A California Hotshot photographs his life fighting wildfires

by Katie Mast

Gregg Boydston is a member of the Klamath Hotshot Crew, an elite group of wildland firefighters. Hotshots must pass an especially rigorous fitness test dubbed the "Arduous" test to prove they are capable of the physical demands of the work. For 6 months a year, they spend 14 to 21 days at a time working up to 16 hours a day. They carry heavy packs with tools like chainsaws and shovels, in addition to water and food, to some of the hottest perimeters of wildfires. They cut trees and dig soil to clear firelines -- miles-long swaths, two to ten feet wide, with no vegetation -- and do backburns to contain the spread of a fire. To secure still-hot burn areas, they "mop up" by felling dead trees and extinguishing lingering flames. While fighting fires, Boydston has been photographing life in the field and sharing it with a growing audience online.

Boydston worked for one year on a contract crew, a Type II team that is on-call to assist with wildfires, and he joined the Hotshots this summer. Through iPhone photographs and pithy captions that he shares publically on Instagram, Boydston gives us a glimpse of the work and landscapes he encounters. During a recent four-day break and after a grueling 21-day stretch in Montana, Boydston spoke with High Country News about life as a hotshot.

High Country News: You recently posted a photo of your morning cup of coffee -- instant Folgers in a tuna can. What are some other challenges of life in the field?

Gregg Boydston: That was coffee from a Meal Ready to Eat, which are tightly sealed packs of dehydrated food. Some (MREs) aren't half bad. There's pasta and enchiladas and clam chowder. They sound fancy, but they all kind of taste the same. Really, a lot of the things that you do out there are uncomfortable, from not being able to shower as often as you'd like to sleeping only a very little amount.

HCN: Other than drinking instant coffee, what do your mornings hold?

GB: Our crew likes to sleep away from the fire camp because there are a lot of generators there. We usually jump in the trucks and drive back to camp and the first thing we do is eat breakfast. The head guys on our crew -- a superintendent, two captains and two squad bosses -- will go to a briefing (on the fire conditions). We all have our own chores, mine being getting the water for everybody. Some people have to make sure we have fuel for the chainsaws; a couple people go get our sack lunches. When we're done, we drive to the fire.

If the fire is really going still, you'll usually be getting 16 hours (of work each day). (It) ends up being a long day when you're up at 5 and not asleep until 10 or 11, especially when it's 21 days in a row like we just did.

Typically you'll go 14 days and get a mandatory two days off, but they can also extend you another seven. That's what happened to us, so it was 21 straight days. It's rare, but it can happen.

HCN: You write on your blog that you left a desk job at Apple for an "office" outside. You could have chosen any number of less harrowing outdoor jobs. Why did you choose work as a wildland firefighter?

GB: My mom's boyfriend, now husband, was fighting fires for a city fire department in Southern California, and… I decided to take some classes. The classes were mainly toward structure firefighting, but there were a couple wildland parts, and that's where it all clicked. I could be outside hiking and camping while working.

There's only just over 100 (hotshots) in the U.S. and 20 people per crew. Once you're on, a lot of people don't leave. I finished my EMT courses, (but) with no hands-on experience, it was going to be hard to get in straight to a hotshot crew, so I started looking at the contract crews. It was on-call, so I lived in my tent last summer (in Oregon). I did under 10 fires. (Last winter), I started calling around and visiting hotshot bases, dropping off resumes. When Klamath Hotshots called, I accepted.

The season is typically from May to October. If we're not being put on fires, we still go to the station and work a 40-hour workweek, but at any time we could be called to a fire. At the station we are training, doing fuel reductions, physical training and classes. We've done a couple staff rides where we travel to fatality fire sites and learn about what happened and why. We also make sure the trucks are ready to go, the equipment's good, the tools are sharp. Once you get going, there's not much time to do all that stuff.

HCN: The experiences you describe on your blog and in the captions of your Instagram photos sound intense -- long days carrying heavy gear into potentially very dangerous territory. How do you find time to pull out your camera?

GB: A lot of it is when we're hiking somewhere. Sometimes we get a break or time to eat. I don't have any pictures of us actually swinging tools or chainsaws cutting, because I'm working. Sometimes I look at someone's face and see how exhausted they are. Sometimes the flames are larger than you'd (imagine), but it's not a time I could pull out my phone. Things like that, just with a picture, I could show how hard it is.

HCN: Why did you decide to start documenting your work-life?

GB: I get to see all these cool places in the forest that a lot of people don't get to see. (Since) I'm working, people (also) get to see the fire-side of things. There was a great response to it, so I started making it a goal to try to take pictures of certain parts of the job so people could see and understand it. People think firefighters are just the big red trucks driving down the road. A lot of people don't know about the wildland side of things. Some people don't understand why we're even out there getting in the way of such a big force of fire. But (the fire) could grow and grow and grow and take out a town if we're not there.

HCN: Has anything been surprising about your new line of work?

GB: I really researched it a lot before I got into it. I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. But maybe just how tiring it is. It all catches up to you. You're not eating as healthy as you would like, your lack of sleep, and the amount of exertion throughout your entire day -- that was pretty surprising to me. I mean, I expected it, but sometimes I'm just thinking: "What have I got myself into?" This is extremely hard work.

(When cutting a fireline) they'll give you specs for … how wide of a scrape on the ground they want. It's usually about a 2-foot-wide dirt scrape and maybe 10 feet of no trees or fuels that would carry the fire into the top of the trees (so) when the fire gets there, it won't have anything to burn, so it goes out. That's the goal.

It's really cool to see how much work 20 people can produce. From how many things we have to get done in the morning… all the way to cutting a fire line -- we could (cover) miles in a day because there's 20 people working just as hard as you. It's cool to see, when you're walking off the hill, and you look back and see that you from (one) peak to (another) cutting fire lines, it's a pretty cool feeling.

HCN: What's on the horizon for you when fire season ends this fall?

GB: Once October rolls around, you get laid off and you don't come back until May. Last winter I worked in a brewery in Mammoth and worked at a ski resort. But at the same time I was preparing, training, for this season. This winter I don't know yet. I would like to go on a little road trip through some national parks, and at the same time go town shopping, see where I want to live next.

I plan on being a hotshot, but I have a goal to be a full-time crew member. I don't know where that will be or what crew I'll end up being on, but that is definitely a goal to be a full-time forest service employee, preferably on a hotshot crew.

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