"Load up!" "Chock's up!" "Yellow up!" Group up!" "Gear up!"
The commands rattle through a tiny window at the front of the crew carrier - they are always yelled and seemingly always directionally "up". To those who give the instructions and those who receive them, the stench inside the vehicle is the same. The interior of the "buggy" is ridden with odors of woodsmoke, dirt, and the men and women who crawl around in the elements for all hours of the day. The buggy is their seasonal home. The black leather captain chair that each member is assigned to is their bed, dinner table, and workspace. In a profession of wildland firefighting that encompasses grand, open spaces, they choose to retreat to one that would strike others as a claustrophobic one. But to them, it is safe.
A hotshot crew carrier is a bizarre and utilitarian vehicle that appears as an oversized ice cream truck, with all of the decals and lights to be confused for one. With a standard two-door truck cab, 300 horsepower engine, and 21,000 pound rear axle capacity, there is nothing mechanically or aesthetically exciting about a buggy. It is quite simply a cab accompanied with a large "box". Burdened with the weight of supplies and people, the buggy supports the box, which holds up to 1,600 pounds for equipment and 250 pounds per seat. Chainsaws, hand tools, helicopter sling nets, radios, waters, military ready-to-eat meals, and fuel. Everything a crew of twenty needs for the prolonged suppression of wildfires and survival beyond the amenities of home.
Its real cargo is its crew. They fill the seats with their sinewy frames, and the "box", with their opinions on the last fire and speculations on the next. In this space, there is no choice but to be intimate and personal - the "box" almost seems to expand with the vivid conversations exchanged in its cluttered confines. The words that are passed among the disheveled individuals in the buggy almost seem to add to its heavy load. Adjacent to the medical supplies, one might find a heavy box of sorrow and anxiety. Or across from the drip torch fuel, a carton of inside humor can be stored and opened during times of hardship. The weight of emotions that overflow from the buggy's windows are obviously intangible and invisible, but the men and women creak under the burden just as the chassis does. And then there is that inextinguishable stench of work and woodsmoke.
A buggy only has one reason to exist. It is the carrier of wildland firefighters, to get them to the job and then back to their true homes. In a way, the buggy stands for the crew - transient, messy, tired, yet comforting.
There are approximately 250 buggies in the American West. Each of them is the same in appearance, task, and load, only the names bannered across the carriers' sides vary. They shuttle across state lines, from obscure grassfires to flaming subdivisions, all to deliver strong men and women. They provide little comfort to those they carry, but it is enough. Many return to the dusty and foul "box" year to year because of an inexplicable sense of belonging to a group and a task, that forms within the steel belly.
It's a job for young people, for those who trade away the comforts of home or family, for those whose knees still hold and whose shoulders still swing freely, who relish a physical challenge. They know that their job will only become harder, with longer days, and hotter fires. Within the buggy, the men and women choose to cultivate a silent strength. They find ways to compartmentalize their feelings and struggles, almost like how they store their tools when it is time to load up.