MONTROSE - In one picture, Montrose firefighter Josh Hill has just been doused with red fire retardant from an air tanker drop, and finds the humor in it. Another photo shows red retardant falling from the sky with a hash tag "#headup." The images, shot by Hill on the job, are a visual record of his journey as a veteran wildland firefighter. And the 2013 season has been one for the books.
Hill, 30, spent his entire summer in California "jumping from fire to fire.” Severe drought there triggered some of the largest fires in history.
"They say you gotta be either liquid or flexible" in order to survive, Hill said of the work.
Speaking from a hotel outside Truckee, Ca. late Tuesday night, Hill was looking forward to the prospect of spending his first night in a bed in over a week.
"I enjoy camping out. You get really dirty and there isn't much you can do about it," he said. "But a bed is nice.”
Hill is a member of U.S. Forrest Service Helitack crew (helicopter 523), based in Kernville, Calif. this summer. Fighting a fire with ‘helitack’ means using helicopter-delivered firefighters and resources in remote locations to help with containment and suppression.
Earlier this week, Hill’s crew was battling the American Fire, located in the foothills east of Truckee in Placer County. The fire had reached 25,520 acres, and been 92 percent contained, as of press time. Later this week, Hill and his crew would be on their way to their next fire – in Nevada.
Before that, Hill’s crew had been battling the Rim fire in Yosemite National Park. At last tally, that fire had spread to encompass 281-square miles. A total of 3,700 firefighters were trying to contain it, both on the ground and in the air.
In a month, Hill expects to be somewhere in Idaho or Montana for what he describes as those state’s "peak burn seasons."
Hill, a native of Colorado, moved to Montrose from Denver when he was 13 years old. He left Montrose High School early to attend military school. When he graduated, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, and was deployed twice with the Paratrooper with 82nd Airborne Infantry Division to Iraq and Afghanistan.
After leaving the Army, Hill attended a school to study fire suppression in Portland Ore., while "trying to figure out" what he wanted to do. A chance encounter with a Hot Shot team leader landed him a job. A week later, he was a wildland firefighter.
"’You got a job if you want one, buddy,’" Hill recalled the team leader saying. Since then, Hill has been traveling from fire to fire every season for the past seven years.
"Right then and there I fell in love with wildland fire. It was the missing link from the military for me. The tough work, the excitement and camaraderie was just like the Army. I traded my rifle for an axe," he said.
Hill's job on his Helitack crew is to fly into a fire area, deploy, and begin building containment lines, as well as work with a hovering helicopter to coordinate water drops from a dangling bucket.
"When an engine can't get there, they send in a helicopter with about seven guys," he said.
Due to the severity of the drought in California, his crew has spent nearly its entire summer battling fires there.
"We have yet to leave California," he said Tuesday.
Hill says he has always loved photography. He used to take large cameras into the field only to see them destroyed by dust and smoke.
Now, in the digital age, he photographs fires with his iPhone. Hill says he doesn't know many firefighters with Instagram accounts. Yet he has amassed hundreds of followers online with his near-professional style of taking pictures from within the fire lines.
"I'm not an experienced photographer, but I really do try. I like to think I have a good eye," Hill said.
He said many of his crew members will harass him about taking pictures, but once a large air tanker flies in, they beg to see his dramatic shots of the retardant “drops.”
"They give me so much sh*t. I take pride in some of the pictures I take," he said.
Hill said that since becoming a wildland firefighter, he has seen a noticeable difference in fire behavior over the years. In particular, he believes, the extreme drought in California over the past 10 years, combined with global warming, and (bark beetle devastation) has made fires "incredibly dangerous."
He said the loss of 19 members of the Prescott Fire Department's Granite Mountain Hotshots in Prescott, Az. has forced each crew to focus more on safety.
"After that happened, every wildland fire crew went back to their training. It was a huge lesson learned. It’s a shame we have to learn them through tragedies," Hill said.
Once fire season is over, Hill looks forward to returning to Montrose. He wants to enroll in flight school and learn to fly helicopters.
"I call Montrose home," he said.
Follow Hill's Instagram feed at www.instagram.com/woodsman82#.