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“During fire season, the smoke diffuses the sun, and it transforms the landscape by making it darker and de-saturated,” the photographer Alexis Joy Hagestad tells me. “It gets extremely smoky–to the point where your eyes burn. As a firefighter, you smell like smoke all the time. At the end of the season, usually, all of my clothes, my sunglasses, and even hair will smell like smoke weeks to months after leaving a fire.”

As a young child in Montana, witnessing the wrath of wildfires, Hagestad feared fire. In middle school, she met the man who would become her father, a firefighter named Dan Martin. “My mom was the first out of our family to be a wildland firefighter,” she says. “She would go out in the summers with Dan.” She worried about her mom’s safety, but she was also proud. She still remembers visiting a fire camp and seeing her mother “decked out in her PPE (personal protective equipment)” for the first time: a yellow shirt, green pants, and fire boots. 

Dan Martin officially adopted Hagestad and her sister in 2018 after they gave him adoption papers as a Christmas gift. “We asked him to ‘adult-adopt’ us,” she remembers. In turn, he gifted them with his family legacy: his father had been a firefighter and Chief, and Martin himself has now been a wildland firefighter for three decades. Today, he owns a private Montana firefighting company, Aries Fire Service. 

Hagestad followed in her dad’s footsteps and began her training after graduating from college in 2016. “To be a wildland firefighter, you have to be trained, and there are different levels of training depending on your status as a wildland firefighter,” she explains. “Like other career paths, you can take more classes and become more experienced in the field. The best experiences happen from just being out on the fire line and learning from people who have come before you and have more experience.”

She’s been documenting her work as part of the ongoing series In the Amber Season, currently a work in progress. 

On the job, Hagestad’s routine can change from day to day. “Usually, you spend your days doing specific tasks that have been assigned to you,” she says. “This can include anything from running pumps to mopping up (cleaning up residual fire so it does not cross over the fire line). Wildland can be really unpredictable, so your day can vary depending on the situation at hand.”

Even if she’s no longer afraid of fire, she still respects it. “Wildland firefighting can be a very dangerous job,” she admits. “I believe being educated and understanding fire behavior, as well as the inherent risks that come with firefighting, is the best thing you can do. Firefighters are extensively trained in this area. We take safety very seriously, which is why we are always practicing situational awareness.” 

On the fire line, every sense is heightened, from the scent of smoke to the sounds of the fire. “There is a lot of crackling from fire as well as snapping from the falling of distant trees,” the artist says. “Some of the most notable sounds are that of chainsaws, engine back-up beepers, and the iconic ‘humming’ of a Mark 3 pump.”

Ultimately, the experience is worth the risks. “The best part of the job is you get to be outside, even if the air quality isn’t the best,” Hagestad tells me. There’s also a community and camaraderie shared by the crews, and she’s found a sense of kinship on the fire line. It’s a feeling of belonging that reaches back to her childhood, when she first met Dan Martin.

“I think the most powerful memories are the ones where I watch Dan in action,” she reveals. “He is so knowledgeable and passionate about firefighting; it’s truly incredible. I am very grateful to be able to learn from him and watch him follow his passions and love for firefighting.” Naturally, he’s made his way into many of her pictures. 

In January of last year, Hagestad’s dad had a heart attack. “It was really scary, and it scared my whole family,” she tells me. “But it reminded us all how fleeting life is. I was originally just taking photographs of wildland for the fun of it– just to document my time out there. When he had his heart attack, I went home to take care of him during his recovery. While taking care of him, I looked back on all of the images I had taken, and I realized the story of In the Amber Season wasn’t just about wildland firefighting. It was about him and our relationship.”

As the project evolves, Hagestad plans to create more portraits of her dad. “I think he trusts me to tell this story because he knows it’s a story about my healing journey as well as his,” she admits. “It may seem like an odd way to heal for some, but being a wildland firefighter and working with Dan has really helped me rediscover my relationship with the father-figure.”

All images © Alexis Joy Hagestad

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