HotShots: NCC’s Elite Wildland Firefighters

Case Study: Sean Altern – Consultant: Biodiversity Conservation Services

The cream of the crop, NCC Environmental Services HotShots Sierra, Jerry and Omar. (Photo: Sean Altern)

Across the globe wildfires are becoming larger, hotter and more common with high profile incidents in Australia, Brazil, California and even Europe. In South Africa fires, such as those in Knysna (2017), George (2018), Betty’s Bay (2019) and Cape Town (2015), have been equally as devastating.

As fires adapt to the changing natural environment, becoming bigger and stronger, so too has the response been in tackling these blazes in the form of NCC Environmental Service’s Type 1 Interagency HotShot Crews (IHC).

No mountain is too high for the HotShots. (Photo: Sean Altern)

The first Type 1 specialised wildland firefighting HotShot crew in South Africa

NCC Environmental Services (NCC) has decades of experience in wildland firefighting planning, prevention and response; having managed some of the largest teams in South Africa.

Following the ferocious fires of 2015 a need for a more specialised team was realised. This concept was modelled on the United States of America’s ‘HotShot’ wildland firefighting crews. The difference between HotShots and normal firefighters is the selected combination of collective experience, skillsets, physical fitness and ability with certain tools allowing for longer, more arduous and challenging deployments. NCC’s firefighters were selected from various crews and underwent stringent testing and training until the best of the best formed the country’s first Type 1 specialised wildland firefighting Hotshot crew.

The team taking a well-earned rest break after chasing a fire line high up over the Du Toits Kloof Pass. (Photo: Sean Altern)

With rapid response capabilities, the team responds to call-outs utilising fully kitted out vehicles, helicopters for being trooped onto mountain tops or simply by using their elite fitness levels to hike in. Once on the line the crew is able to be deployed and is self-sufficient for up to two days often spending nights high up, isolated and in the dark. The highly experienced and skilled team is designed primarily as an initial attack crew to engage with open flames, the most dangerous of wildland firefighting roles, whilst allowing other crews to complete the mopping up operations behind them.

Being trooped in by chopper allows for quicker response times and reduced suppression efforts. (Photo: Sean Altern)

Gaining experience

When it comes to wildland firefighting there is no substitute for experience. Theoretical accredited training is an integral part of each wildland firefighter’s journey, however actual time spent on the mountains and slopes battling blazes in the various terrains, vegetation types and weather conditions are essential to being a HotShot. As each season passes our crews who have gotten wiser, stronger and more capable.

Special deployments in the United States of America each season have become an integral part of the crews learning and as they assist and experience different strategies and methods for tackling wildland fires. These new techniques and strategies are invaluable as they are adapted and applied to great effect in our local context.

Members of the NCC HotShots with the Rocky Mountain Fire Company training in Glacier National Park in 2018.

Over the years NCC’s firefighting capabilities have expanded and developed into the most complete and elite private sector firefighting service in South Africa. Our crews have developed, under the watchful eyes of senior members, from young rookies to experienced and competent squad leaders and superintendents.

NCC’s HotShot crews now play pivotal roles in combatting the very worst of the Western Capes fires.

Hard at work on Table Mountain. (Photo: Sean Altern)

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