When the Sand Fire struck, 19 fire crews trekked into the forest to subdue the flames. U.S. Forest Service “hotshots” sling hatchets, shoulder 45-pound packs and often leave their families for weeks at a time during fire season.
The schedule is grueling: 14 days on, two days off for a season that can last from May to January. Hotshots stop the spread of wildfires by cutting away foliage, creating an earth barrier called a dozer line. After the blaze is contained, they stick around to mop up the mess. Then they're often dispatched to the next fire.
As the Sand Fire blazed, I spent some time with three families waiting for their hotshots to come home.
"Who wouldn’t get worried?”
“Sometimes I don’t even recognize him because he is covered in smoke and dirt and hasn’t showered in two weeks,” said Rachel Powers. Her husband, Anthony Powers, had only two minutes to FaceTime his wife and their infant son before continuing his 16-hour work day.
The work can be dangerous. A few years back, Powers’ husband called her from the hospital, saying it was a scratch.
“My heart dropped,” Powers said. She raced to the hospital and learned a fallen tree cut away part of his ear and left him with a big scar on the back of his head.
About a month later, he returned to fighting back flames, saving homes and forests. Fire season still arrives with a gnawing fear.
“If their husband was police officer or firefighter, doing any dangerous job, who wouldn’t get worried?” she said.
"Like being a single mom"
A stressful fire season is often made easier by the tight bonds formed by hotshot families.
As I said goodbye to Powers at the family’s West Hills home, we discovered that my next stop was to the home of the Powers' close family friends, the Davidsons.
Z. Davidson is one of the few female hotshots. She fought fires for seven years, often alongside Matt Davidson. At first, he didn’t like it.
“He actually tried getting me fired,” she giggled. “There was already a girl on the crew.”
But, she proved tough, and amid fallen trees they fell for each other. After they married, Davidson found herself facing a choice: firefighting or family. Her son is now a year and half old, and Davidson is sitting this fire season out on maternity leave with a second child three months away.
“It’s not realistic to be mother on a hotshot crew,” she said. “And, to have both parents gone all the time?”
The phone rings and baby Royce toddles over to it, shouting “da-da, da-da.”
With fire season lasting several months, Davidson said, most of the childcare and chores falls on the spouse.
“Well, it’s like being a single mom,” she said.
"I don’t even tell my kids, 'Oh, daddy is coming home from the fire'"
Hotshots bounce from fire to fire: it’s anyone’s guess which of the more than 150 national forests will set ablaze next.
Trish Huston monitors fires on a scanner at the family’s home on a fire station in the rural, mountain town Descanso in San Diego County. Her husband, Jim Huston, recently returned home for lunch after working on a local fire.
“Of course my daughter was jumping all over him, so excited,” Huston said.
But she’s learned to guess when her husband will be called out by the watching for the signs of a growing fire. Sure enough, after they cleared their plates, the call to the Sand Fire came in.
“That was kind of a bummer,” she said. “Because it’s like ‘aww, man. We were going to BBQ steaks.'"
The steaks went into the freezer.
The couple has been married 20 years, and Huston said she can’t count the number of fires they’ve endured as a family. She started a blog Wildland Firefighter Wives where she's posted a "hotshot" prayer and asked other families to share their stories.
As we chat, her cell phone rings.
“My husband’s calling me real quick – hold on,” she said.
On the phone, Huston’s husband say a vendor set up a shop selling commemorative Sand Fire t-shirts – did she want one?
“I don’t care what color. I just don’t like pink,” I heard her tell him, and she listed the sizes of both their children.
She hoped he would soon be on his way home, t-shirts in hand. But she knows just because the fire is contained, the work doesn’t stop.
“I don’t even tell my kids, ‘Oh, daddy is coming home from the fire,’ because a lot can happen between getting released from the fire and actually making it home,” she explained.
This time, he hasn't made it home yet. He got called to a fire near Big Sur. Those steaks in the freezer, Huston said, will have to wait another week.