At six o'clock in the morning, a warm August day is breaking
above tinder-dry mountains near Missoula, Mont. A fire siren
howls through the cavernous halls and across the tarmac of the
U.S. Forest Service smoke-jumper base, calling the next 10
jumpers to duty. A baritone voice resonates through the
loudspeakers: "Cunningham, Chandler, Wright, Sanders,
Simonsen, Wolferman, Archibald, Putzker, Sleznick, Whitmire."
They've been on the base since five, summoned the night before
to an early roll call, though some got the message only awhile
ago, after partying late at the nearby Forest Lounge. The
jumpers run to the "ready room," a giant cloakroom with one wall
open to the tarmac, and suit up.
This is an article from the Sept. 4, 1995 issue
First they set aside their Birkenstock and river sandals and
lace on lug-soled logger boots that reach 10 inches up their
shins and weigh two pounds each. Then, over fire-resistant
yellow shirts and green slacks, they zip on ocher-colored padded
jumpsuits made of Kevlar, the material used in bulletproof
vests. They step into body harnesses made of green nylon
webbing. Onto these each will mount two parachutes: a
32-foot-diameter canopy on the back and a 26-foot-diameter
reserve chute on the chest. They pack their bright-orange
personal-gear bags with 20 pounds of food, hard hats, emergency
fire shelters and flares. They fill the kangaroo pockets on the
lower legs of their jumpsuits with bagels, tortillas,
paperbacks, bottles of frozen water and 150-foot nylon-web ropes
they use to rappel out of trees. They grab extra batteries for
their radios and squeeze green foam earplugs into the top
buttonholes of their shirts. When they are done, each jumper is
wearing about 80 pounds of equipment and clothing.
After selecting their parachutes from a stack piled high on a
dolly, they safety-check each other, examining and adjusting
every clasp and buckle like a pride of big cats at grooming
time. "I never use a chute packed by somebody I party with,"
says Sonny Soto as he mounts a chute on the back of Tony Sleznick.
When all is fitted properly, the jumpers march onto the tarmac,
where the roar of the plane's engines swallows their voices.
With their padded collars pulled high around their ears, hands
gloved in green fire-resistant nylon and motorcycle helmets
fitted with wire face cages tucked under their arms, they look
like astronauts just before liftoff.
Once aboard the Shorts C-23A Sherpa--a military transport plane
with the door removed--they nod off among the cargo boxes,
napping to the drone of the turboprop engines. Ten minutes after
the siren sounded, the Sherpa wheels down the runway. The
jumpers don't know what they will find when they get to the
remote Soupy Ridge fire, caused by a lightning strike just west
of the Bob Marshall Wilderness in northwest Montana. Nor do they
know how long they will be gone. That, they say, is part of the
In this country's annual war on forest fires, smoke jumpers are
paratroopers, dropping into fires so remote and in such rugged
terrain that ground firefighters can't reach them. In the entire
nation there are only 400 members of this fire fighting elite,
15 of them women. Together they form a close-knit, iconoclastic
subculture that they feel the rest of the world should envy.
Self-described adrenaline junkies and daredevils who stare down
death every day, the jumpers call themselves Fire Gods, and they
are, in fact, Olympians of a certain kind. They pursue wildfire
like athletes, and preparing for their summer fire season is
like training for a triathlon. Many were high school and college
standouts in basketball, football or track and field.
"We're in a class of our own," says Gary (Beny) Benavidez, the
Missoula base manager, who still jumps fires at age 44 and who
has trained firefighters in both the U.S. and Latin America. In
his high school days in Bayard, N.Mex., Benavidez was a
decathlete, a wide receiver and a 12-foot pole vaulter. He likes
to brag that the doctors who treat smoke jumpers say they've
never seen so many middle-aged people in such good shape. "Our
physical requirements are above that of any football or
basketball player," says Benavidez. "Put a pro ballplayer on the
fire line with us, and we'd drop him in his tracks."
Even when they aren't fighting fires, jumpers push their bodies
constantly. They rock climb, kayak, paraglide and telemark
ski--any activity that tests their limits. Many of them spend
winters studying for or working in sports-related professions
such as exercise physiology. Or they climb the Andes or the
Alps, backpack across Asia or sail the oceans.
