Hot Shot waging war with Hayman

Local man helps battle blaze ravishing lands near Denver

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— Tom Edwards was hurrying to get out the door of his Steamboat townhome and go to work Wednesday afternoon. But he really couldn't say where his next job would be. The only thing he knew for certain was that the work would be exhausting, dirty and dangerous. That's the way he likes it.

Edwards, 31, fights forest fires for a living.

"I work for the Alpine Hot Shots based in Rocky Mountain National Park," Edwards said in a soft drawl traceable to his native North Carolina. "My crew just came off seven days at the Hayman fire. Before that, we were on the Schoonover fire."

Edwards and the 19 other Hot Shots on his crew are accustomed to grueling hours "We sometimes work 16 to 18 hour shifts" but even Hot Shots are guaranteed a day off any time they work 14 days straight. In this case, Edwards had a full two days to escape to the relative tranquility of the Yampa Valley.

Back at park headquarters on Thursday, his team was due to be put back into the rotation of available crews. That meant they might be routed back to the giant Hayman fire or they could be sent to Missionary Ridge near Durango.

This is just Edwards' second summer as a Hot Shot, but the veterans tell him he's seen some remarkable things on the Hayman fire. The Alpine Hot Shots were tasked with building a fire line on the south end of the vast fire near Lake George.

"This is really extreme fire behavior," Edwards said. "When we were first driving up on it, it was just 500 acres. By the time we got into action it was already 1,200 acres."

The fire is so big it is generating it's own weather systems, Edwards said.

"As we approached the fire we could see three distinct columns (of smoke and vapor) coming up. The central column was so high it already had an ice cap on top of it."

Edwards said the Hot Shots crew he works on is a self-sufficient unit with the experience, knowledge and training to initiate its own attacks on wild fires. Once they got down to work on the Hayman fire, the fact it is the biggest forest fire in the history of Colorado was lost on the Hot Shots.

"When you're on a fire when something's this huge, you're only on a little section," Edwards explained. "Sometimes I run a saw, some days I dig."

Edwards is aware his job is potentially dangerous Hot Shot crews are typically given the most challenging assignments. And the erratic winds that have plagued fire crews on the Hayman blaze have complicated the situation there.

But Edwards said the level of training his crew has undergone builds confidence.

"It's very calculated. You always cover your bases," he said. "You have to be able to trust yourself and you really need to trust who you're working with."

Edwards drew an analogy between a Hot Shot crew and a group of experienced backcountry skiers. The skiers learn to rely on each other to make sound judgments and mitigate the hazards of avalanche danger. Fire crews always work within a deliberate safety zone and always plan their escape routes, he said.

Edwards got into fighting wildfires through a job on a trail-building crew in the Routt National Forest. In that capacity, he gained experience on a "level two" fire crew. The term level two refers to a crew that is assembled and put into action after a fire breaks out. That experience convinced him he wanted to become a Hot Shot.

The job has been good to him so far. He said he makes about $11 an hour. But the payoff comes with hazardous duty pay and a good deal of overtime. The thousand hours of OT he put in last summer allowed him to buy his townhome here.

Edwards fought blazes in eight states last summer and fall before returning to his winter job selling skis and snowboards at Ski Haus. But if you ask him for memorable incidents, he's stumped. "It all kind of runs together," he acknowledged.

The way the fire season of 2002 is going, this summer is destined to become a blur of smoke and unrelenting work for Tom Edwards.

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