In the Line of Fire: Valley Hotshot Crews Train to Survive Wildfires

Nineteen firefighters with an elite hotshot crew died in a wildfire in Arizona over the weekend, and we've learned they unfurled their foil-lined, emergency shelters as a last resort.

It's something hotshot crews practice on a regular basis.

Nearly a dozen hotshot crews are based here in the Central Valley.

"They are fighting fire with fire, they are removing the fuel from the fire's edge," said Ron Garcia, a supervisor of the Kings River Hotshot crew based out of Prather.

"The role of the hotshot crew, they're cutting saw lines, they're cutting hand lines, usually have four chainsaws up front, digging the trenches," Garcia said.

His crew was one of nearly two dozen hotshot crews from around the country deployed to the wildfire that scorched Mariposa County a couple weeks ago.

"It's harsh conditions. {}There will be times when you don't have access to a shower for a couple days, you're eating foods that's carried in your backpack up to 3-4 days, the water is hot in your cantinas," Garcia said.

Firefighters hope they never have to use their emergency shelters, and Garcia says, if they do, then something went drastically wrong.

"You deploy the shelter when something is absolutely wrong, something was missed, something was overseen, fire changed direction unbeknownst to anybody. It's last-resort survival," Garcia said.

It should take less than 30 seconds for a firefighter to whip out his emergency shelter and get inside, but that's not the hard part -- it's survival.

"Some people get claustrophobic, try to get used to it mentally and physically, you're like a baked potato in that thing so you got to get used to it," said John Vasquez, a firefighter with the Kings River Hotshot Crew.

He says if you're surrounded by flames, temperatures inside the shelter can reach up to 150 degrees.

"Basically your objective is to get as close as you can to the ground, create a seal, you don't want gases coming up into the shelter," Vasquez said.

{}"A lot of times it's not the heat that gets people, it's the gases from the combustible fuels," Garcia said.

Hotshot crews train year-round, conditioning themselves to withstand backbreaking work, hiking in rugged terrain, lasting 16-hour shifts, and surviving amid a wall of flames.

Right now, three valley hot shot crews are deployed to wildfires in Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico.