A Hotshot’s Take On Wildfires
Former Wildland Firefighter Gregg Boydston Shares His Thoughts
As a lifelong Californian, Gregg Boydston grew up around the arts (design, photography, and music) and achieved what would be a dream for many—working for Apple. But for Boydston, that dream didn’t last long. “I really enjoyed working for Apple, but I was over working indoors, and wanted to both challenge myself and help people in a different way.”
As a Californian, Gregg was also familiar with wildfires, and after just one “eye-opening chat” with his stepfather, who worked at a local fire department, he found his next calling. He earned a Fire Science degree, completed an EMT program, and “started heading towards the wildland firefighting side of the job.” Knowing he’d be deep in the wilderness throughout summers, he was happy to find that his girlfriend and tight-knit family were fully ready to support him.
Facing The Flames
Gregg soon found himself as a member of a Hotshot crew—a highly-skilled, hands-on, team deployed to wildland fires. Although his specific crew was based out of California, Hotshot crews are national resources, and can be utilized anywhere in the U.S. and are sometimes even called on missions out of the country. Hotshots are required to be available every hour during wildfire season. And “no you don’t get paid to be on call,” Gregg makes sure to point out. So, when calls like this come in—”we got a fire, we leave at 1600. See ya here,” he quickly packs up and heads to the fire station.
For a typical call, Gregg and a 20-person crew pile into two buggies, stopping only to sleep in the dirt on the side of a highway with nothing but their sleeping bags. Gregg gets up at 0500, eats his military-issued food ration, gears up, and waits for an order.
“[Then you] walk a few miles to the fire where you will construct a fire line for the next 15 hours,” Gregg says. Due to the quick response necessary and the remote nature of many of the fires Hotshots deal with, they use nothing but chainsaws and hand tools. “When night shift resources show up, you’d drive back to camp to eat, refuel, sharpen, top off, and hop in your sleeping bag by 10,” Gregg recalls. “Then up at 0500 to do it all over again.” Gregg emphasizes that this is just one of many possible scenarios, and while all were challenging, he sometimes misses being on the crew. Gregg still gets sent out to fight wildfires on Strike Teams through his local fire department, but his days have become slightly more predictable.
Behind The Smokescreen
When Gregg first started firefighting, sharing videos or photography wasn’t widely accepted in the Hotshot community or any realm of federal fightghting. “We were focused on the fires,” he says. But with photography always on his mind, Gregg couldn’t help but sneak shots of some of the remarkable scenes he was immersed in.
“We were out there working hard, seeing amazing landscapes, watching it get destroyed,” Gregg recalls, “and none of it was being noticed or acknowledged.” He saw an opportunity. It started with him sharing photos with his family, who were curious about his role, and slowly turned into sharing with the public.
On Gregg’s Instagram account, the platform where he began sharing photos publicly, he depicts the scenes the Hotshots encounter on a daily basis. Gregg’s photography captured the attention of many, garnering him thousands of followers and interviews with ABC and NPR.
Despite some protests, Gregg continued to share, and with time, the mood changed. The photos were a great way to get the public involved and interested in fire safety—something all firefighters could get behind. According to Gregg, now almost all of the 100+ Hotshots Crews have their own accounts and share content. “It blows my mind,” Gregg says, adding that he wishes he had started sharing sooner. “I know I drove people to the career path through my photos and words,” he says. “I’m glad I did it.”
Why The Big Burns?
Statistics show that around 90% of fires are started by humans. Gregg says that even though some are started naturally (by lightning), most of the fires of late are growing bigger than usual.
“We have a drier climate now, less rain, and hotter temperatures,” Gregg explains, “but we also have overgrown forests that haven’t been burned or thinned in years. When you combine these two things with some silly mistakes, we get extremely large fires.” Thinning and prescribed burns are important, but oftentimes, communities don’t like the smoke that comes along with them—a sentiment that hits close to home as Salt Lake has found itself with the world’s worst air quality on several occasions during wildfire season. But Gregg counters that “without a little smoke now, in a controlled manner, we potentially have a lot of smoke in an uncontrolled manner later.”
Gregg gives me a solution to some of the fires—let nature run its course. “I personally think we need to allow certain fires to burn when nothing is in danger,” Gregg says. “We have to recognize that people are continuing to build homes and move to more remote locations where fires have always burned.”
To contribute to reducing such large, uncontrolled fires, Gregg recommends people hold off on shooting targets, launching fireworks, and doing at-home projects with chainsaws until weather is better suited for those activities. “Agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management add and lift fire bans throughout the season, so keep an eye on their restrictions,” Gregg advises. He also says to make sure your car isn’t spitting sparks or flames, be it from a faulty part or dragging chains from a trailer or snow chains not in use.
Gregg’s Go-To Gear
When Gregg is fighting fires, he is typically in the backcountry—walking through the woods, sleeping on the ground, making coffee at camp, and dealing with blisters. So to do his job, he needs the common camping must-haves, including insulated jackets, his Carhartt jacket (for around camp), beanies, Darn Tough socks, headphones for the long buggy rides, a sleeping bag, dry bags, dehydrated meals, and a Goal Zero solar charger and batteries. The gear he’s most serious about ensures strong coffee and sound sleep. He relies on his Jetboil Flash and Therm-A-Rest Prolite for quality brews and a good snooze.
The Fight For Our Wildland Firefighters
For years, wildland firefighters have been pushing for better compensation, benefits, and working conditions. Gregg explains firefighters often leave for other work—but he can’t blame them. “Time away from family, longer fire seasons, tolls on your physical and mental health, poor retirement plans, [few] benefits in general, lack of agency support,” Gregg laments, “the list goes on.” He says that if some of these downsides had changed, he probably wouldn’t have left the career.
Gregg was scheduled for a regular 40-hour workweek, but regularly hit over 1,000 hours of overtime a season. And even when he was working more than double the hours of an average person, he was earning less than an average retail entry-level position. “Hiring issues? Absolutely,” Gregg says. “Fire seasons are getting worse and agencies are not making changes to keep up with that accompanied demand on the personnel.”
Groups like the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters advocate on behalf of Forestry Technicians for better pay and benefits, through public education and policy reform. To address this issue, the Biden Administration did announce in mid-August, a slight pay raise for all wildland firefighters to help combat the labor shortage.
How To Support Wildland Firefighters & Impacted Communities
Gregg humbly says that “simple hellos and waves throughout the fire season go a long way.” Firefighters are often separated from their families for long periods of time, working long, hard shifts and becoming physically and mentally drained. “ Kindness is a nice thing to see,” Gregg says.
To financially support the fight against wildfires, Gregg personally contributes to the Eric Marsh Foundation and the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. Finally, he adds, “we all have personal responsibilities to help control and prevent these fires. That is a wonderful way to support firefighters and is free and beneficial to both us and you.”
With each fire comes a new community left to pick up the pieces. Recovery from such a disaster takes time, and even with the initial influx of money and support, many communities take years or decades to get back to baseline. Making a cash donation to a local organization allows them to support the community as needed, both to recover from the most recent fire and prepare for the next one. A quick search for the prevailing fire and “community support” can lead to a round-up of organizations to donate to. Local papers are a great resource as well, as they often list the smaller organizations more directly aiding folks in the aftermath of a fire. For example, the North Valley Community Foundation is accepting donations for the Dixie Fire relief efforts.