National Geographic : 2019 May
126 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC THE SUN IS STILL HIGH IN THE ALASKAN SUMMER SKY WHEN THE CALL COMES IN AT 9:47 P.M. SIRENS WAIL, AND EIGHT SM OKEJUM PERS 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, Dib- ert, 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 oper- ations 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 rou- tine: Their hands fly nimbly around their bodies, strapping on kneepads and shin guards, zipping into jumpsuits, and buckling into heavy nylon harnesses. The jumpsuits are prepacked 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 oversize butt pouch contains a tent and a stuff 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 liter of water, leather gloves, hard hat, flares for lighting back- fires, knife, compass, radio, and special aluminum sack that serves as a last-resort fire shelter. Two minutes after the siren, they are waddling onto the tarmac, each laden with nearly a hun- dred pounds of equipment and supplies. Fully dressed, 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.