SHOW LOW, Ariz. – They grab sleep when and where they can, sometimes on a bed of ashes.
"Home" is a field of tents spread like nylon mushrooms across the lawn at Show Low High School. For William Loeller, it's also the launching point for fighting his 12th wildfire since April.
"We're almost constantly on the road," said Loeller, a member of a Hotshot crew from Silver City, N.M. "We're always camping out in sleeping bags and tents — or on the line when we're working a fire."
As Loeller prepared for his first 16-hour shift on a massive wildfire threatening Show Low and smaller mountain towns around it, many others on the lawn were back from a night on the line.
One firefighter played a guitar while others, sitting in a circle, played chess.
They nap on the lawn or in tents. Working this job, you can — and do — sleep anywhere. One firefighter sunning himself after a night shift dozed off without his shirt on Friday afternoon and wound up going on the injured list with a severe sunburn.
Showers are trucked in. So is the laundromat. Firefighters eat their meals, prepared by a catering company that follows the fires, on portable tables shaded by tarps.
"The worst thing is sitting out here in this hot sun," said Alta Johnson, with a crew from a Cherokee Indian reservation in North Carolina. "You never get to get clean, even when you take a shower, you come out and it's all dusty and dirty again."
The stress and closing living conditions, including long waits for showers, can fuel tempers. "We say we're married to each other," Loeller said. But they learn to work it out, he said, and most are back at work in often life-threatening situations too quickly for personal problems to get in the way.
With large parts of the West starved for rain and suffering through drought conditions ideal for fueling wildfires, the work has been nonstop for Hotshot teams like Loeller's.
"These firefighters are special people," said fire spokesman Jim Paxon, a firefighter since 1969. "They eat meals a lot of us wouldn't touch. They're away from their families and friends, pets.
"This is a disruption. But it's a way of life for a lot of these people. And a lot of us can't seem to get it out of our system."