The American West is burning. In California, there were over 800 wildfires between January and March, some 270 percent more than they get on an average year. As droughts continue to desiccate the region, similar situations are unfolding from Oregon to New Mexico. And fire season doesn't typically reach it's height until the summer. In a job that is perilous – as we saw in last year's tragedy with the Granite Mountain Hotshots – it's looking to be one of the most dangerous years to fight wildfire fights.
Brent Ruby is out to help manage the risk for these forest firefighters. A professor at the University of Montana who studies extreme physiology, including how firefighting impacts the body, Ruby follows firefighters into one of the most hostile work environments on Earth and measures their hydration, looks for biomarkers of stress and physical exhaustion, and determines how many calories they need to do their job well. "The physiological stress on Hotshots is all over the map," says Ruby. "If a tree goes up or a log rolls, the stress response is remarkable" – a reaction that itself can cause overheating in the body. "But if they make smart decisions, they can lower their metabolic activity so they don't produce as much heat."
Getting this data isn't easy. "You can't reproduce a wildfire in a laboratory. In the field, equipment breaks, things go wrong, and the body responds. That's why we need lab-quality research collected at the wildfire. It can make a massive difference in how these guys do their job," he says. For this, Ruby chases down Hotshots as they battle fires, and asks for urine samples and blood tests.
Since 1997, Ruby's been traveling to wildfires to study the physiological response to towering flames, long shifts, high altitudes, erratic access to food, and countless other difficulties firefighters deal with every day. This work often takes him (and a 25-foot solar-powered Airstream trailer that's been converted into a high functioning lab) to the fire camps of Hotshots, elite squads deployed to fight the most severe blazes.
Convincing a Hotshot who's just returned from a 16-hour shift to immediately piss in a cup and submit to a medical probing in the name of research isn't always easy. Thankfully, Ruby, whose official title is Director of the Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism, isn't your ordinary ivory-tower geek. The 46-year-old soul-patched scientist is a competitive athlete who has completed six Ironmans. At the 2006 Kona World Championship he turned himself into a research subject, taking biopsies of his leg muscle before and after the race to study energy expenditure.
When Ruby began researching firefighters, he hauled hose and dug fire line to get in with the crews. In doing so, he came to understand that lugging 50-plus pounds of gear across a sizzling ridgeline is unlike any other physical challenge, and getting winded quickly could be fatal. "From a physiological standpoint, aerobic fitness is the one factor that provides more protection for the entire crew than anything else. When one person fatigues, the whole crew is at risk."
Ruby's Tips for Hotshot Safety
Workouts should mirror job demands.
Rather than banging out a 10k in featherweight running sneakers every morning, crewmembers should go for long hikes on steep trails wearing a heavy backpack and clunky boots. "Hiking with a heavy load – that's job-specific aerobic training."
Ruby has found that to be safely working at peak condition, they should consume 4,500 calories a day with a number of "eating episodes." If what's supposed to be an eight-hour shift turns into a 12-hour shift, Hotshots should have easy access to quality calories. "They need an elaborate food plan that accommodates unpredictable shifts. We envision giving them ownership of the menu, where they can mix and match 12 items," he says.
Aim for variety in calories.
Ruby suggests packing a high-quality red meat for protein; several types of fresh fruit; carbs in the form of oats and rice; carrots and broccoli for diversity; and loads of dried fruits and nuts. "They need foods that satisfies and doesn't leave them focusing on how hungry they still are," Ruby says. "Their job is fire suppression. As soon as they're distracted from fire suppression, other risks crop up."
Drink water – and lots of it.
The best way to think about hydration, according to Ruby, is in terms of "water turnover" over a 24 hour period, or how much water you take in and dump out through sweat and urine. On average, the water turnover for Hotshots is 7 to 9.5 liters a day. "You have to make sure you're taking in somewhere in that range – probably a liter more than you're putting out," he says. Being sufficiently hydrated alone, however, isn't going to stop you from overheating in a high-stress situation, warns Ruby.