While you and I spend the warm Southwestern summer days judging whether to swim a few cool laps or hop on the carbon horse and ride the Chamisa Trail, the hotshot crews of Santa Fe and around New Mexico are more than likely at war with fire in the wildlands, humping heavy gear to the edge of infernos. They cut firebreaks, fell trees and hike steep, rocky terrain deprived of sleep, all in the searing heat. So that our own fitness concerns are kept to running for recreation and not for our lives, these elite crews have to be in peak shape.
“They’re dealing with all the elements you can think of, out there,” says Duane Archuleta, forest fire management officer of Santa Fe and Carson National Forests.
Prospective crew members must pass a fitness test that outlines the minimum physical prowess necessary to battle wildfires through long days on rough terrain. It’s an endurance feat that can last up to 14 days at a time. Then, it’s a couple of days off and back to the fire for another two unbroken weeks.
To prove he’s up for it, an aspiring hotshot has to best a time of 10:35 on a mile-and-a-half run and execute 40 sit-ups in a minute, 25 push-ups in another minute and four to seven chin-ups, determined by bodyweight. And that’s merely the minimum requirement.
“These guys are competitive. They’re not ones to shoot for the minimum,” Bruce Hill, public affairs officer of the Santa Fe National Forest, notes. “They compare times; they want to be the best. You see accelerated performance because of that camaraderie.”
That camaraderie comes from the six months that hotshot crews spend together: from the early days of training and fitness tests (seasoned hotshots—80 percent of the crew—retest each year) through a long summer of wildland firefighting. Teams are guaranteed to be available at least 90 days of the fire season. Santa Fe requires 100 days of its hotshots, who ultimately put in over 1,000 hours of exhausting work.
Fitness training doesn’t end with the pre-season test, though. When not assigned to a fire, crews live at their home bases and undergo an hour and a half of physical training five days a week. The daily routine focuses on stretching, aerobic fitness and strength building and includes five to seven-mile runs and steep hikes, laden with heavy packs.
Even this won’t get a hotshot on the fire line when the call comes. That honor demands a further test of mettle called the Work Capacity Test, an arduous three-mile walk in a 35-pound weighted vest in under 45 minutes. Average unladen walking speed is three miles in an hour.
When called to a fire, hotshots are mostly on their own. Each team is self-sufficient with food, water and equipment, exposed to the elements for long durations. Individuals carry packs loaded with up to 50 pounds of gear—hand tools, power saws, communication equipment. Under these conditions, a hotshot has no time to wonder if he’s prepared to meet the challenge. His training braces him for the grueling task of subduing unruly fires with only the necessary fear that nature demands. “Being physically fit not only helps to fight fires more effectively, but these guys need to be fit at these levels to reduce injury,” Hill says.
Here in town, the challenges and consequences of an evening hike are minimal. But at the fire’s edge, the facts are less certain, and a hotshot has to live up to his name. “Hotshots take pride in what they do,” Hill says. “Fitness is a big part of that.”
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