First of all, without question and to this day, I still consider smokejumping to be the best job in the world. All those fortunate to have done it, currently doing it, or doing it in the future are, indeed, some of the luckiest humans. The problem with having such an immensely satisfying, worthwhile, stimulating and adventurist job, however, is the inevitable balance that must, according to the Law of Administrative and Managerial Bullshit (LAMB), be paid by those on the fireline, at the warm and toasty end, to compensate for all those rousing complimentary adjectives. It is a law much like gravity, designed to bring even the hardiest of souls crashing to earth with frequent regularity, just like a jumper seeing his canopy torn to shreds above his head.
But what is smokejumping? In German it roughly translates to Feuerspringer; fire jumper, which is basically what smokejumping is. That does not, however, make it a circus act, as some German friends once assumed it to mean while visiting them in Cologne. “Robert doesn’t look like a circus performer,” they said, being a relief to me since I’ve never much liked circuses. They thought we jumped through rings of fire, on bikes perhaps, in tight pants or leotards, next to elephants under a big tent maybe, who knows? The thought alone is quite uncomfortable. In reality, though, smokejumping is a national wildland firefighting resource. Its primary purpose being to deliver personnel and equipment to remote wildfires quickly and effectively using a fleet of fixed-wing aircraft and parachutes. We jump fires. Not circus hoops.
However, due to the LAMB, jumpers are routinely forced to jump though a myriad of hoops, administrative hoops, designed by experts just to remind us of which in the latest of a long line of swivel-chaired slugs is in charge. The last time jumpers governed their own destiny was in the early ‘90s, though older vets will say independence was lost long before even then. Since that coup, for it was a coup, seizure of power is a coup, hordes of self-righteous administrators and managers have cocooned the once independent organization and precipitated virtual insanity onto one of the most valuable, respected, professional, skilled and yet underutilized resources in all of America. It is no coincidence, and probably no surprise, that just about every single one of these administrators have been desk-jockeys with no association or understanding of the sharp-end whatsoever: where metal meets meat, where pulaskis meet rock and dirt, and where heat, fuel and oxygen burn. Female administrators are excellent at organizing, brilliant at it, even just for the sake of it they do it. But therein lies the problem, because smokejumpers never needed more organizing, never needed more paperwork, never needed anyone to teach ‘cohesion,’ never needed anyone to lecture on the latest fashionable oxymoronic buzzwords: ‘diversity,’ ‘ethics,’ and ‘equal opportunity.’ We jump from planes to fight wildfires. Not too difficult in itself, apart from the physical effort, but neither is it like baking a bloody cake, so leave us alone.
To some, ‘insanity’ might seem like a harsh word to describe this encroachment of bureaucracy, but bear me out: during the last few years of the twentieth century the smokejumper organization, Missoula in particular, underwent some very disturbing changes at the hands of unskilled managers either unwilling or incapable of reining in entrenched, egocentric, power-hungry, administrators. Instead of experienced fire people – base managers, trainers, squad leaders, etc. – determining who could become a smokejumper, based upon prior experience and credibility borne from word of mouth, desk-bound, non-jumping administrators became directly involved in the hiring process, actively going out to recruit people (women and minorities mainly) from all across the country. In effect, forcing people into the organization who had no purpose being there while eliminating others who did – and who were very literally lining up and waiting in the wings. For example: in one instance a woman who should never ever have been hired, routinely warned as being unsatisfactory by senior trainers, was very nearly killed and several of us watched in horror as our fears became reality before our very eyes. Other more woolly instances of heavy-handed administrative incompetence emerged when jumpers were forced to sit in circles and tell others their bloody secrets like some inane hippy candlelit vigil shite of the ‘60s. A handful of veteran jumpers left the room in disgust. Others, under the perceived threat of sanction, no doubt, stayed to endure the abuse and embarrassment. Such is the power that one entrenched administrator can wield when allowed to do so. Further examples could fill a large book, cover to cover, with insane sordid tales of the LAMB.
The best years, though, are always the busy years. Years that real money can be made, the big earner years. But more to the point, when years are busy, when you’re out in the wilds of nature, miles away from roads and the hustle-bustle of civilization, baking hot, worn out from working a 36-hour shift, covered in soot from head to toe, bleeding, blistered and desperate for a cold beer, those are the best of times. Those are the years jumpers live for; up to their elbows in dirt, swinging an axe, tugging on a crosscut, eons away from the three ring circus of bullshit.
