National Geographic : 2019 May
INTO THE FIRE 131 THE EIGHT M EN 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 U.S. Forest Ser- vice 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 July 12, 1940, the first smokejumpers were deployed onto the Marten Creek Fire in Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest. Over the next several decades, the Forest Service created seven smokejumper bases in the lower 48, and the Bureau of Land Management estab- lished 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.” Over time, debate has arisen over the need for smokejumpers in the lower 48 as development has spread into previously remote areas. Now 90 percent of fires start within a half mile of a road, and most can be accessed by vehicles. But in the Alaskan interior—a region roughly the size of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana com- bined—the vast majority of the land is accessible only by aircraft. Many remote fires are allowed to burn, but when a fire threatens lives and prop- erty, smokejumpers remain the frontline troops. Alaska smokejumper training is among the most demanding in the world. Of the up to 200 people who apply each year, roughly 10 are selected for rookie training. The most competi- tive applicants have five to 10 years of wildland firefighting experience and can do 60 sit-ups, 35 push-ups, 10 pull-ups, run 1.5 miles in nine minutes 30 seconds or three miles in less than 22 minutes 30 seconds, and carry a 110-pound pack for three miles in less than 55 minutes. Each smokejumper must pass a version of this test annually to keep his or her job. (Currently all 64 Alaska smokejumpers are men, though 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 deftly maneuvering his wing in the wind. One by one, the smokejumpers fly toward the smoke.