Trial by Fire

updated 09/11/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/11/2000 01:00AM

The American West is ablaze, in the throes of the worst wildfire season in 50 years. More than 2,500 square miles have been burned, destroying hundreds of homes and forcing several hundred evacuations. Federal officials blame the extraordinary outbreak of fires, nearly all caused by lightning strikes, on unusually hot and dry weather, gusty winds and overgrown forests. The forecast: Relief won't come for weeks, until autumn brings rain and snow.

Meanwhile, in Montana, homemade signs have appeared at roadsides: "Thank You, Firefighters." If not for the 25,000 men and women battling the blazes in 12 western states, the devastation would be far worse. In the Bitterroot range along the Idaho border, PEOPLE followed two groups of firefighters battling the inferno—the Del Rosa Hot Shots of San Bernardino, Calif., and a crew drawn from, among other agencies, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service.

Onto the Battlefield
Armed with brush-clearing tools, flame-retardant uniforms and fierce pride in their unit, the Del Rosa Hot Shots—one of 72 elite, highly trained crews made up mostly of Forest Service personnel—hike into the smoke-shrouded Lolo National Forest. "You ask any crew who the best is," says Del Rosa squad boss Mike Hill, 28, "they're going to say theirs."

Amid the Peril, Adventure
Along Montana's Trout Creek, Karen Scholl, 31, the 20-member team's only woman, passes on orders to ex-Army Ranger Dan Adams, 27. Of fighting fires, Scholl, an extreme-sports buff who teaches snowboarding in winter, says, "Every time you go to a fire, you're constantly thinking of all the things that could go wrong."

Facing the Day
In St. Regis, Mont, 70 miles northwest of Missoula, the Del Rosas, mostly seasonal workers who can earn up to $30,000 for four months' work, rise in a 40° chill, wash and hit the chow line. Despite the frequent 18-hour days, exhaustion and danger, firefighter Dan Adams prefers to look on the bright side: "We're paid to go hiking and camping."

Scorched Earth: Fighting Fire with Fire
To help control the Ryan Gulch blaze east of Missoula, firefighters deliberately set backfires—small controlled burns that move toward the main fire and destroy the fuel it needs to advance. "If we can put 300 feet of black in front of the fire and it hits the black," says operations section chief George H. Custer, 45, a career Forest Service firefighter from Ocala, Fla. (and, he says, a distant relative of the Little Big Horn's George Custer), "we should be okay."

No Smoke-Free Dining
Todd McDivitt, 26, carbo-loads during a welcome break. Picked competitively, Hot Shots must prove their fitness by hiking three miles in 45 minutes while hefting 45-lb. packs. Members have been known to lose 25 lbs. per season despite gorging on sweets and snacks to boost energy. They've needed plenty since arriving in Montana in August. "The first day we got here," recalls Jim Tomaselli, 32, "we worked a 39-hour shift."

Forest Firewalk
Capt. Jimmy Avila, 46, the oldest Del Rosa (the crew is named for a street in San Bernardino, where they're based) and father of four grown children, lights a backfire on Landowner Mountain. Of his many comrades who seem attracted to the challenge of firefighting, Avila, an ex-military air traffic controller from Victorville, Calif., says, "They're a little young, most of them, but they're good folks. They think it's fun—after the fact."

A Storm Made of Flame
Deep in the forest, a rumble echoes through the trees like a distant freight train. "Hear that?" asks George Custer of the Southern Fire Management team. "That's fire." Given enough fuel and wind and heat, a blaze can ignite acres of treetops all at once and become a crown fire—a firestorm so fierce it can even create its own weather conditions: whirling tornado-like funnels of cinder and debris. Little remains afterward but ash (as at left, in the Bitterroot range). "I've been around a couple of those," says Custer. "They're very, very impressive. Mother Nature is amazing."

Jim Jerome
Michael Haederle in Missoula

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