“Nothing beats a hot shot crew. You are like the green berets, the special forces of fire. It’s a camaraderie like no other.”
WHEN CHRIS BOLZ came looking for summer work nine years ago, the fire boss took one look at the athletic 19-year-old and said, “Son, this is your lucky day.”
Bored out of his wits in Tonasket, Washington, Bolz had walked into the nearest Forest Service office at his father’s insistence. They said they could use him right away on a blaze in Wenatchee, so Bolz agreed to go. Then the fire boss reached into his pocket for a book of matches, and set it on fire.
“See this?” he said, pointing to the flames. “That’s fire.” Then he blew it out and pointed again to the smoldering cardboard. “See this? That’s smoke. Now don’t get your ass burned up down there.”
“That was my training,” recalls Bolz, a Washington State University junior in forestry. “It was pretty much baptism by fire.”
Now 28, Bolz is one of many college students bitten by the firefighting bug. They make big money. They hike through gorgeous country. They have dangerous work and dramatic stories.
“ There’s been a big push recently, and it has become easier for students to get hired,” said Mike Bishop, 52, a WSU fire department captain who put himself through the University 30 years ago fighting forest fires. “They need to go to school, and school’s getting pretty expensive. The money’s good when you’re out there.”
But while many students fight fires only during the summers, Bolz is choosing to make it his career. Drawn by good money and a daring lifestyle , he quit school at Whitworth College to join a Lake Chelan helicopter rappel crew in the early ’90s. He would fly in by helicopter, slide down 250 feet of rope to the ground, do an initial attack on the blaze, then hike out with a compass. But after three years, he started dreaming about helicopter crashes.
“I basically started thinking about my future and not taking a daily risk of dying,” Bolz said.
That risk is all too real in the dry western forests, where fires are unpredictable and sometimes fatal. Bolz lost one acquaintance last summer—an Ellensburg man who was one of four young people to die July 10 when the Thirtymile Fire roared over a trapped crew of 14 firefighters and two campers.
Bolz quit the helicopter crew, only to take another high-risk job. He moved to Spokane and joined a 20-person St. Joe hot shot crew out of remote Clarkia, Idaho.
“Nothing beats a hot shot crew. You are like the green berets, the special forces of fire,” Bolz said. “You’re sent into the gnarly spots where they don’t send anybody else. It’s a camaraderie like no other.”
Two years ago, Bolz was recruited into the Fire Management Training Program in Sandpoint, Idaho, where he spends his summers training and firefighting. He’s also finishing his degree in forestry at WSU as part of the program, commuting from Spokane to Pullman daily. Bolz, who is of African American and Chinese descent, said he hopes he can help improve diversity in the firefighting ranks once in management. Women and minorities often face an uphill battle on the firelines. There are ignorant comments, jokes that aren’t funny, a sense of isolation.
“I’ve been in a lot of places in the country — like Plains , Montana—where I was the only minority,” Bolz said.
Of course there are also basic hardships, like eating military rations, sleeping on the ground, and extreme physical exhaustion, not to mention the obvious lifethreatening risks. Some of his friends think his career choice is crazy. But for those willing to accept the risk and put up with the inconveniences, like Bolz, there’s a payoff that will likely continue to attract college students.
“The money’s great. You see beautiful places,” explains Bolz. “And the sunsets . . . nothing beats a smoke sunset.”