Several years ago, I was driving through Northern California when an eerie orange hue flooded the landscape. It took several more miles to see the plumes of smoke in the distance, the charred hillsides — and the occasional firefighter seeking some shade near the road.
"What is life like for those guys?" I wondered.
A few weeks ago, in the wake of the Granite Mountain Hotshots tragedy in Arizona, Instagram's blog highlighted Gregg Boydston, a wildland firefighter whose field photographs give a rare glimpse into the life of those who run toward the fire. But I still wanted to know more, so I called him up.
"You have to become comfortable being uncomfortable," Boydston, 25, explains.
He is in the midst of his second fire season and his first on a hotshot crew — an elite team of highly trained firefighters. The days are long, stretching from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. or longer. They cut fire lines, burn backfires, and mop up hot ash piles smoldering in the undergrowth. Then it's back to camp for dinner, chores and maybe, but not frequently, a shower.
"You're so dirty and so focused on getting things done. Your legs are sore from hiking all day, from carrying all your gear and stuff for the chain saws," he says. "Your leather boots rub your feet raw."
The pace is relentless, but hotshots are the best of the best. According to the U.S. Forest Service, they must be in peak physical condition: capable of running 1.5 miles in 11 minutes or less; doing 40 sit-ups in 60 seconds; and hiking three miles with a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes.
Still, Boydston says, no amount of training can fully prepare you for the work.
"The hiking I expected," he writes in one caption, "but there are a few locations ... where I just stopped and thought, 'What did I get myself into?' "
And there's the heat, which, he says, literally "takes your breath away."
On the other hand, Boydston also says he didn't expect to enjoy it so much. He intends to spend the rest of his career fighting fires, but the work is demanding, and he is only 25. So I asked if he has a backup plan.
"Sure," he says. "Photography."