Elite former ‘Hot Shot’ Firefighters Gather for Emotional Reunion

Elite former ‘Hot Shot’ Firefighters Gather for Emotional Reunion

By John D. Wagner

Angeles National Forest PAO

ARCADIA, Calif.--More than 130 former “Hot Shot” fire fighters, some going back to the 1950s, gathered here recently for an emotional reunion of “war” stories, what-have-you-been-doing-all-these-years questions, and special camaraderie from battling countless blazes.

The gathering of the Oak Grove Hot Shots, active from 1950 to 1979 and assigned near Pasadena, took place at the Angeles National Forest headquarters on May 23. Hot Shot fighters are highly fit, elite ground troops dispatched to engage wildfires close up, cutting away brush to soil level to stop a roaring blaze from spreading.

The Hot Shots often got sent to help fight fires in other parts of California or even other states.

“We were always in fires,” said Chris Cuzynski, a Hot Shot in 1971-1972. “They all run together. We were fighting fires, everyday. We fought everything from (small) grass fires to (large) wildfires. We also went to the Sierras.”

Steve Arney, was the Hot Shot superintendent from 1974-1978. He recalled the harrowing Marble Cone Fire, up in the Big Sur area, which lasted for three weeks. “We worked several 36-hour-long shifts,” he said. “For a while, it seemed like the fire was beating us. But we then made a fire line from the ocean to about nine or 10 miles inland. We contained the fire and finally got it out.”

 

Middle aged former fire fighters gather around unit image showing Wood Woodpecker putting out fire  Former Hot Shot fire fighters gather around unit image showing Woody Woodpecker putting out fire

 

The senior veteran at the event was Dave Waite, 94, assistant ranger from 1958-1959 who also served in other Forest Service positions until 1986. Though not a Hot Shot, he worked closely with the Oak Grove crew.

“We would request the Hot Shots when there was a very difficult area to build a fire line,” Waite said. “They were outstanding fire fighters.”

He recalled an inferno in Eaton Canyon in the crew’s early days. “It was difficult to hold the line there,” he said. “We called them in and they saved a lot of houses in Pasadena and Altadena.”

John Hackney, 79, was a “first-responder” in 1951-52 and recalled the rigorous training and discipline of being a Hot Shot.

“It was like being in the Marine Corps,” he said. “It was that level of discipline.”

He remembered a fire in the Kagel Canyon area near Tujunga, Calif., during his era.

“We had to guard a house where people refused to leave,” he said. “We got surrounded by fire. We had no fire tents then. We got down, covered ourselves and let it blow over. Then we got up, and got the family out of there. (Eventually) we got the fire contained.”

“People here are proud of what they did, saving lives,” he said, adding being a Hot Shot “was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had in my life.”