They call themselves Hotshots, professional year-round U.S. Forest Service firefighters who go where they're told for hand-to-hand combat with nature's flames. They're young and they're proud, they're strong and they're loud.

But when 100 of them gathered Thursday to watch how to rescue one another from a capsized canoe, they were also very silent.

"We'll have to be careful; we don't want to be capsizing," said Russell Johnson of Phoenix, one of the crew of firefighters from Arizona and New Mexico whose preparation to attack the Pagami Creek fire in northern Minnesota involved an introduction to canoeing and water safety. "It's going to take some practice getting in and out of these canoes. If we get our equipment wet, we'll have to deal with a lot more trouble."

The five 20-member crews on Friday will join more than 300 other firefighters who've been battling the Pagami Creek fire, which started with a lightning strike in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on Aug. 18 and exploded early this week to cover more than 156 square miles. That made it the largest fire in Minnesota in the past 50 years.

'Those canoes are heavy!'

For most of the Hotshots, Thursday brought their first experience with a canoe, in a training session coordinated by the Boy Scouts of America's National High Adventure Program. Many paddled sleekly across Moose Lake, outside of Ely. But several struggled to hold the canoe to a straight line or missed the landing or couldn't pick a side to paddle on or gripped the paddle below the end of the handle, as if it were a broom. Lifting the canoe overhead for portaging was another challenge.

"Those canoes are heavy!" said Shawnna Cureton of Santa Fe, N.M., after twisting her way under the yoke and toting the 72-pound Alumacraft about 200 yards up a steep hill and back to its storage rack.

Paddling will be just one of several new challenges for the firefighters, who also will be camping for two weeks in the Boundary Waters. They'll be carrying all their gear, something they usually let trucks do in fires in the mountains and other forested areas. The weather will be colder than many are used to -- Cureton's last job was on a fire in Texas -- and they'll have to wear life jackets over their fire-retardant clothes.

But one day of training is all they're getting, the same as all the firefighters attacking Pagami Creek on the ground. U.S. Forest Service information officer Doug Anderson said that is usually enough.

"They get a little orientation, get into a canoe and away they go, just probably not as fast as some others," he said of firefighters who come to northern Minnesota from less watery places in the country.

Help in complex situation

The Hotshots' arrival coincided with that of Forest Service fire managers from the Northern Rockies, meaning the Minnesota fire is now receiving the agency's highest-level response. But Anderson said bringing in elite firefighters isn't a last, best hope.

"It's just getting the right tool in place, " he said. "We've got a lot of hose lays and lines [firebreaks] in there, and it helps to have some more expertise. A Hotshot crew isn't going to save your bacon, but they really help in a complex situation."

Anderson added that canoeing may be the most efficient way to get into the wilderness fire, since there are no roads and the thousands of lakes and wetlands would be a barrier to heavy equipment, even if it were permitted in the wilderness. They'll dig and chop barriers to stop the fire's advance and pump water from lakes, basically providing a ground-level complement to water and fire-retardant drops by air tankers and helicopters. (Retardant will be dropped only on areas outside the Boundary Waters.)

Cureton and others said they relish the challenge and the chance to add to their skills. "With most of us being from the desert, everything here will be new and exciting," she said. "That's part of the experience -- being adaptable."

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646