In March 2013, Washington DC-based portrait photographer Ryan Donnell shot one of his most interesting subjects to date. Sent to Niobrara Valley Preserve in northern Nebraska by The Nature Conservancy, Ryan spent two days with former hotshot Jeremy Bailey—an expert in creating “good fire”—as well as other experienced hotshot firefighters for a hot assignment.
Attracted to The Nature Conservancy’s mission and sleek publication, Ryan was excited to tackle this project. He was also intrigued by the idea of spending time with elite firefighters in a part of the country he had yet to explore. So, Ryan packed up his gear and headed to rural Nebraska, an area so remote that cellphones don’t get reception—making coordination of the shoot a bit of a pain. The off-the-beaten-path locale also made finding a local assistant a challenge.
Once at the Reserve, with an assistant from Omaha and a shoot scheduled entirely via email, Ryan met Jeremy and several other firefighters. The group was gathered in Nebraska for a workshop on prescription fire. After the firefighters had a fire raging, Ryan, being new to the whole wildfire business, naively asked Jeremy to pose atop the recently scorched earth.
Ryan soon realized this wasn’t such a great idea:
Within fifteen minutes, we’d blown up one light (sorry to assistant Patrick Geske for the shocking experience), caught our subject on fire, and were left choking and hacking from ash and smoke.
I was about ready to quit. It’s hard to tell how hot a fire is by looking at a photograph. I will tell you that while standing 10-feet from these prescribed fires, within a few seconds I felt like I had an intense sunburn.
Ryan adds that he can’t imagine dealing with what these hotshots handle on a regular basis.
These men often hike twenty miles, over rugged terrain, in 100-degree heat to battle fires with deafening flames reaching 200-feet tall. Add to that giant boulders crashing down the side of mountain, whilst on fire, and you might get a sense of what it’s like to be a hotshot firefighter. It takes a special person to put themselves in that position—crazy, brave, selfless, all the above.
The experience taught Ryan a lot, including just how “hardy and brave” these men are—and how much they “love to have a great time, work hard, and drink the whiskey that photographers bring to multi-day shoots.” He’s proud of the images he created and happy The Nature Conservancy liked them so much. He’s also happy to be out of the heat.