by Al Henkel, Acting Bureau Chief, NBC News Southwest Bureau
Update: This segment airs on tonight's broadcast.
Tonight on the broadcast we will introduce you to some of the men and women who fight the massive wildfires that burn every year throughout the American West. All of them have a unique journey to get to the firelines, but a common purpose once they get there.
On the side of a mountain in Western Montana we met Christian Blankenship (left), in charge of a hotshot crew -- a half dozen fire engines and "heavy metal"-bulldozers and skidders. More than 2,000 miles from his Fairbanks, Alaska, home, he's part of a Type-1 Fire management team from Alaska, sent here on a 2-week rotation. "You don't know if you're going to do it forever, or maybe next season I'll feel like I've had enough and it's time for something new." Firefighting paid his way through college. Blankenship has a degree in biology, yet comes back for the season work of fighting fires. "I got my degree and I'm still doing the same thing," he says.
I once spent three days with a hotshot crew on a fire in Idaho. Of the 20 people on the team, half had college degrees, two had master's degrees. Yet still they come back to work for about 10 bucks an hour, with overtime and hazard pay, for three or four months of the year.
The pride they have in their work, and the pride they have in each other is powerful. "Everyone takes care of each other, on the clock off the clock, you always watch their back," says Richard Wilson (right), the Superintendent of the Happy Camp Hotshots from Northern California. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, today there are over 15,000 men and women working on wildfires in the United States. Our nation should take great pride in them, and I hope you enjoy the few we spotlight tonight.