Experience

Alles on front lines of western wildfires

Jan Garrison
 

Member of Hotshots unit

 

August 10, 2021

Laken Alles ’16 is a Hotshot.

It’s not boasting. That’s his job title.

The Culver Academies graduate is a specially-trained firefighter, known as a Hotshot, who battles strictly wildfires. Hotshot crews are considered the most highly trained, skilled and experienced hand crews fighting wildfires today. They provide the leadership for initial-attack and extended-attack strategies on these devastating fires.

His unit consists of 20 members. With only 120 units, each consisting of 20 to 22 men and women, in the United States, that means there are only around 2,400 of these specialists nationwide. Primarily based in the western states, Alles said they can be dispatched to anywhere in the nation and, in some cases, the world.

Monday night, Alles was stationed in Boise, Idaho, at the Greater Basin Regional Dispatch Center awaiting his unit’s next call. He returned to Boise after a brief break from fighting the Dixie Fire in the Plymos National Forest in northern California. Each unit generally has a rotating schedule of 14 days on and two-to-three days for rest, recovery, and equipment repair. On those days off, they return to their home base, which in Alles’ case, is Salt Lake City, Utah. They then report back to Boise to wait for their next assignment, which could come at any time.

 

Laken Alles '16

 

Hotshots are the first line of defense against a spreading fire. They will walk into the fire to construct the needed fire breaks. When it is out in the desert, Alles explained, that break may only be a few feet. But in the timber regions, the break has to be much larger. They carry all their tools, protective gear, and six liters of water. When he is fully packed, Alles said his weight goes from 170 pounds to 225. If you are assigned a chainsaw, you must also carry that and your protective chaps, too.

Staying hydrated is of primary importance, he said. With the heat wave across the region consistently pushing temperatures into the 90s most days, Alles runs through his water supply quickly. And the closer you are to the fire, the higher the temperature. The men refill their packs from 20-liter barrels brought up to the line by all-terrain vehicles. If the ATVs can’t make it, the commanders will carry the 45-pound barrels up to the men. Sometimes, that means covering more than a mile to reach everyone. He still marvels at their level of servant-leadership.

This is Alles’ “rookie season” with the Hotshots. He became interested in the group while getting certified as an Emergency Medical Technician in Salt Lake. He worked his way through the ranks of different wildfire crews for two years before joining the Hotshots in November. Considered a seasonal employee, his term generally runs from May through November, although some of the commanders are fulltime employees. Of course, the fires actually determine his schedule.

 

Alles' unit on its way to the fire line. (photos courtesy Laken Alles)

 

His unit’s leadership structure is “very similar” to Culver Military Academy, he said, so it was easy to learn. As a rookie, he is back to emptying the trash cans and cleaning the windows. It’s like being a new cadet at the boarding school.

It took him six months to physically prepare for the Hotshots testing, he said, and then he had an additional month of training in special fire suppression techniques. But Alles knows this is where he belongs.

“I think people should be aware of what they do,” he said of the Hotshots, as well as the aviation and engine crews fighting these devastating fires. “And I’m proud to be a part of it.”

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