The Smokejumpers

When wildfires break out, this elite team parachutes into dangerous places to fight them

Mark Jenkins from National Geographic Updated: Oct 12, 2020 16:32:41 IST
The Smokejumpers A smokejumper drops towards a landing site near a smouldering boreal forest in Alaska. (All photographs by Mark Thiessen)

The sun is still high in the Alaskan summer  sky when the call comes in at 9:47 p.m. Sirens wail, and eight smokejumpers race to the suit-up racks. Already in logger’s boots, dark green pants and bright yellow shirts, each man practically leaps into his Kevlar jumpsuit.

“First load to the box!” a voice blares over the intercom. Itchy, Bloemker, O’Brien, Dibert, Swisher, Koby, Swan, Karp and Cramer are the men at the top of the jump list. All evening they’ve mostly been hanging around the operations desk at their base at Fort Wainwright, cracking jokes and razzing each other, anxiously and excitedly waiting for their turn to leap out of a plane to fight a backcountry forest fire.

Now they have exactly two minutes to suit up and be on the plane. It’s a much-practised routine: Their hands fly nimbly around, strapping on kneepads and shin guards, zipping into jumpsuits and buckling into heavy nylon harnesses. The jumpsuits are pre-packed with gear—a cargo pocket on one pant leg is stuffed with a solar panel and raincoat. The pocket on the other leg holds energy bars and a 150-foot rope, plus a rappel device in case of a treetop landing. An oversized butt pouch contains a tent and a sack for the parachute.

Other smokejumpers quickly surround them, helping the men put on their main parachutes and reserve chutes. Then each man grabs his jump helmet—fitted with a cage-like mask to protect his face during a descent through branches—and his personal gear bag, which holds a litre of water, leather gloves, hard hat, flares for lighting backfires, knife, compass, radio and special aluminium sack that serves as a last-resort fire shelter.

Two minutes after the siren, they are waddling on to the tarmac, each laden with nearly 45 kilos of equipment and supplies. They appear awkwardly overstuffed, but every man carries a carefully curated, time-tested kit of the essential items a smokejumper needs to fight and survive a fire in some of the world’s most remote and rugged forests.

The twin turbines of a Dornier 228 cargo plane roar to life as the bulging khaki figures totter single file up through the side door and into the plane’s belly, which is packed with pallets of fire-fighting equipment that will be dropped with them. The plane lifts off, and the dispatcher radios the coordinates of the fire. Time en route: one hour 28 minutes.

Photographed by team member Mike McMillan, one of the crew aims for a landing near the tail of the fire—where it started close to a group of cottages. The billowing smoke column signals a rapidly spreading ‘gobbler’, a wildfire that’s “off to the races,” McMillan says.

It’s too loud for talk, so the men sit silently, each alone with his thoughts behind his face mask. They don’t know where they’re going or how long they’ll be gone. They don’t know how big the fire is or how dangerous the winds will be. They know only that they’re going into battle with one  of nature’s most savage and unpredictable forces.

When the spotter, Bill Cramer, raises his hand to wordlessly call for a “pin check,” each man executes a final multipoint equipment check of his jump partner.

They are flying above the Arctic Circle on the southern edge of the Brooks Range when they spot a plume of smoke rising from the dark forest, the result of a lightning strike. Cramer opens the jump door and leans out into the slipstream for an assessment: “Fire number 320, 15 acres, 70 per cent active, burning black spruce with caribou lichen understory, 11 structures on north and west shores of Iniakuk Lake, 2.4 kms west.”

smokejumpers-2_092520063356.jpgA wing-mounted camera shows firefighters jumping from a height of about 3,000 feet.

The pilot circles at 1,500 feet. Cramer identifies the jump site and drops three paper streamers. Three bright stripes—yellow, blue and orange—unfurl in the sky, allowing him to assess wind speed and direction.

“Get in the door,” Cramer shouts. The first man on the jump list, Jeff McPhetridge, 49, known as Itchy, dangles his feet out of the plane. “Get ready!” Cramer shouts, and a moment later slaps him on the shoulder. McPhetridge hurls himself from the plane. Three smokejumpers follow. On the second pass, the remaining four men fall into the sky. Their red, white and blue chutes circle over the flaming forest like tiny moths riding the drafts above a campfire, each man manoeuvring his wing in the wind. One by one, the smokejumpers fly towards the smoke.

