National Geographic : 2019 May
130 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC 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 firefighting 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. 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. Five minutes out, the spotter, Bill Cramer, raises his hand, wordlessly calling 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 green carpet of 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 percent active, burning black spruce with caribou lichen understory, 11 structures on north and west shores of Iniakuk Lake, 1.5 miles west.” The pilot circles at 1,500 feet. Cramer identi- fies the jump site and drops three crepe-paper Smokejumpers use beaters—strips of hard rubber on flexible shafts—to pound burn- ing moss and tussock grass into the moss below, damp from melted permafrost. Such swampy conifer- ous forest, or taiga, is typical of high northern latitudes.