Their resulting level of fitness is only what their job demands
of them. In fierce heat and choking smoke, they must dig
trenches, hurl debris and fell trees, sometimes for 48 hours at
a stretch. They subsist on freeze-dried food or Army rations,
sleep on rocky ground, then get up and crawl on their hands and
knees in ashes, cold-trailing a fire to make sure it is out,
until their faces are black with soot. In the event of a
"blowup" or other extreme fire behavior, their survival may
depend on the power and endurance of their lungs and legs. When
jumpers are ready to leave a fire, they pack up all their tools
and camping gear, putting as much as 110 pounds on their backs,
and trudge out of the wilderness on foot, sometimes traveling
for days over rough terrain with no trail.
For all this, smoke jumpers earn about $9.30 to $14 an hour,
with no job security or benefits. They also have no personal
lives, spending the summer "in shackles," as one veteran
describes it. "The divorce rate is over 100 percent--if you count
second marriages," says Jim Hedges, who quit jumping in 1992 to
spend more time with his wife and children. (He is now divorced.)
The appeal of smoke jumping is mystifying. Yet the Missoula base
alone--one of nine in the West--receives some 240 applications a
year from aspirants. Some veterans have been active since the
1960s and will leave only when they reach the mandatory
retirement age of 55.
"We're like a big family," says Rob Putzker, 41, who speaks in
the soft, slow drawl peculiar to Montana cowboys. Putzker, an
ex-ranch manager, returned to smoke jumping a few years ago
after a 10-year hiatus because he missed the company of his
colleagues. "We depend on each other for our lives, we work side
by side for days, sleep in the dirt together. We don't have any
secrets from each other."
It's Aug. 10, 1994, and it has been the kind of fire season a
smoke jumper lives for, a "great" season, they say; an "active"
season, their supervisors admonish. Every night, dry lightning
has ignited thousands of remote wilderness fires, the jumpers'
specialty. Fire conditions are the driest in 15 years--one fire
scientist has compared hiking in the forest to walking on
gunpowder--turning even normally damp bear grass into a volatile
fuel. Thousands of columns of smoke forming dark mushroom clouds
rise 30,000 feet over the landscape from Montana to New Mexico.
It has also been a season smoke jumpers have died for. On July
6, 1994, 14 firefighters died on Storm King Mountain near
Glenwood Springs, Colo., when they were engulfed by flames up to
300 feet high and temperatures reaching 2,000 degrees as the
South Canyon fire, whipped by sudden 45-mph winds, roared over
them and chased most of the 35 surviving firefighters over a
ridge in 30 seconds. Among the dead were three smoke jumpers.
One, Don Mackey, 34, was from the Missoula base.
It was the first time smoke jumpers had died in a fire since
Montana's Mann Gulch fire took 13 lives in 1949. Those deaths
were also the result of a blowup from sudden afternoon winds.
The jumpers were sure they'd learned the lessons of Mann Gulch,
but perhaps they had also come to believe their own mythology.
Federal investigators concluded that the Storm King victims lost
their lives because they made a downhill attack on a fire
burning uphill amid highly flammable Gambel oak.
The anger that report inspired at the Missoula base was
partially assuaged by another investigation, by the Occupational
Safety and Health Administration, which determined that
responsibility for the Storm King deaths lay squarely on the
shoulders of two federal agencies--the Forest Service and the
Bureau of Land Management--that had not provided their crews with
adequate weather and fire-behavior information.
Despite the losses, the survivors of the South Canyon fire threw
themselves back into the flames. Fire became therapy. "It was
such a shock," says Bob Hurley, 40, a jumper for nine years who
was in Colorado when the firefighters died. "The only way to
deal with it is to go back out and fight fire."
From the shadowy interior of the Sherpa, Putzker watches his
squad leader, Bob Cunningham, 43, and Tom Carlsen, 47, the
spotter (a smoke jumper who finds a place for his colleagues to
land and drops their cargo) check out a possible jump spot.
Cunningham and Carlsen are on their bellies, their heads out the
doorway, their faces white in the early light and flattened by
the blowing of the slipstream.
