• August 20, 2015

Gritty, Dirty, and Dedicated: Portraits of Wildland Firefighters

Mark Thiessen

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.

McKay DeGering, 21, a chain saw operator (sawyer) on the Salt Lake Unified Fire Authority crew at the Fork Complex fires near Hayfork, California.
McKay DeGering, 21, a chain saw operator (sawyer) on the Salt Lake Unified Fire Authority crew at the Fork Complex fires near Hayfork, California.

“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.

Jared Bowman, 26.
Jared Bowman, 26.

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.

Mayson Lisonbee, 21, sawyer
Mayson Lisonbee, 21, sawyer

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.”

Kyle Heller, 23.
Kyle Heller, 23.

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.

Carlos Lopez
Carlos Lopez, 20.

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.

A group shot of the firefighters of Division "Echo" on the Fork Complex fires near Hayfork, California. The group includes crews from Los Angeles County, Los Angeles City, Salt Lake Unified Fire Authority and the Hayfork Fire Dept.
A group shot of the firefighters of Division “Echo” on the Fork Complex fires near Hayfork, California. The group includes crews from Los Angeles County, Los Angeles City, Salt Lake Unified Fire Authority and the Hayfork Fire Dept.

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.

Pizza was brought out to the fire line by Los Angeles City fire department members as a thank you to the Salt Lake Unified Fire Authority crew. They had battled the Fork Complex fires near near Hayfork, Calif., for three weeks with no time off.
Pizza was brought out to the fire line by Los Angeles City fire department members as a thank you to the Salt Lake Unified Fire Authority crew. They had battled the Fork Complex fires near near Hayfork, California, for three weeks with no time off.

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.”

Learn more about Mark Thiessen’s career being a photographer and firefighter in this post on Proof, and read more of his first-person account from the Fork Complex fires in our story: A Photographer Inside the Wildfires.

There are 45 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Tony
    January 5, 2016

    How do I get into the sawyer position

  2. Sharon Mayfield
    September 9, 2015

    Great pics. Both sons and daughter-in-law work for us forestry in Ca. All have looked like this many times over the years

  3. Deborah
    August 31, 2015

    Thank you all for your service and courageous dedication. Most of al; May God bless and keep you all safe!

  4. Edward
    August 30, 2015

    Really grate man of country!

  5. Debi Krein
    August 28, 2015

    You’re all hero’s! Thank you!

  6. Kimberly L
    August 26, 2015

    I love seeing all the firefighting photos! I am curious as to why there are never any photos of heavy equipment operators on the fire lines?

  7. Chad Gauthier
    August 25, 2015

    a firebug it is. I served on hotshot crews in Montana and California. What an experience, I would highly recommend it to anybody, male or female. I worked on hotshot crews and engine crews. Saw fire in Florida to Alaska. I was all over the west on fires, and I have to be honest, I saw some of the most beautiful country and Mother Nature in full on raging inferno. I loved every minute of it…. Then I got married. I am envious to this day of all these great people doing a job they love! Sierra hotshots and flathead hotshots!! Miss the faces and the places!

  8. Diane
    August 25, 2015

    Great photos and a great story, but you left out a very important piece. Women are also out there on the fireline and have been for years.

  9. Diego Andrade
    August 25, 2015

    You are the best thank you guys, for such incredible job, risking your lives for us … much appreciation goes to you.

  10. Joel sheppard. Aka shepp
    August 25, 2015

    I have a few really great pictures for you

  11. Keith balka
    August 25, 2015
  12. Susan
    August 24, 2015

    Great portraits, BUT…no women? Come on, we’re on the crews too!

  13. Paul Martin
    August 23, 2015

    I have a machine that will make these guys’ job a whole lot easier. I have a machine that will extinguish wildfires. I respect these guys more than I respect pro athletes. I really wish I could get this them without all the political b.s. I’m hoping NATGEO, that you contact me so that we figure out how to make this happen.

  14. Neil Scott
    August 23, 2015


    A beautiful article and photos, you indeed can see it in their eyes, locked in and on their game and so young, really incredible.
    We had the honor and privilege to have a LAFD crew here on our ranch the past few days protecting us and going into the fire lines to do the wild land firefighting they just learned. These true American heroes stayed behind when it came time to go home and trained up and gave their all for all of us refusing to go home because of their selfless dedication to duty and commitment to service. The best big city fire department guys in the world with the best wild land firefighters in the world with the US Forest Service who have saved our ranch four times now from wildfires taking enormous risks to protect all of us here.

