The North Bend Eagle

The Alpine hotshots fight fire with fire as they remove fule in the path of an uncontrolled fire.

Ruzicka fights wildfires, honors fallen

by Nathan Arneal
Published 12/6/17

It was love at first sight.

In 2006 Todd Ruzicka was given his first a glimpse of wildland firefighting during a summer internship with the National Forest Service in Colorado.

They sent him to Idaho and plopped him down in the heart of a battle against a forest fire.

There were helicopters and airplanes buzzing everywhere. Resources, tools and men working together to quell the burning fury headed their way. It was intense. Ruzicka was hooked.

“It had to be the adrenaline,” the North Bend native said. “It was just so different from what I grew up around. I had never seen anything like it in my life. We were getting to do things – now they don’t seem crazy, but then it was, ‘Holy cow.’ It was so new and fun for me.”

Cutting a handlineThe Hotshots cut a "handline," removing fuel by hand in the path of a fire. The handline plus some intentional burns are one weapon to slow down or stop a wildfire.

Ruzicka, now 32, has made wildland firefighting a career. In 2011 he returned home to work on the family farm, but that didn’t last long.

“Once I got (back to North Bend), I realized I had a hard time staying away from firefighting,” Ruzicka said. “I wanted to go back.”

He is now a squad boss for the Alpine Hotshots, a crew based in Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park, Colorado, specifically trained to fight forest fires in remote locations. The Hotshots are sent wherever they’re needed around the country, including occasional assignments in Alaska and Canada. In the last year alone, Ruzicka has fought wildfires in Colorado, Nevada, South Dakota, Washington, Oregon, Montana and Wyoming.

Last year Ruzicka, a 2004 NBC graduate and the son of Larry and Pat Ruzicka, added another duty to his job description. He has joined the National Parks Service Fire and Aviation Honor Guard, one of just six people nationally that will be called to action in the event of a line-of-duty fatality.

Honor guard
Todd Ruzicka watches over the Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Maryland in October. He is one of six members of the National Park Service honor guard nationally.

When a death occurs – Ruzicka estimated there are about eight to 10 a year in the NPS – a member of the honor guard will go to the site and escort the body until its burial. The Honor Guard also helps with funeral planning, casket carries and flag presentations.

The Honor Guard duty is in addition to his regular job with the Hotshots, which includes making sure the Honor Guard is not needed for anyone on his own team.

“My primary responsibility is to take care of my squad and to make sure they are doing things safely,” Ruzicka said. “That’s it. I gotta take care of those guys. That’s my primary duty, to make sure they come home at the end of every shift.”

His girlfriend Danielle Hildebrandt, an occupational therapist, spends most of her summers alone with the couple’s dog at their home in Loveland, Colorado, while Ruzicka is out on a mountain somewhere fighting a blaze. Her trust in the Hotshots keeps her from worrying too much.

“You hear about all the big fires and whatnot,” Hildebrandt said, “but I know they’re really safe about everything and well trained. It’s nice to at least know where he’s at, but a lot of times I don’t hear from him for a week at a time, two weeks maybe.”

The Hotshots spend 14 days at a time on scene followed by two days off. Sometimes it can stretch to 21 days with two or three days off.

Read the full story in the print or e-edition.

Controlled fireWildland firefighters watch over a prescribed fire, a controlled burn, in South Dakota.

Tree torchingA Hotshot watches trees go up in flames in Utah.


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