Hotshot firefighter returns home to Franklin County after battling wildfires over the summer

  • Ezra Ward of Leverett spent about six weeks training and fighting wildfires in Alaska this summer on the North Star Fire Crew before being picked up by an Alaska Fire Service Hotshot crew. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Over the summer, Ezra Ward fought nine wild fires across the West on a Hotshot crew — a group of highly-trained wildland firefighters often likened to Special Forces in the military. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Ezra Ward works alongside a fellow North Star crew member in Alaska. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Because he did so well on the North Stars, Ezra Ward was sent to the Midnight Sun Crew — one of Alaska Fire Service’s two Hotshot crews, considered one of the most difficult crews to work on. He spent eight weeks as a Hotshot this summer. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Recorder Staff
Published: 12/9/2016 9:33:39 PM

LEVERETT — After fighting wildland fires in Oregon last summer on a Massachusetts wildfire crew, a local man has advanced to a more intense line of firefighting.

This year, Ezra Ward of Leverett joined the North Star Fire Crew in Alaska and was quickly picked up by an Alaska Fire Service Hotshot crew — a group of highly trained wildland firefighters often likened to Special Forces in the military that may be sent anywhere in the United States to fight wildfires.

Over the summer, Ward’s crew was sent to nine fires across the West.

Ward, 23, grew up in Montague and has been interested in firefighting since he was young. As a child, he remembers seeing large wildfires in California on the news and admiring the firefighters battling the blazes. He joined the state crew last year after hearing a news story about wildland firefighting and decided to move on to a more difficult line of work this summer.

“Being outdoorsy in general and a really big athlete in high school, and now being out of high school and not in college anymore, I sort of had this void,” Ward said. “Being a Hotshot, in some ways, is being an industrial athlete.”

Hotshots must meet rigorous physical requirements and often work in remote and rough terrain, taking the most dangerous and technical assignments.

“Hotshot crews will basically do whatever they’re asked, but because of their higher level, usually they’ll be used to take on the toughest part of the fire,” Ward said.

He added that typically it takes three to five years of wildland firefighting experience to make it onto a Hotshot crew, but he got fast-tracked after spending about six weeks on the North Stars.

Ward described the North Stars as a giant competition, hiring anywhere from 25 to 30 people for 16 spots on the crew that’s selected after a two-week training period. Those who have potential but didn’t perform as well during training are selected as alternates. He said crew members are expected to be in top physical condition and train every day, doing long runs with push ups and sit ups or hiking in full gear.

“You’d just hike until you dropped, and because you’re a crew, if somebody’s lagging or gapping, you have to deal with that and circle back and pick people up again. If there’s a fire on your ass, you’re not going to leave somebody, so everybody better be in shape to get out of there. Otherwise you’re putting everybody in danger,” he said. “The first three days, we had somebody quit every day. We had a guy quit within the first hour. I’m pretty sure everybody on that crew is dreaming of quitting at some point. It’s like Hotshot boot camp.”

Because he did so well on the North Stars, Ward was sent to the Midnight Sun Crew — one of Alaska Fire Service’s two Hotshot crews, considered one of the most difficult crews to work on. Ward said members are taught never to idle and are expected to do everything they can for the group. Their saying, he said, is, “Crew before you.”

During the eight weeks he was on the Midnight Suns, Ward fought nine fires in Oregon, Montana, Idaho, northern California and Wyoming.

“We were all over the place. We were in a different state every time we went out. Apparently, it’s pretty rare for that to happen,” he said.

A typical shift for Hotshot crews is 16 hours, but they can work for up to 32 hours in all conditions before relief is available.

Once the crew got out on the fire line, Ward said every day was different. Some days he would dig lines in the earth to keep the fire from spreading, other days he would help set up hose lays or light backfires to control the blaze.

“Pretty much everything that could be asked on the fire line, we would do,” he said. “If they told me to stand in one spot and make sure the fire didn’t go anywhere, I would do that.”

Each truck the crews traveled in — called “buggies,” had a set of chores, and each firefighter had a specific assignment to complete every morning after breakfast. For Ward, that was collecting and filling up cubies — cardboard boxes with five-gallon water bladders inside — and making sure his buggy was stocked with Meals Ready to Eat.

He said each fire he went to had its own challenges. In Idaho, the fires were on steep terrain, so moving around could be dangerous if there were rocks that could roll down from above. In Wyoming, the sheer amount of fire the crew had to deal with was difficult, because there was no slowing it down.

He said on the Hotshot crew, everyone worked hard and pulled their weight, but there were plenty of days when it was tempting to give up. Ward recalled one day when his feet were hurting so badly that the pain was all he could think about.

“What got me through that day is thinking, ‘If you quit now, you’ve still got to walk back to the buggies, so you might as well keep working,’” he said. “I had a lot of moments that summarize (thinking) ‘There’s no way I could do that again or do it more,’ and then the next thing I know, I was doing it again, doing it longer.”

During those low points over the summer, Ward would remind himself that all shifts come to an end — and they did.

“You work hard for the people next to you and the reputation of your crew,” he added. “I feel like it’s a way to serve your country without being in the military.”

Ward returned to Franklin County in October and said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll join the Hotshots again next year. At home, he serves on the Leverett Fire Department.

You can reach Aviva Luttrell at: aluttrell@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 268
On Twitter, @AvivaLuttrell




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