    Cal Fire firefighters, pilots, inmate crews, dozer operators, National Guard on the ground and in the air, city and county firefighters from around our state and country, private fire crews and dozer crews, support crews giving their all for us and away from their families for weeks at a time, we are in awe of them and so very grateful that they are who they are.

    Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for saving our historic ranch, Williams Ranch, and our neighbors and the forest around us, you are all the best humanity has to offer in such dangerous and trying circumstances.
    Thank you to Trevor, Mark, Jeff, Chris, Roy, Dan, everyone involved for your heroism under fire, we’ll never forget you and your courage and compassion.
    Thank you also to the parents of these brave firefighters for lending them to us for awhile, you should be so very proud of the young men and women that you have raised.

    Neil and Janet Scott
    Williams Ranch
    Platina, Ca.

  15. Steve Stuebner
    August 23, 2015

    So cool to see Mark’s high-quality work evolve over time! I had the pleasure of working with Mark at the Statesman in Boise and covered lots of cool stories … I remember that he was so impressed with the toughness and grit of firefighters … That is definitely captured in these portraits!

  16. Susan
    August 22, 2015

    My son is the fire lookout at Plummer Peak. He was forced to leave his tower due to fire, last time that happened was 1987. Thanks to all the firefighters for keeping him safe.

  17. Brian Humphrey
    August 22, 2015

    The men and women of the Los Angeles Fire Department, and the people they proudly serve, remain indebted to the Salt Lake Unified Fire Authority crew mentioned in this story, and all who have so generously guided and inspired LAFD responders and others from across North America, as we worked together against Mother Nature’s fury at the Fork Complex wildfires. We can assure you that every lesson learned in the heat of battle will be taken back to communities like Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, where they will be put to use on a daily basis in protecting humanity from the oft unpredictable forces of man and nature.

  18. Bear Palomo
    August 22, 2015

    One of the best jobs for someone with an adventurous spirit and a love of a hard day’s work well done. Food never tastes so good and sleep is never quite as sound as on a wildland fire assignment. Good times and highly recommended for anyone 18-35 looking for an awesome summer experience with decent pay and priceless memories.

  19. Jessica
    August 22, 2015

    Just want to give a shout out to all you firefighters busting your butts working to keep others safe !!! I could not explain my thankfulness enough !! Your all rock & I am thankful for all your hard work !!! THANK YOU THANK YOU

  20. Jake Putnam
    August 22, 2015

    Excellent work, you captured the compelling, gritty nature of the fire line.

  21. Cheryl
    August 22, 2015

    my nephew is a wild land firefighter, my prayers go out to everyone of them. Thank you all for your courage and dedication to saving homes, lives and our wildlands. God Bless you.

  22. Julie Black
    August 22, 2015

    I know and love many people who fight the fire. The men and women that do this work are heroes every day. They dedicate themselves to the greater good, putting their own lives at risk to answer the call of people in need. They fight the fire with extraordinary skill, grit, bravery and determination. They are mighty. They are heroes. And I love them all. If you see a firefighter, thank them. They deserve your support. #followthemuse

  23. Jeanie Thiessen (Mom)
    August 21, 2015

    Mark, what an honor it is for me to see where you are now and your wonderful photos of those brave firefighters. You are always right in there with them where it’s burning hot and dangerous. Be safe, Mark, and all the rest of you incredibly courageous, indefatigable heroes of the forest.

  24. Kevin Wilson
    August 21, 2015

    I know Mason Lisonbee and he is a fine young man who puts his life on the line for our safety. He is dedicated to his trade and I pray daily for his and the other firefighter’s safety.

  25. UFA Wildland Wife
    August 21, 2015

    These men and women are truly extraordinary! They give up their summers with their families and risk their lives doing a job they love. As a wildland wife for six years I couldn’t be prouder of my husband and his crew. Salt Lake has an amazing wildland program. Thanks for sharing their story.

  26. Betty Habeck
    August 21, 2015

    Thank you for saving our wild lands for everyone!!!

  27. Cindy Blundell
    August 21, 2015

    I am in aww at these photos, the fire fighters eyes say it all. My son in law Christian Tucker is on the cover of this article. God bless all these men and women! Come home safe!

  28. Mike Hallinan
    August 21, 2015

    Thank you, Mark. I had the privilege of working with many a wild land firefighter for 23 seasons. The memories come back every year at this time. This year has been one of the worst I’ve ever seen and it’s not even close to being over. To all the hotshots, mopshots and everyone who supports their efforts Thank you and be careful out there.

