By Dianna Troyer
Shortly after graduating from Raft River High School in 2017, Kayden Hitt launched his rookie season as a wildland firefighter on a hillside overlooking his alma mater.
Silhouetted against a wall of flames, he was unperturbed. His training through the Bureau of Land Management kept him calm.
Kayden and other firefighters controlled the blaze, ignited by lightning near the letter R—a large hillside monogram of white rocks above his hometown of Malta.
“You’re not afraid, but you’re alert,” Kayden says. “We’re always aware of an exit route—whatever fire we’re on. Sometimes wind shifts suddenly, and the fire heads in a different direction, but I’ve never had to get inside my fire shelter.”
Since then, Kayden and his twin brother, Kolten, 23, have been dispatched throughout the West as seasonal BLM wildland firefighters based in Burley and Twin Falls. They have fought fires in Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Colorado, California, New Mexico, Kansas and Arizona.
They agree their job provides a sense of accomplishment, knowing they are protecting public lands for neighbors and future generations.
“Our uncle, Tony Erickson, was a firefighter and told us it was a good way to earn money for college, too,” Kayden says. “We fell in love with it and look forward to every year.”
Their firefighting season generally starts in May and ends in October. Although both are assigned to engine crews, they rarely are dispatched to the same fire.
When fighting fires, they use hand tools to dig fire lines, remove vegetation so the fire has no fuel, extinguish hot spots where the fire is burning, mop up areas where fires linger, and protect structures.
Launching his season early in late April, Kayden and his crew were sent to a fire in Colorado.
“It’s great being outside and around people who are hardworking and genuine,” Kayden says. “Every day is different, so you never get bored. Every fire is different, too, so we never have the same jobs. We might dig a fire line, or if we can get close with the engine, we’ll spray water on it. Or if a truck can’t get close, we’ll park and hike to where we dig a fire line with hand tools.”
To become a firefighter, one must pass an annual physical fitness test. One requirement is to jog 3 miles in 45 minutes or less while carrying a 45-pound pack.
The test was fairly easy for them, considering they earned college scholarships to play basketball and are physically fit year-round.
“Fighting fires in summer has always worked well with our college and basketball schedule,” says Kayden, who earned an associate degree in business at Dawson Community College in Glendive, Montana. Kolten earned his associate degree in agribusiness there.
Both went on to earn basketball scholarships to play at Ottawa University of Arizona—a four-year school in Surprise, Arizona. Kayden studied ecology at Ottawa—while Kolten is majoring in business management.
After a fire season ends, they reminisce about their most memorable fires.
Kayden remembers his first fire.
“It was 2 a.m. when I got the call,” he says. “It was the Juniper Butte Fire near Glenns Ferry. You’re not quite sure what to expect, and the adrenalin is pumping. Suddenly, with the wind and dry grass, it became a big fire, but we got it taken care of.”
Kolten’s first fire was at a shooting range in Jerome. A spark from an exploding target started a small fire behind the range.
Seasoned firefighters, Kayden and Kolten have developed physical stamina, mental fortitude and perseverance from working in extreme heat and smoky conditions eight to 16-plus hours a day, up to 14 days straight, depending on the fire.
Kolten says the most difficult aspect of his job is not the physical strain.
“It’s tough not seeing your family or being able to do things with your friends,” he says.
Yet, he forges new friendships on the fire line.
“It’s always a cool experience that we’re total strangers at the beginning of the season, and by the end we’ve become close friends,” Kolten says.
After graduating from college, Kolten says he would consider a career fighting fires for the BLM.
“I always wonder what will happen in a new season,” Kolten says.
Kayden says he also would consider a career in firefighting.
“I’d like to be an engine captain and teach others,” Kayden says. “I’ve had some great mentors.”
Kayden says some firefighters occasionally say they wish they could be on another fire—one that might be easier, with less steep terrain.
“As for the guys on the crew I’m on, we always remind each other, ‘The best fire is the one we’re on,’” he says.