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Brian Cardoza

Idaho City Hotshots superintendent feels the burn on Idaho's fire line, keeps the focus

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It's all in the family for Brian Cardoza.

The 40-year-old son of a Central California Hotshot firefighter, Cardoza has been on the lines of the some of the nation's most intense wildfires for more than two decades.

Even his 6-year-old son, Grant, has offered some pretty good firefighting advice.

"Last summer I was on a fire outside of Salmon and Grant really wanted me to come home," Cardoza recalled. "He said, 'Dad, get your Hotshots to lay some hose, squirt some water on that fire and come home.' I said, 'Son, you don't understand; the fire is too big.'

"A few days later, we ended up laying in all of this hose, and the only way we could contain it was with water. I thought, 'Man, I should have just listened to Grant.'"

Cardoza, a single dad, telephones his son--back in their Boise home--almost every night. But, on occasion, he has to apologize for not calling due to the intensity of a firefight.

In between battling some of this summer's nastiest wildfires, Boise Weekly spoke with the Idaho City Hotshots superintendent about his son, his crew and the tragedy in Arizona that claimed the lives of 19 Hotshots.

At what age did you have a sense of how dangerous your father's work as a Hotshot was?

I was very young, and one of my dad's best friends was killed in the 1979 Ship Island Fire [in Eastern Idaho's Targhee National Forest].

I was worried about that, but my dad always assured me how safe he was. He was right. It's less dangerous than most people think.

I find that hard to believe.

I've got a great crew--very well trained. Most of them have been with me long enough to read my mind most of the time. They're awesome.

What defines a Hotshot?

In my opinion, it's the physicality and crew cohesion.

By cohesion, are you talking about number of working parts in synch?

Some are cutting brush or trees, others are scraping the line, some on lookout, some monitoring the weather. We have 22 on the Idaho City Hotshots right now, 14 of them have radios, so we have a lot of traffic on our crew channel.

Talk to me about the hours you work.

In an initial attack, when a fire starts, we can work up to 30 hours-plus.

Hold it. Thirty hours straight?

That's right. Once things get to a standard schedule, we're 16 hours on, eight hours off.

But how do you maintain energy and focus?

From our spring training--two weeks in April. It's very physical, plus a lot of classroom training.

Professional athletes must have nothing on you Hotshots when it comes to spring training.

It's funny that you say that. Some of our best guys were kids in high school who struggled to even make their varsity sports teams. But when we get to a fire line, those are the ones who work the hardest and never give up. That said, we have a lot of college athletes. A lot of runners, captains of college football teams, you name it.

How did the June 30 deaths of 19 Arizona Hotshots resonate among your Hotshots?

Our crew was a bit sheltered at first; we were still fighting fires when it happened. We didn't have much outside communication. But now that we've heard more, it's pretty staggering.

Do you talk that through with your crew?

We sat down and talked about it quite a bit. I reassured them that our crew has been working together a long time and we've got a good thing going. We need to step it up and stay focused.

I'm guessing that a big part of that focus is knowing when to pull back.

Our lookouts know when a fire is coming our way, telling us to get to a safe place. That's how we stay alive.

Is this a life you would recommend?

I love it. I've given up my summers for as long as I can remember. I've been doing this for 22 years. But I love the camaraderie. And in the winter, I can spend a lot more time with my son.

What are your son's dreams?

He wants to be a scientist.

Maybe he can help his generation prevent more wildfires.

We'll see. We can hope.