National Geographic : 2019 May
INTO THE FIRE 139 Mark Jenkins wrote about Myanmar’s toughest mountain climb for the September 2015 issue. Staff photographer Mark Thiessen has covered firefighting around the world for nearly 25 years. through dry caribou moss. Most of the men shift southward in an attempt to circle the spot. Two men with chainsaws are cutting everything in sight along the edge of the flames. Some of the crew are dragging the unburned trunks into the green areas to deprive the fire of additional fuel. Others are pounding the flames along the black with beaters. The Fire Bosses roar over- head every four minutes, dropping water. The men step back but are still drenched. After hours of frantic work, the northern and western edges of the new spot fire are almost under control, but the flames are now howling southward, borne by a northern wind. The 16 smokejumpers just can’t get ahead of the fire. Their only option is to pull out before it cuts off their escape route. The next day the fire will grow to 1,500 acres and the smokejumpers are forced to retrench, moving from offense to defense. One of the vet- eran jumpers laments his crew being pulled off the fire before it was completely extinguished. “We’d caught it at 33 acres,” he says. Smokejump- ers ruefully call this “catch and release.” Their only goal now is to protect the few cab- ins and a lodge on Iniakuk Lake. Using Zodiac watercraft, they shuttle fire hoses, water pumps, and sprinklers to each structure on the lake. The pumps are set in the lake and the sprinklers set to protect the roofs of the cabins. Jeff Poor owns the cabin closest to the fire. A scraggly old trapper who was once from the East Coast but “went as far away as I could possibly get,” he built his cabin by hand in 1976. “More’n happy to see these smokejumpers!” says Poor, who sells his pelts—wolf, marten, lynx—to Rus- sian buyers. “Always happy to have the help.” Pat Gaedeke, who with her husband built the lodge at the end of the lake in 1974, is the one who initially called in the fire. She is beside herself with joy. “I can’t believe all the resources they’re using to help us,” she says. Eventually, after dozens of sprinklers and thousands of feet of hose are deployed, each structure is protected inside a half circle of plumbing that can thoroughly soak the property and prevent it from burning. The smokejumpers are back at their camp by 10 p.m. Exhausted, they sprawl around the campfire. Cans of peaches are passed around, and the men pull out the slippery halves with their blackened fingers. A chunk of cheese is making the rounds; each man lops off a por- tion with his knife. “Hey, you guys remember when ...” and someone starts a story. THE EIGHT SM OKEJUM PERS on the initial attack ended up spending 16 days on the Iniakuk Lake fire before being relieved. The fire burned more than 36,000 acres, but all the structures in the area were saved. “ The fire burned all summer and was still burning when we left in Septem- ber,” says Pat Gaedeke. “Mother Nature finally put it out when it began to snow.” j THE SMOKEJUMPERS ARE POUNDING FLAMES ALL ALONG THE BLACK AREAS. PLANES ROAR OVERHEAD, DROPPING WATER. THE MEN ARE DRENCHED.