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Credit: Wade Ward / Prescott Fire Department

The Hotshots spent Saturday morning on West Spruce Mountain mopping up: chipping brush, clearing dead trees and logs and other postfire cleanup. When they finished, Kevin Woyjeck drove home to get his rod and reel.

Growing up in Seal Beach, California, a coastal suburb near the Los Angeles county line, Kevin fished every chance he got. Before he got his driver's license, he'd take the bus an hour down the Pacific Coast Highway to Laguna Beach, speargun and rod in hand, to dive and fish. When he moved to South Dakota last summer to work on another wildland fire crew, he befriended a local firefighter who took him out on a lake to fish for trout. The guy couldn't understand how a surfer kid from Orange County knew about trout. "I just love to catch fish, dude," Kevin told him.

The only thing Kevin loved more than fishing was fighting fires. It was all he ever wanted to do. His father, Joe Woyjeck, ran an engine crew in the L.A. County Fire Department, a captain with 33 years on the job. His grandfather was a smoke jumper in the 1950s, and three of his uncles were firefighters as well. The Woyjecks lived on a two-block street with just 10 houses, and three of them belonged to firefighters.

Kevin's first trip to his dad's station came when he was a week old, and he basically never left. He got his CPR certification when he was 12, his EMT license three years later. After graduation, Kevin enrolled in a fire academy and later spent a year on an ambulance crew. Kevin's goal now was to join the L.A. fire department, but he lacked experience. The plan was to spend the summer with the Hotshots, beef up his résumé, then move back to L.A. and get a job alongside his dad.

In some ways, he was still a kid. He called his parents every day, even if he was on a fire and had to borrow someone's phone. At the weekly crew barbecues, he would gravitate toward the Hotshots' kids, playing chase or splashing around in the pool. And the first night he moved into his new apartment, an old building in Prescott, his little brother was in town. So Kevin, scared that his new building might be haunted, bought a case of beer for them to split so his brother wouldn't be able to drive. He didn't want to spend the night alone.

Still, aside from the occasional twinge of loneliness, Kevin was having a blast. On his nights off, he'd go two-stepping at a honky-tonk called Matt's Saloon. Every once in a while the crew let him run a saw, which for a rookie was a pretty big deal. He'd befriended another first-timer on the crew, 21-year-old Grant McKee, and moved into a spare bedroom in Grant's house. He wouldn't be staying long, and it showed: All he had were a few fishing rods, a duffel bag full of clothes, his interview suit, and a big tub of whey protein. (He was 5-foot-9 and weighed just 135, and he was trying to bulk up.)

That Saturday night, Kevin threw his rod and tackle in the back of his Jeep, put his favorite Eric Church CD on the stereo, and started out for the lake to fish and camp out. But pretty soon, he got a call that they were needed on another fire in the morning. He turned his truck around and headed back.