The eight men descending from the sky can trace their professional lineage to a lightning bolt that hit a tree just east of Yellowstone National Park in August of 1937. The strike ignited a small fire that began crawling its way through the forest and eventually grew into the infamous Blackwater Fire, killing 15 firefighters and consuming 1,700 acres. A US Forest Service investigation concluded that the only way to avoid such tragedies was for firefighters to attack backcountry fires when they are still small.

In the 1930s, the Forest Service began testing the viability of parachuting small teams into remote areas, and on 12 July 1940, the first smokejumpers were deployed on to the Marten Creek Fire in Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest. Over the next several decades, the Forest Service created seven smokejumper bases, and the Bureau of Land Management established two, including the one in Alaska. Today, roughly 450 active smokejumpers are dispatched to wildland fires from these bases.

“Those early years proved that getting men on a fire when it was the size of your living room, rather than thousands of acres, saved money, forests, lives and private property,” says Chuck Sheley, a retired jumper and vice president of the National Smokejumper Association. “The same principle still applies today.”

Over time, debate has arisen over the need for smokejumpers in most parts of the United States as development has spread into previously remote areas. Now 90 per cent of fires start within 800 mts of a road, and most can be accessed by vehicles. But in the massive Alaskan interior the vast majority of the land is accessible only by aircraft. Many remote fires are allowed to burn, but when a fire threatens lives and property, smokejumpers remain the front-line troops.

Alaska smokejumper training is among the most demanding in the world. Of the up to 200 people who apply each year, roughly 10 are selected for rookie training. The most competitive applicants have five to 10 years of wildland firefighting experience and can do 60 sit-ups, 35 push-ups, 10 pull ups, run 2.5 kms in nine minutes and 30 seconds (or 5 kms in less than 22 minutes and 30 seconds), and carry a 50-kilo pack for 5 kms in less than 55 minutes. Each smokejumper must pass a version of this test annually to keep his or her job. (Currently all 64 Alaska smokejumpers are men, though over the years there have been seven women.)

smokejumpers-3_092520063737.jpgSmokejumpers use beaters—strips of hard rubber on flexible shafts—to pound burning moss and tussock grass down into the moss, which is damp from melted permafrost.

“We only choose people who can perform under stress,” says Robert Yeager, a former rookie trainer. “People who can control their nerves, their anxiety and their adrenaline; people who are willing to accept life-or-death challenges.”

Those accepted to the five-week training course already know how to fight fires, but they have to learn advanced parachute skills—how to quickly and accurately calibrate and account for numerous variables that constantly change: the wind, the terrain, the state of the parachute, the landing zone. Rookies make at least 20 practice jumps, which are filmed and critiqued. Forty per cent of the trainees don’t make the cut.

But those who pass become members of an elite fraternity that includes Willi Unsoeld, one of the first Americans to summit Mount Everest; Stuart Roosa, the Apollo 14 command module pilot; Ken Sisler, an intelligence officer killed in Vietnam who was awarded the Medal of Honor; and Deanne Shulman, who in 1981 became the first woman to join.

The smokejumpers land less than 150 feet from the blaze now labelled Fire 320, tumbling on to their hips to absorb the impact. Within minutes they have packed their parachutes. The pallets with firefighting equipment—chainsaws, shovels, beaters, Pulaskis (combination axe-adze tools)—are dropping into the landing zone. The men barely have time to open the boxes before the wind shifts.

“Suddenly the wind was coming out of the south, rather than the north,” McPhetridge, the designated incident commander, tells me later. “We were concerned the fire might flank us.”

The men don’t have time to gather the cargo chutes. Instead they go straight to the fire. Flames are shooting up spruce trees and igniting the brittle caribou moss. Smoke is pouring through the forest. The men begin pounding the edge of the fire with their beaters—poles with thick rubber strips on the ends—but it has been a dry summer, and the caribou moss is a 15-cm bed of prime tinder. They knock it down, but the flames pop right back up. “It wasn’t going to go out without water,” McPhetridge says. The men run to a nearby creek and fill up four 20-litre bladders using their hard hats. Evan Karp, 36, a hulk of a jumper with a thick, untamed beard, sets up a pump and begins laying hose as the rest of the men race back to the fire.McPhetridge gives no commands or orders. “Everybody knew exactly what to do,” he says later. “That’s the beauty of the unit.”

While one jumper operates the water pump, filling and refilling the bladders, four men attack the left flank and three attack the right flank. The men move along the edge of the fire, pounding the flames, spraying water, choking on smoke.

