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Continued: For most wildland firefighters, motivation goes way beyond adrenaline rush, travel, good pay

  • Article by: ALLEN G. BREED , AP National Writer
  • Last update: July 8, 2013 - 7:05 PM

And, if they're lucky, these crews may never even see the flames.

"There are times where you might only see smoke, you're so far away from the fire," said Hess, who became a firefighter right out of high school and is in his 15th year as a Hotshot. "And then there's days when you're right on the edge of the fire. It just depends on the complexity."

As an engine man with the Prescott National Forest, Ryan Phillips worked alongside Hotshots on several occasions. He compares them with the military's special forces.

"They're the first ones in, and they're usually the last ones out," said Phillips, who now works for a telecommunications company. "You're either going to love it or you're going to hate it, the first day you are on a fire. And the ones that love it aren't there for the adrenaline. They're there for what it means to them — to help somebody else in some way."

The pay is nice, around $25 an hour with a lot of overtime and hazardous duty pay, said Neitzel. Some work almost nonstop through the summer, then vacation overseas come winter, he said.

But many — like some of those who died fighting the lightning-sparked Yarnell Hill Fire — have families.

Hess fell in love with the outdoors at 4, when his father began taking him into the woods to hunt, fish and dig for arrowheads. When a cousin told him stories about life on the Hotshot crews, he was hooked.

Now 35, Hess has five children under the age of 12 and another due in October. The time away takes its toll.

"I haven't had a summer with them yet, aside from when we get days off. ... They know what I do," he said of his family. "And they respect that."

Moore said his fiancee, a federal wildlife biologist, knew what she was in for when she started dating a Hotshot. Despite the hardships, Moore said there is an esprit de corps that you can't find in any other job.

"I could never create ... as colorful and diverse characters as what you work with in the wildland fire service," said Moore, who once studied fiction writing. "I can't think of a finer bunch of people to do what we do with."

At a community meeting last week at Prescott High School, displaced residents from Yarnell and Peeples Valley gave the fallen men a standing ovation. Peeples Valley resident Shirley Prentice recalled her youngest son once talking about trying out for the Hotshots. Fearing for his safety, she talked him out of it.

"These guys, they're the best of the best, is what they are," said Prentice, her eyes welling with tears. "We still have a home because they were out there."

Those who live in the expanse of pine, juniper and scrub oak around Yarnell know that fire is a constant threat. Every few miles, highway signs warn drivers of crosswinds and caution smokers, "Wildfire Danger — Use Ashtray."

Stan Kephart, vice president of the Yarnell Water Board, knows how inhospitable the area can be. But he said the men who died knew the risks. And while no house is worth even one life, he's grateful there are people willing to put themselves between the fire and everything he's worked for.

"I was asked the other day, 'Do you plan on going back?'" he said. "If I was to not go back and live there, I'd be doing them a disservice. Just like if a service person goes overseas and defends our country, they don't do it for just themselves.

"They do it for us."

The investigation into what happened at Yarnell is only beginning. What officials do know is that the situation deteriorated rapidly, and that the 19 men had deployed their reflective safety shelters.

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