“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-practiced 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 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.”
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.”
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