Putzker, a physical-therapy student at the University of Montana
in Missoula and a jumper since 1974, is a little nervous. For
him the season is just beginning. He sprained his foot during
refresher training in April and has been stuck at the Missoula
base--packing and repairing parachutes, filling cargo boxes and
sweeping floors--ever since.
But yesterday his doctor gave him the go-ahead. Now, as the
plane banks around Soupy Ridge, where a 50-acre fire is dancing
and playing in the alpine fir and bear grass covering a steep
slope on the ridge's west flank, Putzker presses his face to the
window to see the jump spot Cunningham and Carlsen are checking
out. He wishes it were on top of the ridge instead of on the
slippery slope. His ankle still hurts.
It's now 7:30 a.m., and the air is charged with thick, roiling
smoke. Heat makes the air thinner, which makes the jumpers fall
faster through the 1,500 feet to the ground. Because the ground
is steep and covered with rocks and snags, there are no good
jump spots near the fire, just the lesser of evils--in this case
a steep but open meadow.
The spotter drops two weighted, neon-colored 20-foot crepe-paper
drift streamers about 500 yards ahead of the jump spot.
"Streamers away," he says to the pilot through his headset as
the paper twirls to the ground at 16 feet per second, about the
same rate as a 175-pound jumper. The streamers land on the
chosen spot, and the pilot notes the location. In this way the
spotter and the pilot fix the exact point at which the jumpers
should exit the plane.
The plane banks around the ridge again, coming in to drop the
first pair of jumpers. With Cunningham is Joe (Death) Chandler,
who despite his nickname looks like a cherub. At age 43,
Chandler is in his 24th season and holds the unofficial Forest
Service record of 204 fire jumps. The spotter snaps the 15-foot
static lines running from the jumpers' parachute bags onto a
wire cable, and when the jump spot comes into view again he
slaps the threshold of the door with his hand. Cunningham,
helmet on and face cage down, steps forward, his left foot at
the edge of the abyss, his right hand gripping the doorsill, his
left hand ready on the handle of his reserve chute. He looks out
at bright sunshine on the wing tip and crouches, awaiting the
signal. When the plane reaches the exit point, the pilot
throttles back the engine, the spotter slaps the back of
Cunningham's left leg, and he springs out hard through the
portal. Chandler is out the door right after him.
Suddenly everything is moving incredibly fast, is dazzlingly
bright, the wind is roaring in its rush past them. Their toes
are pointed down at first, their elbows tucked close to their
sides; then their feet rise, and as the static lines tighten and
slap the doorsill, the jumpers feel an erratic pull until, in
five seconds, the lines yank the green canvas parachute bags
free of their backs, releasing the canopies.
Cunningham and Chandler feel a tug as the soft blue-and-white
globes fill with air, and their feet snap down beneath them
again. The spotter quickly pulls the lines and bags back into
the plane. The pilot revs the engine and banks the Sherpa around
the ridge again, back into position for the next jump.
Cunningham and Chandler reach for their steering toggles. It is
quiet. A kiss of a breeze touches their faces behind the wire
masks, and they each float to earth as gently as a spider at the
end of her silk.
It isn't the jumping that is dangerous, but how you land.
Putzker is the eighth jumper to leave the plane; despite his
nervousness, he stands in the open doorway in his turn and
jumps. When he hits the ground his feet slip out from under him
on the slick bear grass, and he comes down hard on his right
hip, fracturing a vertebra. "It just goes to show you have to be
100 percent," Brad Sanders, who jumped later and landed in a
tree, will say afterward. "You could see Rob wasn't sure he was
As the last two jumpers sail to the ground, their canopies
folding in on themselves, the fire is forgotten for the moment.
The jumpers' immediate task is to get Putzker safely up 300 feet
to the ridge top, cut a landing spot for a helicopter and make
him comfortable until he is airlifted to a hospital. The jumpers
radio to the Sherpa for a trauma kit and a sked. The spotter
shoves these and the cargo boxes filled with tools and camping
equipment out the door, and the rescue begins.
