Where There’s Smoke: Utah’s Alta Hotshots

hotshots hiking up the hill

In nature, wildfires are a natural tool that can have positive effects on an ecosystem’s native wildlife and vegetation. However, when left uncontrolled, a wildfire presents a serious threat to the human life and property in its path. Interagency hotshot crews comprise elite ground-force wildland firefighters who are the first responders to wildfires in any jurisdiction of the United States. Based just outside of Salt Lake City, the Alta Hotshot Crew is a faction of Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, fighting up to 30 fires around the country each summer. The photos below are from a training exercise days before their fire season started.

When a wildfire is detected, human instinct immediately puts self-preservation at the forefront of the human mind. Pack what belongings you can (if you have time), and flee in the opposite direction immediately. Members of the Alta Hotshots seemingly disregard this human instinct.

The Alta team was established in 2003 as a low-maintenance, high-functioning government resource specializing in the suppression of large-scale wildfires. Since its birth, the Alta crew has proven itself one of the most reliable and skilled wildland firefighting groups in the country. Alta’s foundation is built on a combination of strong leadership and extremely rigorous standards for its members. The group is religious about attention to detail and aims to maximize efficiency in the simplest day-to-day duties of their high-paced, high-risk environment. The individuals who prove themselves fit for this line of work have adapted to step into a chaotic situation and immediately make sense of it.

hotshot using cutting tree with a chainsaw

Hotshots work tirelessly with hand tools and chainsaws, monitor the weather, and predict fire behavior in order to contain wildfires. They are trained extensively in safety procedures in order to work in these environments. Recognition isn’t a motivating factor to the men and women on the front lines. Because of that, this line of work has generally stayed out of the media and Hollywood spotlight since its inception in the 1940s.

This season, Alta’s roster is made up of 23 adrenaline-seeking conservationists ranging in age from 20 to 38. They come from all over the United States to be part of this high-functioning team, and even have a member from Sudan. While each crew member has their own motive for spending the summer chasing wildfires around the country, they all share one trait — they’re world-class wildland firefighters.

The crew anxiously reports to base every May for two weeks of physical testing, training, and team-building. This prelude to the fire season consists of simulated work days in the mountain ranges surrounding Salt Lake City. Alarm clocks bellow out at 5AM, and days begin with the team trudging up sharp mountains less than an hour later. After that, no two days are the same. The parched summer sun arrived earlier than anticipated in the Southwest this year, and the high desert where Alta readies themselves for the upcoming season is especially feeling the effects of a dehydrated winter. The Alta team viewed the unusual early heat as a blessing in a disguise — an opportunity to rapidly familiarize themselves with the bone-dry conditions. After all, the regions of the country devoid of moisture are the very places where they’ll be spending most of their summer working to suffocate wildfires.

During training, the hotshot crew has an adversary far more formidable than the heat: gravity. Each member carries a 50-pound pack containing all their tools along with two gallons of water. Then, a lucky few get to carry the additional 25 pounds of gasoline and steel that is the chainsaw. It’s not out of the ordinary for the crew to hike 10 miles and climb 3,000 feet in a single day. Between ascents that would make many squeamish and weight loads that would make pack mules wince, it’s no wonder that each crew member burns an estimated 8,000 calories a day.

After the training period, Alta immediately becomes available to fight fires nationwide. Excluding travel days, they work 14-21 days on, 16 hours a day, with a two-day break to reclaim their sanity and take a hot shower. For four months, if the sun is up, they are fighting a fire or on their way to the front lines of the next one. At night, with a sleeping bag as their only cover, they sleep outside amongst the stars.

Wade Snyder, superintendent of the Alta Hotshots, chuckled when he was asked what his friends outside the hotshot community think of his profession’s lifestyle. “I’ve been doing this so long I don’t think I have any friends who aren’t hotshots,” he responded.

portrait of wade

Wade has held the superintendent position since 2010. Originally from Southern California, and having spent his high-school years in Oregon, Wade can’t recall a summer when he hasn’t seen smoke pluming high above a forest. In 1999, Snyder began his wildland firefighting career fighting fires in the Umpqua National Forest. Nearly 20 years later, his burning passion of managing wildfires manifested itself into a lifelong career.

There are two units within the Alta crew, with the following positions in each — a captain, squad boss, diggers, swampers, and sawyers. Under Wade, each unit is uncommonly calculated; the entire group’s movements are synchronized. The sawyers run the chainsaws, mowing a path five yards wide with surgeon-like precision up to the ridge of the mountain. The swamper, whose job is to anticipate the landing spot of falling debris and dispose of it, works in unison with the saw man. The diggers follow up the rear, creating a barren trench that clearly divides the land into two sides. When the wildfire burns to the dividing line the team has created, it runs out of fuel, the hotshots having robbed the fire of its’ life source.

hotshot researching chart

The hotshot crew wears dirt and ash like a badge of honor, and after their fourmonth tour, every member is highly decorated. September finally hits, which means rumbling chainsaws and bouts of sleep deprivation come to an end; the Alta Hotshots’ fire season is at last extinguished. A few members head back to their college campuses (the summer spent fighting fires pays for the entire upcoming school year). Others will stay in the mountains as fly-fishing guides or ski bums who live out of their trucks. As for Wade, he attends fire-education seminars around the country and will sort through resumes to make off-season hires, refilling the ranks after some opt out of returning next season.

The Alta crew has already fought fires this season in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah since being photographed for this assignment. The excitement and travel are often the driving forces for initially wanting to join the squad, but the camaraderie and impact they have on communities is what will matter to them once the dust has settled. Currently, they’re just outside of Boise, fighting a range fire that is proving quite the challenge due to terrain and wind conditions. The crew will continue to move under the smoke, hidden from the public eye. Once their job is done there, they’ll pack up and hit the road. That’s just fine with them. They’re already focused on putting out the next fire.