The jumpers dig trenches, cut trees and empty and refill the bladders non-stop. By 3 a.m., after several hours of back-breaking work, they’ve completed the fire perimeter. With blackened hands and faces, the men crawl into their sleeping bags for a few hours of sleep. They’re back on the fire line at 7 a.m. Some use chainsaws to cut down green trees to expand the fire line around the smouldering black edge of the blaze; others are digging with their Pulaskis.

The initial attack is over, and McPhetridge walks the perimeter of the fire. It’s only 33 acres, tiny compared with the huge fires that make headlines in the lower 48 states. But left unchecked, it could have burned perhaps tens of thousands of acres. He calls the fire dispatcher with an update and is told headquarters is pulling his team out. A crew of firefighters drawn from local Alaska native communities will be helicoptered in for the final mop-up duty. They will go over every square yard of the ‘black’, digging and dousing, making sure the fire is completely out.

Just before 9 p.m. the day after they parachuted in, the eight smokejumpers are helicoptered 80 kms to Bettles, a tiny village deep in the Alaskan  interior. Mission accomplished.

Or so they think.

smokejumpers-4_092520063626.jpgIn another Alaska fire, incident commander Ty Humphrey communicates with a pilot while crew members free a parachute from a tree where equipment was dropped.

Two bad things happen after the smokejumpers are pulled off of Fire 320. First, the equipment for the Alaska native crew is delayed in Fairbanks, so they never make it to the fire scene to do the mop-up. Second, winds sweep down from the north and breathe new life on the embers. The fire starts to blow up, and the afternoon after leaving the area, the smokejumpers helicopter back in. By the time they’re on the ground in mid-afternoon, the fire has spread across 150 acres, and they call in reinforcements. Another load of eight smokejumpers drops in, and together the 16 men begin to cut a line along the reborn fire’s left flank, using the Iniakuk River to hold the right flank.

But because of the dry conditions and abundance of the brittle caribou moss, the blaze can’t be beaten into submission. Without lots of water, it won’t go out. The smokejumpers call in the Fire Bosses—crop dusting–style planes equipped to carry 3,000 litres—to bomb the flames. They zoom in low and release their loads of water, then circle back to Iniakuk Lake, glide over its turquoise surface at 130 kph, scoop up another 3,000 litres and return to drop it on the fire.

Still, the flames persist. The fire is now burning so hot that it reignites right after a drenching. Fanned by the winds, it gains momentum, flowing like molten lava into green timber. Bigger scooper planes are called in, CL-415s, which can release 6,000 litres at a time, along with a helicopter with a huge water bucket hanging from a long line. While multiple aircraft fly successive water-bombing missions, the men on the ground race to cut a defensible fire line north through the forest—chainsawing trees, mowing down the underbrush, pounding out flames. By 10 p.m., seven hours after jumping in for the second time, they have tied the north end of the left flank into the curving Iniakuk River.

Around midnight the smokejumpers withdraw to a campsite near the fire. Their faces are blackened with ash, their eyes raw, their bodies battered. Each man wearily cooks his dinner over the campfire. They have ready-to-eat military meals as well as cans of chilli, tins of sardines and loads of energy bars. But the speciality is Spam (tinned ham), slow-fried with fresh onions and peppers over scarlet coals.

smokejumpers-5_092520063917.jpgA Fire Boss plane dumps water to help the crew fighting Fire 320. This plane can scoop up and drop 3,000 litres of water from a nearby lake every few minutes.

The men swat mosquitoes and squint into the fire. Their clothes are caked with salt from sweat, but someone is always willing to tell a story. Like the time David Bloemker dislocated his shoulder. The season had ended in Alaska, and he was down in Montana parachuting on a fire in Kootenai National Forest.

“Then the wind just died and there was a log I hadn’t seen, in a bad spot,” says Bloemker, 45, who’s spent two decades as a smokejumper. “I came in too fast. My toe caught on a tussock of beargrass. Smashed my shoulder and blew out my labrum. Had to hike to where a helicopter could land, maybe a couple of kilometres.”

The men nod silently; most have already heard this tale. The stories serve as more than just entertainment—they’re a way for smokejumpers to teach each other. The real-world lessons of fighting unpredictable fires in remote wilderness are too numerous to fit into a couple years of training. Freakish wind changes, embers of old fires that survive winter only to ignite in spring, parachute malfunctions, backup-parachute malfunctions, chainsaw mishaps, colleagues who never made it home from their last deployment—these and hundreds more are gleaned over long careers and passed on by exhausted firefighters around campfires such as this one.

