Faces Behind The Fires: Hotshots

May 15, 2018
Originally published on May 18, 2018 6:42 am

Wildfire season is ramping up across our region. There are all sorts of people involved in waiting, watching and fighting them -- people you might not expect. We’re profiling some of them in a series, Faces Behind The Fires.

Lyle St. Goddard, 56, is running along a dirt trail on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana.  

“It takes me about a lap to loosen up,” he said.

Being a hotshot is a young man’s game.

“I still can do it,” St. Goddard, one of the oldest crew members in the country, said. “I just got to keep in shape. I’ll be okay.”

St. Goddard supervises the Chief Mountain Hotshots. They are like the special forces of fighting fire – there are only around 100 hotshot teams in the country – and Chief Mountain is one of the only all-native crews.

This summer the team will spend weeks in the smoke and heat, hiking up mountains, digging fire lines and cutting down trees. They have to keep in shape and St. Goddard runs his crew with the discipline of a military unit.

“Like Marines,” he said.

Hotshot crews are some of the most highly-trained and in-shape firefighters in the world. They run seven-minute miles and can work 16 hours a day on a fire.

They were first called “hotshots” back in the 1940s because they fought the hottest parts of a blaze.

St. Goddard said it’s like battling a monster.

“A monster that you haven’t seen what it can do,” he added.

Fighting these “monsters” has become more dangerous in recent years.

While fires are a normal and healthy part of the environment in the Mountain West, the climate is getting hotter, more homes are being built in fire-prone areas and the forests are thicker and drier. This means wildfires are bigger and more unpredictable. 

“I try to get myself as ready as possible,” Dakota Running Crane, 23, said.

He’s a shy guy with a wispy, blonde goatee. He said too much booze and partying dog a lot of young men in rural Montana.

But those bad habits need to end at the chain link gates outside of Chief Mountain’s headquarters because the hotshot team doesn’t tolerate lateness, drinking or drug use.

“It’s nice to be on a crew that don’t do any of that stuff,” Running Crane said. “We don’t have to worry about another person being not in their right mind.”

Back in his office, St. Goddard said the Chief Mountain Hotshots are one of the biggest employers of young men and women on the reservation.

They only hire natives and they can promise good pay and the chance to travel all over the country.

But you’re also gone from your family for weeks which puts pressure on a marriage. A lot of guys end up divorced.  You’re also putting your life on the line.

St. Goddard said it’s like back in the pre-settlement days.

“The Blackfeet used to go out and hunt or go on war path and be gone for days,” he said. “And some of them wouldn’t come back. We’re no different. In the modern days we go out for 14 days and some of us don’t come back.”

Over the past decade, nearly 200 wildland firefighters have died while on duty. Chief Mountain has only ever lost one crew member but the risk hangs like the misty, blue clouds over the trail where St. Goddard is running.

He’s been working this job for three decades.  As he finishes the first lap of his run he tells me he’s trying to hit a seven minute mile.  

He needs to meet this goal again to continue as one of the country’s oldest hotshots.

“I always say, ‘I want to quit.’ It would’ve been this month I could retire,” he said. “But I’ll go this far with them, might as well go another year.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2018 Yellowstone Public Radio. To see more, visit Yellowstone Public Radio.