After word of Putzker's accident reaches the base, I jump in
my car to race a second planeload of jumpers up the Swan Valley,
hoping the emergency will give me time to catch the crew at work
on the initial attack. The trip will take five hours. I weigh my
backpack, fully equipped with fire gear, in the ready room.
To earn the privilege of working alongside smoke jumpers, I have
gone through an abbreviated training program at the Missoula
base. There I received special encouragement from Margarita
Phillips, who, at the age of 37 and the bare-minimum 120 pounds,
has been a smoke jumper for seven years and a squad leader for
one while raising two sons.
As I head north, there is no sign of the fire from the road. The
hills, so green this spring, are now burnt sienna, so dry you
can almost hear them crackle. In the window of a small house
hangs a large sign: THANK YOU FIREFIGHTERS.
While the attack crew at Soupy Ridge binds Putzker into a rescue
sked and pulls him up the slope, the second crew of 10 jumpers
wafts down through the smoke. The day heats up, and the fire
begins leaping into the trees, creating crown fires. Flaming
debris rolls downhill to start new spot fires.
On the blaze's eastern flank the new crew begins cutting its
fire line, an 18-inch-wide trench dug with Pulaskis (axes
backed with hoes) and shovels down to the mineral soil, which is
free of flammable debris. The plan is to encircle the fire and
allow it to burn itself out. At the head of the fire line is the
sawyer, 28-year-old Kevin Erickson, who with his chain saw cuts
down snags and branches that could spread the fire. He is
assisted by a swamper, who throws the debris away from the line
and the fire. Cunningham, now the incident commander, uses his
radio to orchestrate the helicopters and slurry bombers. The
choppers' metallic whir as they streak back and forth dropping
250-gallon buckets of lake water on the crown fires competes
with the throbbing rumble of the bomber planes' engines as they
close in and drop red rooster tails of fire retardant.
Clink, clink, clink, like a metronome timing the rhythm of the
attack, the jumpers on the fire line swing their Pulaskis
without break. The air is filled with dirt and smoke. Little
fires flare at our feet in the clumps of huckleberry bushes; a
blackened stump belches like a chimney. By noon the "burning
period" begins as the high sun stimulates the fire.
Amid the heat, dust and smoke are laughter, teasing, and
"Let me guess," rings out a derisive yet affectionate voice.
"She said, 'It's me or smoke jumping.' Am I right? Am I right?"
"I left her."
"Sure you did, buddy."
"Come on, man," adds another. "He's smiling but his heart is
Erickson's chain saw growls and roars, shaking his torso; his
sooty yellow hair and full, gnarly beard tremble as the snags
and branches fall. His is the most envied job on the
line--jumpers have been known to fight over who gets to use the
chain saw. Behind him is the incessant clang of steel on rock.
Nostrils fill with dirt and soot. A conga line of hard hats
snakes through the heated woods. "Bump up!" the tail of the
snake calls to the head when it has caught up to the stretch of
line already dug. Across the steep, rocky meadow and into the
alpine fir, yellow shirts bob in syncopation against a backdrop
of flames and smoldering wisps of smoke. The sky is yellow.
Mike Pepion has been assigned to keep me out of trouble. Pepion,
38, is a member of the Blackfoot tribe and has been a smoke
jumper for 13 years. He just got his master's in social work,
and he plans to go into counseling and spend more time with his
wife and two-year-old son. Pepion and I walk the fire line,
scanning the forest for smoke on the wrong side of the line.
"We're here if the fire crosses over," he says. "Downslope winds
and downdrafts could cause the fire to cross the line. We're
really at a moment's notice." The slope is so steep that we
walk on the edges of our boot soles, trying to avoid the slick
bear grass. We're brought to an abrupt halt by what jumpers call
a bowling alley, a funnel in the slope where burning trees and
logs, and rocks loosened by the fire, can fly by at 50 mph.
The air has grown still. The sun is blocked by smoke. We are
surrounded by bear grass burning uphill with a soft hiss and
crackle. We can hear Cunningham on the radio, talking to the
district ranger down in the valley. He's standing on a rocky
ledge high above us, trying to assess the scope of the fire:
"The fire's jumped the lines, it's going to try to break out the
east side, it's putting up a lot of smoke."