That’s what it used to be like anyway. Maybe now, doing the best job in the world, they secretly wear tight pants and leotards, hold hands round the fire, and chant. Bleeding shoot me if that is so! I think not, however. From what I see the organization in many ways has finally undergone a change for the better, and about time. Morale has revived. Recent years have been busy and jumpers are more frequently used outside of their more traditional role. But it has to be asked, like the elephant in the room, why that airplane, that wonderful “collection of parts flying in loose formation,” the Turbine DC-3, has not been seen in the red skies of Montana this year (2012)? Someone quietly told me it was politics. It’s a damn fire organization! What has politics got to do with anything?
As I write I am exactly 55 years and 9 months old. “Strange,” you might say, to be so specific. But wait, because exactly 18 years and 3 months ago it was determined, without question and without remorse or opportunity for recourse, that I was no longer qualified to be a primary firefighter, despite having been a smokejumper for the preceding three years. An administrator somewhere decided that should a person reach that mysterious age of 35 they were all of a sudden underserving and unqualified to get a full-time job in primary firefighting. That unnamed administrator, hiding under a rock somewhere amidst the bureaucracy, not only forced me, and countless others, out of an occupation that we loved, but cost us untold thousands of dollars in lost earnings compared to everyone else who were not yet, simply, 35 years old, for doing exactly the same job. Exactly two years later the government, in its infinite wisdom, out of the goodness of its little heart, arbitrarily raised that limit to 37, to save on its dwindling retirement funds, no doubt. By which time, of course, everyone caught in this trap was still too old. Nevertheless, I remained a smokejumper for as long as I could afford to, forced to subsidize my firefighting career by writing inane computer code, and finally leaving the organization (strange term isn’t it, for what is dysfunction) in 2002 to get that elusive real job that I hated. Not surprisingly, I now unreservedly despise any person who would agree to this egregious, quite abhorrent, willful process of discrimination. If you are that person or, indeed, even if you agree with that person, you are a fucking idiot – so put this book back on the shelf and scurry back under the rock from where you came. Leave the real work to people you know nothing of: those who don’t mind getting dirty, don’t mind getting broken, don’t mind getting old, don’t mind doing tough physical work at any age, don’t mind prostituting their bodies on an annual basis to put out fires in a job they love, despite incessant bullshit. That, in a nutshell, is smokejumping.
Finally, a good friend, with far loftier ambitions than I, now a preeminent professor at the University of Montana, once said of smokejumping, “the best job to have ever had.” Me? I just wanted to work hard, get sweaty and dirty in beautiful places, jump from airplanes and enjoy my job, all the while trying to maintain the old ethos and spirit of smokejumping. If in this book I come across as harsh, it is deserved, for I want no more than the organization to prosper and be the best it can possibly be, with the best people trained to the best of human ability, given the best tools for the job and, moreover, be run by the best of the best. When such simple things are hindered by bureaucrats or inept managers I don’t much like it. I loved the job. I loved it while I was doing it and I never once lost that perspective, which is why I would so readily tear the verbal heart out of anyone who was ignorant enough to damage the credibility of the organization or disregard the unrelenting efforts of those at the toasty end.
Throughout the text I have not used anyone’s last name. It’s completely unnecessary to do so; those who know, already know, and those who don’t, never need to; and because it simply doesn’t matter. But also because there are individuals among the jumper organization who frequently get involved in the more clandestine aspects of parachuting. Winter occupations that see them in far- flung fields doing things that would make most people cringe. For them anonymity is compulsory and, as such, is being respected in these pages, hence the use of an occasional alias. Such occupations made necessary due to the seasonal nature of wildland firefighting; being laid-off each September until April. Or, as in my case, Catch 22; being too old. Though not old enough not to be hired by other sections of the government for equally risky work. Also known as Joey Rule #2: ‘They can do anything for you or anything to you.’
Footnotes have been used solely for added explanation or to further include facts to the associated text which may, or may not, be of interest to the reader. They are not intended as citations.
