Wildfires have burned more than 117,000 acres of forest in California this year. National Geographic photographer Mark Thiessen embedded with one team fighting a group of fires called the Fork Complex near Hayfork, California. Here, he shares his portraits of the Salt Lake Unified Fire Authority crew and his first-person account of working with them.
The best part of my job as a photographer for National Geographic is meeting wonderful people along they way, like the Salt Lake Unified Authority fire crew.
On paper, the crew isn’t the elite of the elite. There are several types of firefighters on wildfires. Type one crews are called hotshots. The Salt Lake team is type two, called an initial attack handcrew, but they may as well be on top. The crew is every bit as hard working and professional as the best hotshot crews I’ve worked with.
“It’s not about the name, it’s about the job. We don’t claim to be hotshots, but we try to bring our caliber of work to that level,” says Mike DeGering, the crew’s foreman and a full-time structure firefighter. DeGering spends his summers helping lead the team—which includes his brother McKay (pictured above.) “I’m not out here to be a hot shot crew or a smokejumper. I’m happy to mop up behind,” he says.
The work isn’t easy at any level.
The crew gets up at around 5:30 a.m. They have ten minutes to get everything into the buggy that will take them to the fire. After a day on the fireline, at around 9 or 10 p.m. they take the buggy to where they’ll spend the night, roll out sleeping bags, and lay down under the stars. There’s no time to shower. You decide whether you want to shower or whether you want to eat and sleep.
The crew usually works 14 days in a row. But with so many fires burning in the west, manpower is hard to come by. They were asked to extend their stay another week. They accepted. “A crew like this is gold. When they come along you don’t want to let them go,” says division supervisor Jay Walter.
I asked Zach VanDyke, a pre-school teacher who was acting as a lookout for his crew’s burnout operation, why he returned for this, his fifth wildfire season. “I like the camaraderie with the guys, it is strong,” he says. “When you have extreme experiences like you have on fire, the crew becomes a family, it can’t be beat. It becomes priceless.”
For some people, this is the most exciting thing they’ll ever do in their life. They say they get bit by the firebug, and it brings them back every time the fires start. But these aren’t cowboys. They’re disciplined professionals.
The Salt Lake crew worked on the wildfires with nearly 50 Los Angeles structure firefighters. They L.A. teams were at the fire with their big red fire engines to provide protection for nearby homes. When their services weren’t needed anymore they were going to be sent home, but Walter quickly grabbed them up.
The group from Los Angeles included the higher ranks of captains and battalion chiefs, yet they turned themselves into students, learning from the Salt Lake crew about how to prep line, perform burnouts, hold line, and chase spots.
“The minute you set foot on a fire, rank disappears and you fulfill the role on the fire,” says Brian Dameron, Los Angeles City Battalion Chief. On the final day, as a thank you, Dameron bought 25 pizzas and had them brought to the fireline. Probably the one and only time the Salt Lake crew will ever have a pizza party on the line.
On the last day, Cody Werder, a Los Angeles city firefighter said, “We have a new appreciation for how hard these handcrews work. It’s unbelievable how hard they work and are so knowledgeable.” He jokes, “fighting structure fires is like child’s play.”