Barrel-Chested Sky Gods (and Goddesses) of the West

It’s the greatest job in the world, they pay you to go places you would go on vacation, give you a carnival ride to the ground, then drop in all your camping gear. – William “Billy” Martin (1956 -1991) [Photo by Drew Pattison]

The other week, after a lovely dinner downtown, my fellow tour guide looks out at the hazy horizon, inhales a deep breath of the smoky air and exclaims, “It smells like money out here.” Even though Allison doesn’t depend on fire activity for her season-end bonus, she was conditioned as a kid to equate fire weather with money. Her dad was a Smokejumper for 13 years and every time he left for a fire, Allison would share in her mother’s excitement knowing that fat paychecks were coming their way.<p>Smokejumping, or any other wildland firefighting job, has some nice perks. You work a rigorous schedule for about 5-6 months and all that acquired overtime and hazard pay keeps you cruising for the rest of the year. Some jumpers will supplement their income with teaching jobs, others will live the bona fide ski life, and still others will travel. For example, one Missoula jumper was a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia and returns to Africa every winter.<p>But of course the job isn’t very glamorous. Wildland firefighters wrestle with an unpredictable and ravenous beast of Nature. Wind, humidity levels, fuel type, and terrain are just a few factors that determine how “safe” a fire is, but isn’t “safe” just an illusion? In the case of the 19 hotshots who perished in Arizona this summer, what seemed like a relatively tame fire turned deadly in a matter of moments, fanned suddenly by a nearby imploding thunder cell. In other instances, blazing tree crowns aided by high winds can cause fire to race at speeds of more than 30 miles per hour. Entire mountainsides that have been primed by radiant heat can erupt, yes erupt, into flames in a few seconds. So even with fire-resistant clothing and an emergency fiberglass tent called a fire shelter, wildland firefighters are never really “safe” from the perils of fire.

Smokejumpers work to contain a quarter-acre fire. (Photo by Drew Pattison)

Both Smokejumpers and hotshots put themselves in a great deal of danger because they are the first line of defense when a fire breaks out. Smokejumpers are dispatched to small, remote fires, usually in wilderness areas and national forests, whereas hotshot crews are requested to help contain large and easily accessible fires. The scale and mission of the job may be different, but on the ground, both groups will furiously dig fire line, a dirt perimeter that will deprive the fire of its fuel source. It is incredibly taxing work. You don’t shower for days, you subsist mostly on freeze-dried and canned foods, you are sleep deprived, and for Smokejumpers, the end of your fire means an arduous pack-out – 120 lbs. of gear that needs to be hiked anywhere between 2-30 miles to the nearest road for pickup. Their jump gear alone weighs close to 80 lbs: two parachutes, a main and a reserve, a personal gear bag, and a Kevlar suit that has pockets stuffed to the brim with sleeping pads, tents, extra coffee, rope, etc. Once on the ground, the plane drops in the firefighting tools, food and water, but Smokejumpers are minimalists. They make excellent campers because they make do with as little as possible.

Smokejumpers Mike Dunn and Jamey Thomaston with their pack-out bags after a fire. (Photos by Drew Pattison and Brendan Quinn, respectively)

Smokejumpers could save themselves more than half their pack-out weight if they didn’t jump, but their bread and butter is attacking a fire just as it starts and keeping it small. And really, the quickest and most efficient way to do this is by falling out of the sky. In the time it takes a group of jumpers to lift-off, jump in and start digging line, a ground crew would be in the first stages of transit. Backcountry dirt roads, gulches, and mountainous terrains would prolong their journey even more. Plus, with over 2,000 hotshots at hand compared to a mere 400 jumpers, the Forest Service is better off utilizing hotshot crews at larger incidents. Thus, Smokejumpers are able to free up resources for higher priority fires and if they do their job well, save the government millions of dollars in suppression expenses. As dangerous and tough as it is, wildland firefighters love what they do. The esprit de corps is akin to what you’d find in a military platoon and the fruits of their labor are tangible and present right away. Most are also outdoor enthusiasts. This job takes them to the deepest parts of the wilderness and they become witnesses to some of the most unadulterated experiences of Nature available. They acknowledge and submit to the sheer power and the tragic beauty of this natural world – a lesson we could probably use a little bit more of in the pursuit of protecting and conserving this Earth.

The PLF: Parachute Landing Fall (Photo by moi!)