ELITE FIGHTING FORCE
By Alice Perry Linker
Observer Staff Writer
"Crew bumpin' through," echoed up and down the fire line, letting everybody know that a group of visitors was climbing the hill beside the newly dug fire break.
No flames were in sight, but the work was serious. About 18 men and women in bright yellow shirts chopped away at the dirt, calling back and forth from time to time.
"Crew bumpin' through!"
From farther up the hill came the whine of a chain saw. Another group of workers was clearing the small trees that blocked the path of the fire break.
Union County's two hot shot crews were training for the summer's expected wildfires.
Willie Crippen, assistant superintendent of the La Grande Hot Shots, was in charge on a day when the superintendents had been called away to meetings. The La Grande group and the Union Hot Shots had been training together, and by Friday, they had put in nearly 80 hours of physical exercises, including daily runs, climbing Â— and chopping.
Their work in the woods was more than training, as the crews prepared an area above Catherine Creek for an autumn prescription burn. It may be the easiest work they do all summer.
Training ended Friday, and the 40 firefighters from the two crews were ready for their first assignment. The call came only a few hours after they went home: The La Grande hot shots were headed for Minnesota, where several fires were burning. The Union hot shots left Tuesday for fires in Colorado.
Crippen has been fighting wildfires for 22 years, seven of them with the hot shots. Although he started when he was a student, he did not plan to be a wildland firefighter.
"I have a degree in forestry," he said. "But some things get in your blood and you can't get it out."
The firefighter, who teaches and trains during the off season, has seen his share of tragedies. The fatal 1994 blaze on Storm King Mountain, where nine Prineville hot shots died, remains vivid Â— an incident he remembers as his worst experience. Those who died had become his friends.
"We'd all traveled together," he said. "Worked together out of the same camp."
During his years facing wildland blazes, Crippen has "been through some major fires, but nothing has threatened me or our crew."
His most frightening?
"Not getting food in for two days. We were in Alaska in 1997; we'd flown into a fire. We got socked in, and they couldn't fly in the food. We had a stockpile, but we were rationing. Finally, the clouds opened enough for them to get in."
Last year's busy summer Â— 86 days fighting fires Â— gave Crippen some good story material.
He remembered the day when a handful of big horn rams near Yellowstone National Park "refused to yield the right of way" to a crew hiking out from the fire line.
"Those rams just stood there and watched us," he said. "One of them was one of the biggest rams I've ever seen. Finally, they just walked off."
In Alaska, Crippen and his crew spotted a brown bear track, over a foot long, covering the tracks of the firefighters.
The hot shots are the Forest Service's elite wildland firefighting organization. Crew members come to the hot shots as experienced firefighters, and they are fully aware of what they're getting into.
Angie Henes of Baker City stopped chopping on the fire line for a minute to talk about her second year with the hot shots and her fifth year fighting fires.
"I like being outside, working hard," Henes said. "I like making money. I just bought a new truck."
She earns enough during a fire season to play during the winter months.
"This was the first winter I wasn't in school," she said. "I was a ski bum in Canada."
Henes, who admitted being "a little tired" at the end of the day, stays fit with aerobic exercise and weight training.
"It's not that hard to keep working out," she said. "I played rugby for five years at OSU and I work out all year."
Good conditioning, good health are keys to "making it" on the fire line, Crippen said. The ability to work on a team is also vital.
"We're pretty careful (about who is hired). If people aren't ready, it can be difficult.
"Everyone pulls their own load. These are strong, tough people."
Henes said she appreciates the teamwork, but sometimes she'd like to be alone.
"The hardest part is being with everybody continuously and not getting days off," she said.
Hot shot crews work a maximum of 14 days on the line and get two or three days off every two or three weeks. Depending upon how far away from home they are assigned, the days off may mean a couple of nights in a motel instead of a trip to visit family and friends.
For hot shots like Crippen, the hard work and time spent away from his family are offset by the satisfaction that comes from fighting fires.
"I'm having a good time," he said. "The old body is hanging in there, and I'm looking for a few more years.
"I enjoy working with the kids (the young firefighters). They get younger and stronger every year."