  29. Marie
    August 21, 2015

    Stunning pictures of some amazing men! I just wanted to say thank you to these men a million times for putting your life on the line to keep us safe! We were watching the planes drop water and retardant on the Peak Fire in the Fork Complex last week & it was only because of your hard work that the Peak fire didn’t creep on up our road! Praying you all stay safe & return home to your families soon!

  30. Russ Lindsey
    August 21, 2015

    Best job I have ever had the opportunity to work. 3 seasons on an engine and 4 seasons on Helitack crew in Califonia and Nevada. The crew comrarderie can not be beaten, the hard work, fun, danger, thrill and exhaustion is unmeasurable. Stay safe out there guys!

  31. Rondi
    August 21, 2015

    Great job capturing the essense of the wildland firefighter. I have fought fire in Hayfork and your photoessay brought back memories. I could literally smell these guys while looking at the pics – that undeniable combination of wood smoke, pine pitch, Nomex and sweat that can only be created by many hours in the woods fighting fire.

  32. Shanen
    August 21, 2015

    Their eyes say it all. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing this part of the brave, hard working men and women on the line. They are all so amazing.

  33. Craig Erickson
    August 21, 2015

    Excellent in every way, the story, the photos, the description of the job and the guys. As a former firefighter, this brought back great memories of wildland fires and the guys that I was able to work with. And it’s a fact that the Salt Lake crews are some of the most respected crews that fight wildland fires.

  34. nines
    August 20, 2015

    Gorgeous portraits. Gorgeous.

  35. Christine Boyer-Price
    August 20, 2015

    Thank you Mark for capturing the endurance, difficulty, and bravery that wildland firefighting requires of an individual. My son Adam Myers is fighting the Fork Complex fire in Hayfork, and your pictures capture a story that I only could understand through seeing it with my eyes. Job well done!

  36. Pat Tucker Thomas
    August 20, 2015

    My son Christian Tucker has been on the SL Unified Fire Crew for at least 6 years. I stand in awe of all the hard work and long hours he and all the firefighters put in. Men AND women are dedicated, courageous, and extremely competent. I’m so proud of my son, and congratulations to all those who fight the fires. My heartfelt condolences to those families who have lost loved ones to the flames.

  37. Omnomnonimous
    August 20, 2015

    What’s left unsaid about how difficult what these guys do is how bloody HOT it is where they are working. Summers are always hot in most of inland California but this year in particular has just been brutal, with temps over 100°F nearly every day since the fires started. Most people would pass out from heat stroke within hours of even being out in the sun under those conditions. Now go back and look at what those guys are wearing. Imagine swinging a shovel all day under all that gear. They are nothing short of super-human.

  38. Brian Dameron
    August 20, 2015

    Thanks for sharing this story with the world. That Salt Lake Crew was incredible! I would work with them and Jay in a heart beat. Great article!

  39. Lynn Addison
    August 20, 2015

    I apologize for previous comment. All the action here: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/08/150820-fighting-forest-fires-first-person/

    • Coburn Dukehart
      August 20, 2015

      Thanks for re-posting that link Lynn – Mark does have amazing action photos from the fires on our News story. We just featured his portraits here on Proof to give them their own space. Best, Coburn

  40. Lynn Addison
    August 20, 2015

    Mark’s portraits are beautiful, as Mark’s photos always are. But why did editors choose only portraits and no shots of these wildland firefighters at work? Mark must have captured some truly remarkable pictures of action.

  41. James DeGering
    August 20, 2015

    Mark, great job on the insight and dedication you give on a profession that many of us love and few understand. Two of my sons, Michael and McKay DeGering, just returned after 21 days on the line of the fire you reported on. I am proud of my sons and the crews that sacrifice their summers to serve in these vital roles. And Mark, thanks for hanging with the crew from Salt Lake. They are at the top of their game.

  42. Trish
    August 20, 2015

    Thank you to All the fireman. You people are amazing. Thankful for your talents. Be careful. Prayers for your safty.

  43. Jay Walter
    August 20, 2015

    Stunning pictures and superbly told story Mark. Thank you for sharing with the world the difficult and dangerous work these men and women have done. It was an honor to work with and lead these amazing individuals. I am proud of each and every one of them and the work they have done. Great job Echo!

  44. Joan Churton
    August 20, 2015

    I am in awe of these young men. Thank you for doing this.

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