On a clear summer day in 1974, a twin-engine aircraft carrying two smokejumpers to a rapidly growing wildfire flew over a series of granite peaks above the Imnaha River canyon in northeast Oregon.
All was quiet inside the airplane. Rookie smokejumper Mark Corbet, 23, felt butterflies fluttering in his stomach—it was his first jump as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service on a real fire. The spotter identified a “landing pad”—a small grassy opening surrounded by pine trees. He threw streamers out an open door of the plane to gauge the wind. Everything looked good. Time to go.
Decked out in beige Kevlar-coated jumpsuits, the helmet-clad smokejumpers rose to their feet. “Everyone worries, am I going to freeze in the door?” says Corbet of Redmond, Ore. (pop. 13,481). “But after all of the training you go through, when the spotter slaps you on the shoulder, you’re ready to go. It’s one of those reflex kinds of things.”
Corbet leaped out of the plane, and his circular orange-and-white parachute opened with a sweet-sounding pop as he flew through the sky. With the parachute open, he focused on his next priority: a safe landing. In less than a minute, he’d be on the ground. Corbet pulled on his steering cords—called toggles—and faced into the wind for landing. “Be sure to miss that tree,” the spotter had advised him. Corbet focused on landing in the grassy opening and missed the tree. Whew!
Since his inaugural jump 30 years ago, Corbet has logged more than 675 jumps, 375 for training and 300 of them on wildfires. Now 53, Corbet is one of the nation’s oldest and most experienced smokejumpers, an elite force of 400 airborne firefighters stationed at nine strategic locations across the American West, from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Redding, Calif.
Smokejumpers are tougher than granite. They jog with their boots on. They risk their lives on a daily basis to fight wildfires. They carry 110-pound packs. And they master the art of parachuting into rugged mountains with remarkable finesse.
Some jumpers fight fire as a summer job on the way to becoming a lawyer, a schoolteacher or an engineer. But increasingly, many of them are like Corbet, who has turned what used to be a seasonal job into a full-time career and a continuous adventure.
“When the siren goes off, we have to spring into action to fight a new wildfire,” Corbet says. “Within seconds, things change from mundane to full-tilt excitement. It’s great to have a job like that.”
Smokejumpers specialize in the art of initial attack. The goal—as always—is to stop the small fire before it turns into a raging inferno that could destroy forests, private property, or at worst, kill people. The first line of defense is usually to dig a line around the perimeter of a blaze, and then extinguish the fire by burying flames and coals into the soil with a Pulaski, a unique firefighting tool that’s like an ax and hoe all wrapped into
one. If needed, a nearby wildfire base can send tanker planes to drop fire-retardant on a blaze, or large buckets of water from a helicopter.
After a wildfire has been stopped, firefighters can spend days “mopping up”—snuffing hot spots and monitoring smoldering areas. And then, it’s time for the most brutal aspect of the job: the pack-out. Smokejumpers pile all of their gear into a huge pack that can weigh from 110 to 130 pounds, and haul it out of the woods to the nearest road for pickup.
“The pack-out is definitely one of the most punishing aspects of the job, but somehow, you get it done,” says Corbet, who weighs 165 pounds.
A few women have risen to the physical challenge of being smokejumpers.
“It’s a matter of doing the training so you can handle the physical demands of the job,” says Kasey Rose, 36, who has been a smokejumper for 15 years. “Then, you can do the pack out and get it done.”
Rose, a U.S. Forest Service employee in McCall, Idaho (pop. 2,084), took a hiatus from smoke-jumping this summer because she is pregnant with her first child.
First line of defense
The U.S. Forest Service launched the smoke-jumping program in 1940 in Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest. The idea then was that by sending firefighters into the backcountry by parachute, they would be able to get to remote, new wildfires quickly and extinguish the fires before they grew into large infernos.
The concept was visionary, and smokejumpers continue to be the nation’s first line of defense against remote wildfires.
Because of the arduous nature of the job, smokejumpers undergo considerable training. For starters, they must have at least one year of experience fighting wildfires. In 1972, Corbet started his career on a fire engine crew in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest. In his second season, he worked on a helicopter crew and worked with a group of smokejumpers on a fire. He was quickly impressed.
“I saw one guy hanging in a tree, and they were razzing each other and having so much fun, it looked really interesting to me,” Corbet says. “And they had much better food, which they shared with us. We had K-rations, and they had real food. I took a skydiving class that summer, so that got me interested, too.”
The following year, Corbet applied to become a smokejumper. He was trained in Winthrop, Wash., in the mountainous North Cascades. First, he had to pass a number of standard physical fitness requirements, including running 1.5 miles in less than 11.5 minutes and doing a minimum of seven pull-ups, 25 pushups, and 45 sit-ups.
“At first, I thought, ‘What am I getting myself into?’” he recalls. “Those physical fitness sessions were extremely difficult. We ran around the airport in boots. These big dudes came in and wore you out. They wanted to see how badly you wanted to do it.”
They also practiced short jumps from a 35-foot tower, learned how to get untangled from a parachute and harness in the midst of a tree and practiced climbing trees with spikes and ropes.
Most people figure out pretty quickly if they’re cut out to be a smokejumper.
“I love that feeling of getting out of the plane and flying through the air,” