National Geographic : 1968 Jul
Perhaps the busiest airport of all was the one at Missoula, Montana, site of the Forest Service's northern regional headquarters, its Smokejumper Center, and its Northern Forest Fire Laboratory. A large array of aircraft crowded the hang ar area, and none of them bore the sleek look of modern jets. Besides dozens of light planes, they included heavy and medium bombers of World War II vintage. Except during fire season, these larger craft stand idle, maintained for emergency use only. The smaller planes usually perform such jobs as crop-dusting and charter flights. Now all were being used in retardant-dropping and other fire-fighting missions. PAINTINGBY NATIONALGEOGRAPHICSTAFFARTISTWILLIAM H. BOND(C NG.S. Near a hangar, young Dave Robinson was slashing bags open and pouring retardant into a hopper to be mixed with water. The resulting slurry would be loaded into the planes and rushed to the front (pages 112-13). A knee injury had prevented Dave from going on the flights that had been dispatched daily from Missoula for the previous two weeks. A college student in the winter, Dave had graduated from the smokejumpers school the year before and had made manyfire jumps. To qualify for smokejumpers school, an applicant must be less than 28 years old, in top physical condition, and have had at least a year's experience fighting forest fires. From as many as 500 applicants a year-mostly teachers and college students-only about 80 are selected. Nearly all complete the four week course in parachute jumping and fire fighting, which teaches the behavior of large blazes and the tactical and logistical problems of fire control. The course requires seven parachute jumps. In these, Dave said, the men follow the cardi nal rule of smokejumping: "Always land as close to the target as safety permits, and hit the fire hard and fast." Since smokejumpers often land in trees, with a force equal to that of a 10-foot free fall, they wear tough nylon jump suits and wire-mesh face masks attached to plastic helmets (page 111). Each jumper's outfit in cludes a nylon line, coiled in a leg pocket, by which he can lower himself from a tree like a mountain climber rappelling down a cliff face (page 113). Once on the ground, jumpers must collect and shoulder 40-pound packs of equipment, which are dropped separately. Besides fire fighting tools, each pack contains a sleeping bag and enough food to sustain a man for two days. Tornado-like fire whirl, its funnel-shaped vortex of flame spinning at 300 miles an hour, uproots centuries-old cedars. An artist's re creation depicts the fearsome fire storm that pulled in air to feed its fury as the Sundance conflagration swept across Idaho's narrow Pack River last September. So intense was the heat that it split granite boulders in its path. Scientists estimate that at its peak the cataclysmic fire front released energy equiv alent to that of a 20-kiloton bomb exploding every two minutes. One such bomb leveled Hiroshima. And, like Hiroshima, the Pack River region cooled to a scene of awesome devastation (page 125).