"You doing O.K. in all that smoke?" It's the district ranger
"Yeah, just having trouble seeing down this thing," Cunningham
says. "It's burned through the east-side retardant line. Because
of the smoke we can't approach the fire. We are looking for
another way around. It's 35 acres, maybe 100 acres. We'll need
two 20-person crews with chain saws, and we'd like them on line
by 10 a.m. We'll need a medium helicopter to shuttle the crew.
And we'll need 30 gallons of drinking water at the south edge of
the fire by 5 p.m. today."
To the east, cumulonimbus clouds are building up in the sky, a
portent of lightning. "Looks like Big Ernie's got something
planned," says a jaunty voice behind us. It's jumper Mike
(Gizmo) Waldron. He leans on the butt of his Pulaski, surveying
the sky, sweat and ashes streaking from his brow down into his
mustache. His Nomex clothing is baggy on him, nearly gray with
soot and custom-fitted with extra pockets. Gizmo, 31, is
credited with introducing the jumpers to tai chi and is best
known for the contents of those pockets, which include
everything he might need on a fire, such as ginseng root ("gives
me internal power"), an L.A. Raider cap and $300 in cash. His
motto, he says, is, Fire is our friend.
"Ernie's an Old Testament god," Gizmo explains. "Lives in the
cumulus-nimbus clouds and tosses down lightning. He rules
everything that affects jumpers--even where you are on the jump
The radio crackles again, the ranger station asks about sending
up a hot catered dinner by helicopter. Food is never very far
from a smoke jumper's thoughts. Most jumpers lose weight during
the fire season, despite eating every two hours. We head off to
the southwest corner of the fire to patrol the line and find a
lunch spot. Gizmo thinks the fire "has a lot of potential if not
for that rock bluff at the top of the ridge. If not for that
natural barrier, it could take off over to the Bob Marshall
Wilderness." Not such a bad idea, he seems to be saying.
That evening we make camp above 7,000 feet on the open, rocky
spine of Soupy Ridge; we eat our hot catered supper of roast
beef, mashed potatoes and gravy while sitting in the falling
sleet, and watch lightning strike the Mission Mountains. The
lightning streaks through a red horizon, continuing into the
night under dense, purplish clouds.
We are joined by a large crew of state firefighters, including
some inmates from a local prison work camp. We plan to leave the
fire to them in the morning, when a crew of 80 firefighters will
arrive by helicopter to mop up after us. For now, the fire is
quelled, and it is good to sit around our small campfires in our
yellow rain slickers, cradling cups of hot chocolate and feeling
the soreness in our bodies from 16 hours of side-hilling in our
boots. We admire the lightning and think about the beautiful new
fires ignited in its wake.
Tara Rothwell, 29, sits illuminated by our campfire, her tired
face streaked with soot, her petite frame shivering in the
sleet. Rothwell earned her master's degree in exercise science
at the University of Montana. Now in her third season as a
jumper, she is a certified strength and conditioning specialist
and an exercise physiologist for the U.S. Forest Service.
Rothwell's interest in exercise has been a boon to smoke-jumper
candidates, and she has made the demands of the first year her
specialty. Her own rookie year at the Redmond, Ore., base was
memorable: In training camp she met her future husband, fellow
rookie Kirk Rothwell, a certified athletic trainer. Both were
shocked by the demands of training at Redmond, and Tara decided
to write a book for unsuspecting smoke-jumper candidates.
"My book is anything a hard-core competitive athlete would
use," she says. "In Redmond we get good firefighters who aren't
prepared. It used to be people had no idea what they faced." Now
some bases send a video, and jumpers can participate in a new
mentor program in which they give candidates pre-tryout coaching
After passing a basic physical training test, candidates must
weather a demanding week in rookie camp. At the Missoula base
they are awakened early every morning to run, do calisthenics
and then cut fire line for 12 hours. They also must complete
two pack-outs, carrying up to 110 pounds of gear over three
miles in just 90 minutes.
They are graded on everything, every day. In past years a third
to a half of all rookies didn't make it through training.
