They Call Them ‘Hotshots’

Kathy Gomola of Sheffield worries every time the phone rings during the summer and fall months. Her husband, Joe Gomola, works in timber resource management in the Marienville Ranger District – most of the time.

Sometimes he is a Hotshot crew member for forest fires across the country, after training to be an Asheville, N.C., Hotshot in 1996.

“Joe has been doing this for 18 years. When I see Pete’s (Peter To, fire management officer for the Allegheny National Forest) number on caller ID, I know it could be a fire. When he deploys, I do know what fire he is going to, but that could change once he reaches a dispatch hub,” she said. “With today’s technology he can shoot me a quick text, but they have to use phones sparingly to save batteries. Eighteen years ago, there was no contact (when he was at a fire incident),” she added.

She noted that he has also been a wildlife biologist during the eight years they spent in Michigan, and said they became family with the other firefighters. She had to evacuate their house in Michigan twice when fires came too close. According to the Forest Service website, Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHC) are diverse teams of career and temporary agency employees who uphold a tradition of excellence and have solid reputations as multi-skilled professional firefighters. Crews are available for each fire season and are employed by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, various Native American tribes, and the states of Alaska and Utah.

She said her husband would love to go out again this year, and he’s been allotted ten days away from his job if it becomes necessary.

“It’s a passion for them, especially the Hotshots. Their lives are on the line, and it’s always on your mind that it could happen,” she said. “One year he had to be med-evaced off a Colorado mountain for altitude sickness. When caller ID shows a dispatch center, you know its not good.”

“He’s brought home used shelters, and I’ve climbed into them. It’s like an oven, even though there’s no fire,” Gomola said.

She displayed a wallet containing reference materials, including a notebook with LCES, describing four things that must be in place before fighting a fire: Lookouts with vantage points to keep track of the fire, Communications so every one can keep track of each other and the situation, Escape routes and Safety zones where the fire is unlikely to move to.

Speaking of the preparedness levels describing fire danger, she said that the 65-pound packs containing all the essential gear are “packed year round, 24-7, but when the danger hits level 4, the packs are beside the door. When it hits 5, they’re gone.”

She spoke of firefighters helping wild animals, herding them toward safety. “One year Joe helped airlift a family of bears from a fire in Montana, and I’ve seen photos of hummingbirds lining the arms and shoulders of firefighters,” she said.

“There are debriefings after every fire, and counselors are available for as long as necessary. Joe now has asthma, and the doctors say it’s from 18 years of breathing smoke. Now he’s an engine boss, driving the fire engines from here to wherever necessary instead of climbing mountains,” she continued.

“Sometimes after a fire they have to send the firefighters home on commercial aircraft, and they’re so dirty without having a shower for 14 days and wearing smoky, dirty clothes that other passengers have refused to get on the planes. Sometimes when he came home I had to throw his clothes away.”

“I ask you to say thank you to our firefighters and first responders of all agencies,” Gomola said. “Their lives are on the line to save yours, your family, your homes our wilderness and wildlife. I ask that we continue to support our local volunteer fire departments, they need us and most of all we need them.

“Please take a moment to pray (for), or put in your thoughts the Prescott elite 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots that lost their lives, and for the families that have to find the strength to find a ‘new normal’. You are forever in my heart.”