The U.S. Forest Service Vista Grande Hotshots, an elite, front-line firefighting crew, is celebrating 40 years of service on the San Bernardino National Forest, San Jacinto Ranger District. Past and present members, families, friends and other officials will honor the crews’ service at a tri-tip dinner, slide show, horseshoe tournament and all around good time on May 3 at a private event in Pine Cove.
In 1974, Forest Service Region 5 fire management added a new crew, the Vista Grande Hotshots, to be stationed at the Vista Grande Guard Station between Idyllwild and Banning on Highway 243. In June of that year, Kirby More became the first superintendent. In 1994, Art Torrez, a former crew captain, became superintendent and served until 2004. Jesse Estrada is the current superintendent, with Tony Sandrini and Danny Guerrero serving as crew captains.
Within the Forest Service, Hotshot crews occupy a special place in firefighting and fire suppression. They are the elite, highly disciplined fire corps, tasked to battle wildfires in the most difficult and treacherous conditions. They are trained to be dropped into tough terrain fire perimeters when fires are most dangerous and the challenge is most severe. They can subsist on fire lines for extended periods with only the bare essentials, using hand tools to create firebreaks.
Because of the esprit de corps that tight-knit crews develop under extended and difficult conditions, Hotshots are also family. “Hotshots are proud,” said Torrez, “and they are one family. That part is really unique. If you’re part of a Hotshot crew, you’re friends for life.” And because of the nature of the job, being in the most extreme fire conditions, lifelong friendships are sometimes cut tragically short.
“It’s a dangerous job. You see death, the death of close friends,” said Torrez, and, of course, most Hill residents understand the risk and danger fire crews face, remembering well the deaths of the five brave men of Engine 57 during the Esperanza Fire in 2006.
Torrez emphasized that in addition to fighting on the front lines in dangerous fire conditions, the VG Hotshots are well known for training international crews since 1985, including forestry and firefighting students from the Central and South American countries of Mexico, Nicaragua, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela and Argentina. VG crews deploy nationally as needs arise and also internationally, as they did during the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. “It was a 21-day tour. After setting up the Incident Command Center we did body recovery,” said Torrez. “It was the beginning of our international training and partnership.”
The familial glue of serving together with the same men and women during prolonged periods of service under the most difficult conditions is what distinguishes Hotshot crews. They are often faced with long working hours, little food, high air temperature and low humidity — and the fatigue factor that comes from sometimes being away from home and serving on fire lines for two to three weeks. Nevertheless, according to Sandrini, “Wearing a crew shirt with a Hotshot logo carries a lot of pride. No matter what crew you represent, yours is the best. You work the hardest, hike the fastest and take the most difficult assignments. All you can do is try and uphold the high level of duty, integrity and respect that are Hotshots’ core values. You pass on those values to the ones coming up, to honor those who have gone before and wore the Vista Grande logo.”
Estrada succinctly sums up how it is to be a Hotshot. “You uphold what has gone before. You maintain the high standard,” he said.
Readers who want to learn more about the Vista Grande Hotshots may visit www.californiahotshotcrews.org/crewvistagrande.html.