It was never my intention to write an accurate account. I shall leave true history to those far smarter and far more patient than I. In fact, it was never my intention to write this book at all, but for some reason it was suggested that I should, almost expected that I would. So with that, I started to scribble, unconcerned for specific dates, times and places, which these days tend to merge into one anyway, coming and going as they please like spooks in a smoke- filled mist. Though now and again, a spark, a vivid memory, would emerge to the fore, completely out of the blue, for no reason, only to vanish as quickly as it arrived if I did not write it down. So there are stories mislaid due to procrastination, lethargy even, in not wanting to rise from slumber and reach for my keyboard. Those I shall leave to others. Those scribed here come alone from memory, without research, just as I remember, warts and all. Continuity may be inexact, but that is simply due to merged thoughts, forcing two or three fires into one maybe, years perhaps, into months. I suspect for those who also never kept a journal it is the same.
Smokejumpers fight many things during their lives: fire being the obvious and, for the most part, probably the most sensational, the most exiting and rewarding. But those sky-scraping 100-foot flames are not the greatest of foes. Financial worries, family issues and job prospects all play a part just like for anyone else. But with the addition, year after year, of reaching that perfect level of physical fitness to avoid the burden of an injury that can mean the end of a season or even the end of a career. That fitness made all the harder by those niggly injuries, always acquired in physical activity, that make fitness that much harder to achieve, young or old. But the greatest, most consistent, and most insidious foe comes from outside the confines of the smokejumper enclave, but inexorably and inextricably seeps into it. That is why this book is not just about fires, but about what else firefighters endure to keep the job they love – and do so not just for their benefit, but for the benefit of the nation. Because these great sweeping forests are one of this nation’s greatest resources, and greatest of all treasures. Not just for their timber, but for the public pleasure, for recreation; hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, climbing, even just to sit back and look at it in awe, for nature’s sake, admire it, wonder in it. For the main subject and star of this book is not the smokejumper or the fire, but the land on which both live. A land smokejumpers are fortunate to call ‘jump country.’
# # #
THE SECOND I ENTEERED OBLIVION I knew my mistake. But it was too late. No vigor. I had stepped when I should have leapt and the blast from the powerful turboprop just feet from my head sent me into an immediate uncontrollable spin. When I focused my eyes at a little over 1,300 feet I first saw mountains, then water, and then mountains again, with a brief glimpse of the disappearing aircraft on each blurry rotation. The spotter’s white helmet still visible in the open door as he looked back in what must have been utter bewilderment. So it went as I corkscrewed towards earth a little faster than is healthy.
The parachute cords were twisted so tight that my neck felt as if it was in a vice, and I couldn’t lift my head to see if the canopy was fully inflated, or, more importantly, if it was even there. Then, finally managing to wiggle my head forward, I peeked up through the cage of my helmet and saw the reassuring sight of red and blue ripstop nylon above me. The parachute was inflated at least, but it was spinning rapidly anticlockwise and making me quite dizzy.
This faster than usual approach to earth, and hasty overtaking of my jump partner – who I managed to glimpse on each rotation – was becoming increasingly alarming. The problem was obviously humorous to someone, though, because at 800 feet I heard a laugh.
Despite the incessant spinning my canopy was, in fact, quite stable, even if not fully inflated due to the cords being completely twisted from the base of the parachute right down to my neck. The problem in the whole process was the rag doll dangling beneath it.
Somewhere below me was the jump spot. A meadow in which I was supposed to land and where everyone else was, I assumed, watching my descent in comedic amazement, and no doubt taking bets if I would ever make it in.
Certainly, if I didn’t control the spinning soon I would never reach it. Instead, I’d crash into another part of the planet; either the water on the other side of the mountains or the mountains on the other side of the water. Or that big bloody tree in the middle of the meadow, motioning me ever closer. Its ugly outstretched branches beckoning like a giant flytrap.
As I neared the end of the twists the spinning slowed, and for one glorious but excruciatingly brief suspenseful second it stopped, before starting up again in the opposite direction. With the ground rushing closer by the second it was no longer funny. It was both foolhardy and dangerous and threatened to smash me to pieces.
Finally, at 300 feet, I managed to pry my risers apart to stop the spinning and quickly surveyed the dizzying scene below. I was lucky. The wind had been strong but, remarkably, I had remained within the wind cone. So with no help whatsoever from me I was exactly where I was supposed to be; directly above the meadow with the small stream meandering just off to the right. All nicely surrounded by 70-foot pines and Douglas-firs.