The second week of rookie training is spent in the "units" area
of the base. There candidates work out on an obstacle course and
practice parachuting techniques on a series of simulators. In
the last two weeks of training they finally parachute from a
plane, making at least seven jumps into progressively smaller
and more difficult spots. When a rookie has successfully
completed the last jump, into timber, he or she graduates and
may begin fighting fires with the rest of the unit. But that is
not the end of the trials.
"The first year is very probationary," Tara Rothwell says. "The
second year you're a 'snookie'--and it's also probationary. You
can wash out in your second year; it takes at least two years to
gain solid exposure to the job. The older guys still question
your experience, and it is so diverse--you learn something new
with every fire." Tara says she thinks it would take five to six
years to become a well-rounded, competent smoke jumper.
All jumpers have a stake in who is admitted to the club, because
they depend on each other for their lives. "If someone is let in
who can't do the job, sooner or later you will jump a fire with
that person, and you'll get hurt," says Rod Dow, 46, a 27-year
veteran from Fairbanks, Alaska, who recently celebrated his
400th parachute jump by buying his comrades a keg of beer.
Veterans say their interdependence is the foundation of
smoke-jumper culture. They say they risk death, give up their
personal lives and take such lousy pay so they can enjoy each
other's company. In smoke jumping they have found a tribal
society based on cooperation instead of competition. For most of
them it is an alternative to the ruthless corporate world.
These self-described misfits, some eccentric but all intelligent
and self-confident, are quick to judge nonjumpers and suspicious
of the world outside their cadre. Yet they are tender with each
other, and their placement of community before the individual
somehow coexists with an individualism that can easily slide
into rebellion. Their favorite saying is, "It's easier to beg
forgiveness than to ask permission." And they delight in gaining
an advantage on the "overhead"--their bosses. One of their chants
while cutting fire line at night is, "We're really hurting 'em
now," meaning the Forest Service budget.
What the jumpers live for, they say, is the times they are away
from the base, away from the rules and out there in the wildest
country in America with their best friends. "Once you jump out
[of the plane], you're in charge," says Brad Sanders. "There's
nobody telling you what to do anymore." Sanders, 32, is a
McCall, Idaho, jumper of seven years experience who, except for
a four-hour lunch break a month ago, hasn't been home to his
wife all summer.
Ask a jumper just back from the woods how the fire was, and
likely as not the answer will be, "Beautiful." Beautiful?
"What is a beautiful fire?" I asked Margarita Phillips one
day, and she de scribed a recent "paracamping" mission in the
Rattle snake Wilderness: "It was a high mountain cirque, and
there was a pristine lake in the middle of it. An elk herd came
through, and the fire was so small it only took two of us an
hour or so to put it out. Then the rest of the afternoon we just
relaxed and enjoyed being in a place probably nobody else has
ever been to," she said. Jumpers call such fires "good deals."
As darkness closes in tighter, the jumpers straggle off to bed
down under their "hootches" in the neon-yellow sleeping bags
they've lined with cargo parachutes to make them warmer and more
luxurious, "like silk sheets," they say. The hootches are
nothing more than tarps strung out across the ridge-line in
single file--for there is virtually no level ground available
for sleeping--and tied down to logs and Pulaskis. Around one
campfire a group of older jumpers lingers, sipping coffee and
"No jumper will tell you he thinks [fire suppression is] right,"
says 40-year-old Joe Fox, a 14-year veteran. "We all believe we
should let the fires burn. But we don't make the decisions about
which fires to suppress. For us, as warriors, the challenge is
the battle. That takes precedence over everything else."
But in the wake of the tragedy at South Canyon, the Forest
Service is taking the jumpers' "let it burn" philosophy more
seriously and rethinking its own fire-suppression policy. After
more than 80 years of fighting forest fires, the nation's
wildlands are glutted with dead timber, an excess of fuel that
leads to the kind of catastrophic wildfires experienced in the
northern Rockies in 1994 and in Yellowstone National Park in
1988. When fuels build to such high levels, fires burn with an
intensity that sterilizes the soil, destroys wildlife habitat
and is nearly impossible to extinguish until the next winter's
"It's a paradox," Byron Bonney, a fire-management officer in the
Clearwater National Forest in Idaho, told me at the end of the
'94 fire season. "The more you put fires out, the more wildfires
you are going to have, and the more catastrophic fires. We've
put ourselves in a box."
