The Student of Fire Era

[Over the next several weeks we will feature content related to “Growth in the Wildland Fire Service.” The content published here will also be featured in the Spring 2019 Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Paul Keller

For four seasons, from 1986-1989, I was a member of the Zigzag Hotshot Crew, based on the Mount Hood National Forest’s Zigzag Ranger District in Oregon.

Paul Gleason was our Superintendent, a position he had held since 1979.

I live in the Zigzag area on Mount Hood’s west side. Back in the 1980s, I therefore knew of the Zigzag Hotshots and their long history. I was honored to become part of this family of firefighters.


Sure, back in the day we trained, too. But it was the Dark Ages compared to the Student of Fire era that is obviously alive and well on today’s Zigzag Hotshot Crew.


At first, after leaving the crew and continuing my career in fire elsewhere, I was aware of the Zigzag Hotshots, their personnel, and their activities. But down through that swift river of the years, even though I still lived in the Zigzag area, I, unfortunately, eventually lost all contact with the crew.

This same void of connection applied to the other many alumni who had also once served on the Zigzag Hotshots before and after me.Zigzag Hotshot Logo2

Long Overdue

Enter Devin Parks.

Thankfully, Devin, now in his second year as Zigzag Hotshot Superintendent, wanted past crew “old-timers”—like me—to get together and break bread with today’s Zigzag Hotshot Crew.

On a Friday in April—at the end of Zigzag’s first week back in operation this season—Devin and his crew hosted a barbecue lunch for past crew members.

No one had ever done such a thing before. Turns out, this “family” reunion was long overdue.

As Devin explained in his electronic invite that was spread far and wide a few weeks before the event, “The intent of this gathering is to connect the current crew with those who have served as Zigzag Hotshots throughout our proud history. This is a great opportunity to pass down our history to the newest generation of Zigzag Hotshots, as well as to learn about these incredibly talented individuals who are carrying our program into the future.”

Good Vibe

The word successfully got out to former Zigzag crew members. A total of 20 of us—from various eras—returned to Zigzag that day to attend the barbecue. (Hans Redinger, a former Zigzag Hotshot Assistant Supt., probably traveled the farthest, making the 220-mile drive down from Washington’s Snoqualmie Ranger District, where Hans is Fire Management Officer.)

As soon as I arrived, I joined in with a group of folks—both former and current crew members—who were shooting the bull, laughing, and probing each other with various questions. I looked around and quickly realized that these informal cross-generational conversations were bubbling up everywhere.

There was an unmistakable good, communal vibe resonating in the air.

Zigzag Hotshot Barbeque w_Former Crewmates_4_19_19

The old and the new. Devin Parks, Superintendent of the Zigzag Hotshot Crew (pictured second from right), had his crew host a barbecue in April for past crew members “to connect the current crew with those who have served as Zigzag Hotshots throughout our proud history.”

Those of us who had been on the crew during the “Gleason Era” were asked questions about Gleason. While much has been written and documented about this wildland fire legend—whose life was taken by colon cancer in 2003—those of us who worked on Paul’s hotshot crew shared some little-known inside scoops with the current Zigzag Hotshots. Call it: “family history.”

For instance, the crew headquarters. Us old-timers were blown away by the crew’s current home base, located in a completely refurbished one-time two-story fire warehouse behind the Zigzag District’s main office facility. We admired the crew’s overhead offices and their spiffy classroom training area.

Gleason was a maverick. Rather than be tied to that main district office facility (where he did have a desk beside the FMO’s desk) he preferred he and his crew to go more guerrilla. Ten miles up the highway, in a remote Forest Service compound that then included a parking lot and three historic cabins (Gleason lived in one of them), is where Gleason’s crew reported for work—right there in that gravel parking lot. Yep. (If we needed to go indoors for training, we used a meeting room down the hill at the Zigzag Ranger Station.)

Today, in the Zigzag Hotshot Crew’s indoor training area the wall is lined with several crew photos from numerous years. You’ll find Paul Gleason in just one of these—the 1991 crew, Gleason’s last year here. (After 12 years as Zigzag’s Supt. Paul transferred to Colorado’s Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest to be a District FMO in 1992.) So where are the other 11 “Gleason” years’ annual crew photos? Sorry folks. There aren’t any. Like we explained to the current crew members at the barbecue, Gleason was a maverick and a guerilla Superintendent. Except for that one 1991 exception, we never took official crew photos. It was good to pass on this “inside” family history to Zigzag’s current crew.

Super Hosts

Today’s Zigzag Hotshot Crew were super hosts. They provided all of us with delicious hamburgers, brauts, salad, desserts and refreshments.

After chowing down and continuing to brew good conversations between the “old” and the “new” we all gathered into one big circle. Superintendent Devin thanked us alumni for traveling to and attending this special gathering. We then went around and everyone had an opportunity to introduce themselves and say whatever they wanted.

I was truly impressed with the current crew members. As they spoke, it became apparent to me that a beneficial cultural change has transpired and become ingrained since I put down my pulaski three decades ago. These folks get the “big picture”. They read and study RLS’s and FLA’s and train, train, train. Sure, back in the day we trained, too. But it was the Dark Ages compared to the Student of Fire era that is obviously alive and well on today’s Zigzag Hotshot Crew.

At the same time, it was so good to learn that many traditions continue. Today’s Zigzag Hotshots obviously nurture and promote a strong passion for interfacing with wildland fire—just as we once did before them. And these current folks PT just like we did, too—humping up that dreaded super-steep Hunchback Ridge. Yes!

I also got a really strong cohesive vibe from this tight crew of wildland firefighters. As a former Zigzag Hotshot, they made me proud.

After our introductions and reflections were over, we all gathered up for a group “family” photo. We then continued our sharing in a celebration of ongoing conversations. The barbecue was supposed to be over at 1300. But our mutual, combined energy powered it on long after that time.

Here’s my recommendation. If you’re on an established crew who hasn’t reached out to your alumni for quite a while, you might consider doing so. I can guarantee you, it will be a win-win.

3 thoughts on “The Student of Fire Era

  1. Great article Paul! I’m proud to have been a member of the Arrowhead HS “81-82” Arrowhead HS are planning for our 40 year reunion next year. We have had reunions every 10 years and I have been to most of them. Not only do I get to see old friends but share with the current Arrowhead. The value of the “old” and “new” cannot be overstated. We haven’t set an actual date but my calendar is blocked for the entire 2020 with “Arrowhead Reunion” Thanks again

    Like

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