At this point the ground was just a little bit closer than I’d anticipated. But finally able to do what had been drummed into me during weeks of training, I turned into the wind to reduce my bone- shattering forward speed. But now going backwards, I could only see where I had been and not where I was going. Remembering that the stream was off to my left, and knowing that I didn’t want to end up on the wrong side of it, I pulled on my right toggle to quarter the canopy and steer away. Happy to be in control for the first time during the entire descent, I gloated over my regained confidence and prepared myself for a perfect backwards parachute landing fall. Just before slamming into the dirt like a sack of shit.
There was nothing pretty, safe, or remotely enjoyable about my landing and I impacted like a Napoleonic cannonball. A fitting end to a dismal performance. But being resilient I was relieved not to have heard anything crack. My feet had hit first, thankfully, then my backside, followed by the back of my head. My feet would have hit again, completing the somersault, had the canopy not re- inflated and unceremoniously hauled me across the meadow on my back. Enabling me to pick up a delightful assortment of wilderness fauna, mud, and buffalo crap along the way. Most of it, of course, embedding deep down my neck. I reached for the parachute cords above my head, grabbed a couple, and reeled them in until the canopy spilled air and collapsed, which, after what seemed like a 100 yards, left me supine, motionless and exhausted. Yet I was unhurt – except for a severe case of damaged pride.
I jumped up as though everything had gone exactly according to plan, and to my great relief everyone seemed to feign ignorance to the drama, the others busy gathering their gear in various parts of the field, or pretending to. Then I heard a yell and looked up to see another body fly over my head at an alarming rate and thump into the ground a few feet away. My jump partner (JP) had arrived. In better circumstances he should have landed already, being a good thirty pounds heavier and having left the aircraft a couple of seconds before me. But my twists had given gravity the advantage and I had overtaken him as Newton predicted.
Nevertheless, my JP was here, and he landed with an almighty thump that only weight and added wind velocity can provide. To better see where he was going he hadn’t fully turned into the wind, as is generally considered advisable, so on impact I heard air being involuntarily expelled from his lungs and even thought I felt sod shudder. He had four points of contact: his feet, ever so briefly; his head, uncomfortably; his knees, painfully; and finally his head again as it embedded itself into the grass in an inglorious face- plant. Then, just as he started to get up, probably thinking it was all over, the wind re-inflated his canopy, yanked him off his knees and hauled him face first across the grass, only stopping when hitting a log in an elk wallow. But it gave him time to release his canopy by unclipping one of his mud encrusted Capewells.
This newly arrived form rose from the mire like some strange mythical creature and, like me, made an attempt to look as though nothing untoward had happened. (Such actions are a common trait among resilient young rookies looking to emulate youthful, though often foolhardy, invincibility, even in the face of extreme trauma and injury.) Once sure nothing was broken he looked towards me and started to laugh, waving his arms in delight. He told me later he’d been laughing the whole way down because my unorthodox descent and abundant use of English profanity had amused him considerably. It was fine with me, because watching him extricate himself from the muddy mire was equally amusing. Our laughter was a natural response to the grateful realization that after landing like two sacks of shit in a shallow pond neither of us was broken.
The recent arrival’s helmet cage was plastered in a colorful selection of summer foliage, but it was still easy to tell who he was. At a lean six-foot something it could only have been Steve. Being my rookie bro and frequent jump partner I was thankful that he wasn’t hurt after hurtling into the planet so fast. Many wouldn’t have escaped injury so easily. I was, however, selfishly reassured that someone else had endured equally as bad a landing as me. Not that it at all detracted from my dismal performance, for which I was certain to receive a good bollocking in due course.
We both later discovered that everyone had experienced an uncomfortable landing. Partly because the jump spot was perfectly flat, and unusually long in the prevailing wind direction, allowing us plenty of leeway to jump with the wind vastly exceeding normal operational conditions. We all agreed to jump, however, because the spotter had thought it worth a try, and for some reason we had trusted him. Being new to the game my JP and I were more than willing to prove ourselves in front of the more experienced veteran smokejumpers who we generally looked up to, trusted, and didn’t want to disappoint. In other words, we knew squat and stepped out of the door of a fast moving aircraft at 1,500 feet, like sheep to the slaughter because we didn’t know any different.