The solution, say fire managers, is to cull the woods of dead
and dying timber with salvage sales and to light "prescribed
burns" under strictly monitored conditions. However, whether or
not such practices would work is open to debate, and there are
political obstacles as well.
Environmentalists claim the salvage sales are just a backdoor
way of cutting more trees in the national forests, and they
don't trust the Forest Service to do the job properly. Some
foresters and smoke jumpers point out that logging practices in
the national forests have done more than suppress fires. As for
prescribed fires, Western communities and the Environmental
Protection Agency would be unhappy about the resulting levels
of smoke and particulate matter in the air. Today, with highly
flammable houses built on the edges of national forests, it is
difficult, if not impossible, to light prescribed fires in
The American dream of living in the Western wildlands is
especially problematic for fire managers. It was to save homes
that the South Canyon firefighters lost their lives, and to save
homes and other property that most of the Western fires were
fought in '94. Though the Forest Service is quick to say that no
property is worth firefighters' lives, the current policy is to
fight fires that threaten such property.
"The question now is, What are the limits of our capability?"
James Lyons, undersecretary of agriculture, tells me. "When you
build a home in a fire-prone area, what are the obligations of
government? Should taxpayers and insurance buyers subsidize your
protection? And how much cost should we bear?"
The costs during the '94 season--in lives and dollars--were
high. Thirty-four lives were lost, the most since 1910, and
$750 million-plus was spent suppressing wildfires. On some fires
the government spent $1 million a day.
Smokey Bear, forest officials say now, was wrong. No one can
prevent forest fires entirely, and perhaps no one should.
Ecologists and fire managers are beginning to see the importance
of natural fire to ecosystems. Historically, certain Western
forests were parklike stands of enormous, fireproof
trees--asbestos forests, they were called. These trees lived
through centuries of low-intensity fires that cleared away
underbrush but left the overstory of trees intact. These fires
were a regular feature of the Western landscape, at higher
elevations opening the cones of lodgepole pines so they could
release their seed and scarifying the soil, making it receptive
Now, with the buildup of fuels from suppression and clear-cut
logging, high-powered fires are incinerating these ancient trees
to white ash. Entire ecosystems are being modified. But fire is
not the intruder; it is the humans and their homes that are.
"Our goal is to reintroduce fire to sustain healthy ecosystems,"
Lyons says. "It is foolish to spend a million dollars a day
fighting a fire when we can reduce fuel levels and realize some
financial return from timber, and at the same time reduce the
risk for firefighters."
After a difficult night's sleep and a breakfast of hot sausages
and eggs, we set up "blivets," or water containers, on Soupy
Ridge, build a camp and dig pit toilets for the 80 firefighters
who are coming in to do the mop-up. Then we are hauled off the
fire by helicopter and delivered to the district ranger station.
Although jumpers usually pack out of a fire on foot, they are in
such demand this season that there isn't time for pack-outs. In
hopes of reducing accidents, the overhead has decided to rest
them as much as possible to conserve their strength.
At the Goat Creek ranger station the smoke jumpers board a
yellow school bus, I get back into my car, and--sooty and
tired--we follow the road back to the base.
In the loft Rob Putzker stands at one end of a 40-foot-long
worktable, folding a ripstop-nylon canopy with the precision of
a master rigger. Classical music drifts about the cavernous
room, punctuated by the drilling of sewing machines as jumpers
make personal-gear bags, repair parachutes and hem Nomex pants.
Putzker, already out of the hospital with his thoracic
compression fracture treated, is back to packing chutes, his
fire season over as soon as it began. And this isn't the first
time. He has broken his back before.
But Putzker says he won't give up smoke jumping. "I can't quit
yet," he says. "I have to do a few more seasons. I don't want to
go out this way." Not even the deaths and accidents of the worst
of all seasons can change his mind. "I'm comfortable with it.
When you're young, you think you're immortal. After a while you
learn different, and you adjust. It's fun. It's exciting."
Freelance writer Perri Knize lives in Missoula, Mont., and
writes frequently about the outdoors.