By Kathe Malouf
Special to the Sun
It’s said that if you love your job, you will never work a day in your life.
That being said, the crew from the Fulton Hotshots have never worked a single day.
The Fulton Hotshots is one of four hotshot crews on the Sequoia National Forest. Others include the Breckenridge Hotshots, Springville Hotshots and Horseshoe Hotshots on the Hume Lake District. Lake Isabella is also home to the Rio Bravo Hotshots, a crew formed via the Kern County Fire Department.
Located in Glennville, the Fulton Hotshots’ compound opened in 1970 and is considered to be one of the oldest hotshot crews on the Sequoia National Forest.
Like the name implies, hotshots are specialists in their field of fighting fire. Considered a Type 1 fire fighting team, the Fulton Hotshots are an elite team of 20 crew members, with each one having a high level of training and leadership skills.
There are several classifications of fire fighters: Type 1, (hotshots), Type 2 and Type 2IA (initial attack.) While every fire fighter is a valuable and well trained resource, what differentiates hotshots is their in-depth training and team cohesion, says Captain Daniel “Reggie” Hammond.
“We work as a team and that is where the standards come in. Part of being a hotshot is that we work with the same people day in and day out. We get to really know our team,” says Hammond.
The Fulton Hotshots’ mission statement sets the bar high in terms of standards, stating that they will uphold both the integrity and trust within their crew and in the eyes of the public, while demonstrating professionalism through their actions and attitudes.
That requires continuous training.
“We are constantly training and trying to create spots for everyone, even if that means getting them out of their comfort zone,” Hammond said.
While intense physical fitness is a requirement of all firefighters, hotshot crew members take it a step further. As a daily routine, the Fulton crew climbs Fulton Peak, located behind their compound. It takes about an hour to climb the 1,000-foot peak. To make it more challenging, they wear all the gear they would carry to a fire, including a 55-pound field pack and 20-pound chain saw.
Climbing steep and rugged hillsides in the scorching summer heat to battle a raging wild fire may not sound like the ideal job for most people. So, what is the motivation behind the decision to be a fire fighter?
It’s a sense of community.
“Growing up in Lake Isabella, I always wanted to be on the Fulton Hotshots. I had a friend tell me that they are the best, and I wanted to be part of that,” said senior team leader Michael Henson. “People who get into fighting fire grew up camping, hiking, and fishing. We like being outdoors. This isn’t just a job, it’s who we are.”
For Hammond, being on the Fulton crew is his first and only job, one he started upon graduation from Kern Valley High School 18 years ago.
“This is my home. I grew up here,” Hammond said. “I played a lot of sports, and I learned the importance of a team. The hotshots is a team effort. You have to work together and follow the standards of being a hotshot. It’s easy to feel comfortable here and it’s easy to stay. ”
The Fulton Hotshots is a cohesive crew that can function individually when needed on a fire. But they work best as a team.
“We are all working together and we have a lot of mutual respect for one another. We help each other out. You have to depend on one another and we have each other’s back,” Hammond said, adding that being on the hotshot crew instills both pride and honor.
Gilbert Hoffman, squad leader with the Fulton Hotshots, said coordination is another critical aspect of the hotshots mission.”Blood, sweat and tears bring you closer together,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman noted that everyone on the crew has experience and can serve in various capacities from dozer boss and high-level C-class tree faller or serve as Incident Commander. Nearly half of the Fulton crew are certified EMTs.
“We have so many ranges of experience,” said team leader John Kiess, who has been with the Fulton crew for the past two years. “We all bring something to the table.”
Because of their qualifications, hotshots are considered to be a national resource. As such, they can – and do – go anywhere they are needed. The Fulton crew has been assigned to numerous disasters across the nation, including Hurricane Sandy and, more recently, the Thomas Fire in Ventura.
As hotshots, they have to be self-sufficient.
“You can send us out with minimal supplies and support for a few days and we can survive,” Hammond said. “You can stick us out in the middle of nothing and know that the work will be done.”
They also have to be able to mobilize quickly.
“When we get those three beeps (indicating a fire) we try to be out of here within three minutes,” Hammond said. That, he said, means always having the necessary equipment and gear on the trucks and ready to go.”It’s pretty chaotic when those three beeps come in. Everybody is running.”
Kern River Ranger District Ranger Al Watson describes the hotshots as a valuable tool in their fire fighting tool box, noting that they all and each have a niche. Combined they make a good team.
“Having a hotshot crew as a resource on a fire gives us a lot of flexibility,” Watson said. “And hotshots can do the tough assignments.”
Like so many professionals, the Fulton Hotshots pride themselves on their reputation. They have to. There are a lot of people watching, including former crew members. It’s a pride that is earned, and one that is handed down through generations of former men and women who have served on the Fulton Hotshots.
“We do have that pressure from the old guys who stop by to see how we are doing,” Hammond said. “We have to keep up the tradition of the hotshot crew and keep it to the best standards. That means not just half way, but doing the best.”
The front office at the Fulton compound shows that pride and is lined with wooden plaques that include the names of every individual who has served with the Fulton Hotshots for the past 48 years. The plaques are prominently displayed along with photographs and other memorabilia. Many of the names appear more than once, indicating a long-term commitment to the Fulton crew.
One of the longest serving crew member, Louis Orozco, recently retired after serving for 26 years.
Hammond says that keeping up the tradition of the Hotshots is important, and thanks to the training from seasoned crew members, he said he has learned a lot. “You get to see what right looks like. Our work is not going to need any improvement,” Hammond said. “And that’s not just talk. We let our work talk for us.”
The Fulton crew has been at a minimal staffing level during this past winter, and their assignments included some prescribed burns. But next month, they will be fully staffed and ready for any and every call for service.
Editor’s Note: This story has been edited to mention the Rio Bravo Hotshots, who were formed via KCFD but are also located in Lake Isabella.