When we asked Kevin Mecham to name his most important piece of gear, he immediately said, “water.” He’s often out in 100-plus-degree weather, working next to or in a fire for 16 hours a day. He always carries five liters of water in government-issued plastic bottles, plus two bottles of Gatorade. He’ll typically drink an additional 1.5 liters of water on the way to the fire to stave off dehydration.

Photo: Max Whittaker

Hotshots work 16-hour shifts, so they have to prepare for the dark. Mecham likes the Black Diamond Icon headlamp. Its 320 lumens allows him to see the top of 100-foot trees. It also takes AA batteries—the only size available for resupply at a typical fire camp.

Photo: Max Whittaker
Knowing your precise location is key in a wildfire, especially if you’re trying to work with air resources or if there’s an emergency and you need to be evacuated. Mecham carries a Garmin GPSMap64s, but also uses the Avenza PDF Maps app on his iPhone, which works in airplane mode, uses USGS topo maps, and allows him to see overlays of current fire locations.
Photo: Max Whittaker
Weather, specifically wind and relative humidity, is one of the most important factors when trying to contain a wildfire. Mecham pulls out the Kestrel 3000 several times a day to predict fire behavior. If the crew is doing a prescribed burn, he'll check wind speed, relative humidity, and temperature every 30 minutes to ensure they can keep the flames under control.
Photo: Max Whittaker
Even though each hotshot crew carries three chainsaws, Mecham still keeps a Silky F180 large-tooth folding saw in his pack. As squad boss, he often scouts ahead of the crew and frequently uses the saw to clear a path through the brush.
Photo: Max Whittaker
Coffee is essential if you’re working 16-hour shifts. Most of the Tahoe Hotshots prefer this cup because they can fill it with water and set it directly in the fire for instant coffee. It also cools relatively fast so they don’t burn themselves on the first sip. When it’s not being used as a coffee cup, the hotshots like to store their phones and other electronics inside.
Photo: Max Whittaker
Synthetic clothing, aside from fire-resistant Nomex, is unsafe to wear while battling a wildfire. The heat will literally shrink-wrap you inside your high-tech fabrics, leading to nasty burns. Mecham, however, still carries this down puffy (he can’t remember the model) for those few times a year when he has to bivy in the field where there’s no fire danger.
Photo: Max Whittaker
The hotshot’s primary mission on a wildfire is to scratch in a dirt fire line, two- to five-feet wide, around the entire fire. The chingadera (apologies to Spanish speakers) is the most efficient tool for the job and the one most Tahoe Hotshots use in the field. It rakes and scrapes dirt as well as anything, and its stout 8.5-inch head and 40-inch handle are great for getting through roots. A reinforced tab on the top of the collar is used as a hammer to drive in wedges when felling trees.
Photo: Max Whittaker
Pulaskis might look like axes, but they’re actually used almost exclusively in the dirt to chop roots that are too stubborn or tight for the chingadera.
Photo: Max Whittaker
Everyone on the crew carries a pocketknife. Mecham likes the CRKT K.I.S.S. for two reasons: it’s light, and it was free (a gift from his brother-in-law). He uses it for everything from typical cutting duties to shorting out radios for reprogramming, or even as a plumb bob (with the lanyard) to assess tree lean. The paracord lanyard is essential for retention when crawling through thick brush. Another perk of the K.I.S.S. is that the blade is single-sided, so Mecham can sharpen it with the same flat file that the sawyers use on their chains.
Photo: Max Whittaker
Most people think of a signal mirror as a last-ditch survival tool, but as squad boss, Mecham often uses his to visually communicate with aircraft working above him. He strongly prefers one made of glass with a sight in the middle. At night, The mirror is useless at night, so if Mecham needs to signal an aircraft in the dark (in California, most air operations stop at night for safety reasons), he’ll tie a glow stick to a length of paracord and twirl it overhead.
Photo: Max Whittaker
Burnouts and backfires are essential ways hotshots deprive a wildfire of fuel, slow its spread, and ultimately contain it. Prescribed burns in winter or spring are also key for keeping forests healthy and limiting wildfires. To get these fires going, Mecham and his crew use the Cascade Fire Equipment drip torch. Filled with a mix of two parts diesel to one part gasoline, it drips burning fuel onto the forest floor.
Photo: Max Whittaker
The yellow shirt and green pants you see on wildland firefighters are both made from Nomex, a flame-resistant material. The shirt is yellow for visibility, and both the pants and shirt are reinforced so they can put up with plenty of abuse.
Photo: Max Whittaker
They’re heavy and take three weeks to break in, but the Nicks Hot Shot Wildland Fire boots are the only ones that can hold up to the abuse Mecham dishes out in the forest. “I don’t know of any other piece of footwear that would outlast what this boot goes through,” he says. Made from full leather and a 10-inch top, he sizes down a bit so they’re not totally blown out and sloppy by the end of the season. Mecham has two pairs. One is usually being rebuilt while he wears the other.

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