The spotter and squad leaders in charge of us that day were apparently equally willing to see the results of brand new rookies in high wind behaving little better than crepe paper streamers. That quickly infused the notion that trust had to be earned, not granted unconditionally because of seniority, position or overt confidence.
There were exceptions to this rule however. There were some in the organization that gained everyone’s confidence and respect by instinct alone. But that stemmed from credibility, not position; from experience, not seniority; and from quiet stabilizing earned authority, not overt brashness. For one person in particular it was because he was built like the proverbial brick shit-house and could crush a rookie’s skull with his bare hands. And given my recent performance that’s no doubt exactly what he was going to do at his earliest convenience.
Despite the excitement over the windy jump we knew it had been the easy part. All it had entailed was falling out of a perfectly good airplane under a few yards of silk and being fortunate enough to stay in one piece – even though little I did that day advantaged me in that regard. Now, however, we had to fight the wildfire that was raging in the woods a few hundred feet from the field we had just cultivated with our bodies.
As we gathered our gear from various parts of the meadow the jump ship came roaring over the treetops and began delivering cargo. At 200 feet the spotter was easily visible in the door as he threw out the first of many cardboard bundles – I think he was also giving us the middle finger salute. Containers of food, water, tools and chainsaws floated down on flimsy eight feet ‘splat chutes’ and thumped in all around us. A few boxes didn’t fare too well beneath some of West Yellowstone’s test parachutes, causing their contents to be strewn across the meadow like a lazy mid-west garage sale.
After ten minutes the plane did one last low pass. The spotter waving from the doorway as he left the meadow littered with little orange parachutes, brown boxes, crushed cans of fruit cocktail and splattered remains of Beany Weenies, looking like pavement pizza after Friday night in Missoula. After circling overhead to relay fire information and radio frequencies the ship turned to head back to base, its engines getting steadily fainter as it disappeared into a dwindling dot between the white-capped mountains in the distance.
Silence. The drone that had engulfed us for the past two hours was gone and we became accustomed to a new sound, reminding us of a more immediate role. Loud crackling in the woods signaled increasing fire activity and we could see flame lengths growing rapidly as they reached the tree canopy on the edge of the meadow. An odd Doug-fir was igniting and torching brilliantly, first one and then another. Then two and three, as several became one massive 100-foot flame licking at the sky, preheating more in its path in readiness for the same treatment. The fire was bright, hungry and growing. As trees torched, hot burning embers rushed high into the atmosphere on the updrafts. If they fell back to earth too soon they would ignite more fires hundreds of yards ahead of the fire-line.
We were thankful that we had jumped into a natural firebreak. The long, wide and lush meadow would stop the fire from burning anything further in that direction. However, there was plenty of forest yet to burn in the other three directions, and it was a forest ready to burn, just like the Yellowstone fires of 1988. Only this year extraordinary efforts were being made not to have a repeat of that devastation. The political backlash from those fires had halted temporarily the park’s normal let burn policy for natural fires and managers were still a little edgy.
# # #
ONE OF THE BEST THINGS ABOUT jumping into the wonderful Yellowstone National Park that day was that few people, smokejumpers or not, ever get to parachute into America’s, and indeed the world’s, first great National Park. Yellowstone is a majestic place and everyone wants to visit, urged by a deluge of documentaries that examine its unique geology, and by an impressive array of nature shows that follow the lives of its many inhabitants. And in visiting, being enthralled by everything about it: the splendor of the landscape with its boiling pools of mud, spouting geysers, deep canyons, pristine rivers and high alpine lakes nestled among vast mountain ranges; the remarkable and fortunate history from its inception in 1872 to become the peoples’ park; and the enduring survival of its many lowly critters and imposing beasts.
Yellowstone may no longer be the extreme hidden wilderness it once was when small pockets of Shoshone made it their home, or when the first white fur trappers arrived. Nevertheless, it remains a significant place amid an expanse of splendor. One where ordinary people are fortunate to have the opportunity to get up close and personal to the magnificently beautiful wilds of nature.
To be lucky enough to be there on my first fire jump was indeed a privilege. It was befitting compensation for starting at the bottom of the list and made the effort of the preceding year and pain of the previous weeks worth it. And, as Drury’s chapter quote so aptly said, that effort, and these wonderful and wonderfully wild places, had enabled us to “grow mentally and spiritually, as well as physically.” At thirty-four I knew I had truly found a job I would love. This really was the best job in the world.