Bloemker stands up, dumps the remains of his tin cup into the fire and adjusts the .44-calibre Smith & Wesson on his belt. The revolver prompts another story.

“We were deep in the interior near Bear Lake, funny enough. We’d heard there was a habituated bear in the area, breaking into cabins. When we got off the fire and back to camp, we could tell a bear had messed with our gear. The next day the bear came back and tore into one of our tents. We started up a chainsaw and scared it away. That evening the bear came back again, but this time we couldn’t scare him away. He started getting aggressive, stalking some of the guys through the trees. He made a false charge. Then he made a second false charge. On the third aggressive move I braced myself in the notch of a tree and shot him between the eyes.”

The story is a reminder that fire isn’t the only adversary in the backcountry. But by this time some of the grimy men are fast asleep.

The smokejumpers are back on Fire 320 at 7 a.m., but during the night the winds have shifted again. The fire has exploded to 600 acres. The flames are now throwing embers hundreds of feet into the air and across the river. It is quickly decided that the far side of the river is indefensible, so the men start cutting a line south to tie up the left flank. They toil for hours, breathing smoke, spitting ash, sweating through their filthy clothes.

But ‘Big Ernie’, the smokejumpers’ name for the fickle god of forest fires, has a twisted sense of humour. Just as they’re getting close to anchoring the left flank to the river, winds sweep the fire south along the unprotected opposite bank, then shift to blow embers west back across the river, planting a new ‘spot fire’ behind the men, one that threatens to surround them.

The smokejumpers must remain hyper-vigilant to such changes, McPhetridge says. “You can’t control the winds. You can get killed.”

The spot fire rapidly spreads in all directions. Most of the men shift southwards in an attempt to circle the spot. Two men with chainsaws are cutting everything in sight along the edge of the flames. Some of the crew are dragging the unburnt trunks into the green areas to deprive the fire of additional fuel. Others are pounding the flames along the black with beaters. The Fire Bosses roar overhead every four minutes, dropping water. The men step back but still get drenched.

After hours of frantic work, the northern and western edges of the new spot fire are almost under control, but the flames are now howling southwards on a northern wind. The 16 smokejumpers just can’t get ahead of the fire. Their only option is to pull out before it cuts off their escape route.

smokejumpers-6_092520063956.jpgA smokejumper returns from a fire.

The next day the fire will grow to 1,500 acres. The smokejumpers are forced to move from offence to defence. One of the veteran jumpers laments his crew being pulled off the fire before it was completely extinguished. “We’d caught it at 33 acres,” he says. Smokejumpers ruefully call this ‘catch and release’. Their only goal now is to protect the few cabins and a lodge on Iniakuk Lake. Using Zodiac watercraft, they shuttle fire hoses, water pumps, and sprinklers to each structure on the lake. The pumps are set in the lake and the sprinklers set to protect the roofs of the cabins.

Jeff Poor owns the cabin closest to the fire. The scraggly old trapper, who was once from the US east coast but “went as far away as I could possibly get,” and built his cabin in 1976. “More’n happy to see these smokejumpers!” says Poor, who sells his pelts—wolf, marten, lynx—to Russian buyers. “Always happy to have the help.”

Pat Gaedeke, who with her husband built the lodge at the end of the lake in 1974, is the one who initially called in the fire. She is beside herself with joy. “I can’t believe all the resources they’re using to help us,” she says.

Eventually, after dozens of sprinklers and thousands of feet of hose are deployed, each structure is protected inside a half-circle of plumbing that can thoroughly soak the property and prevent it from burning.

The smokejumpers are back at their camp by 10 p.m. Exhausted, they sprawl around the campfire. Cans of peaches are passed around, and the men pull out the slippery halves with their blackened fingers. A chunk of cheese is making the rounds; each man lops off a portion with his knife. “Hey, you guys remember when ...” and someone starts a story.

The eight smokejumpers on the initial attack ended up spending 16 days on the Iniakuk Lake fire before being relieved. The fire burned more than 36,000 acres, but all the structures in the area were saved. “The fire burned all summer and was still burning when we left in September,” says Pat Gaedeke. “Mother Nature finally put it out when it began to snow.”

From National Geographic (May 2019), Copyright ©2019 by National Geographic
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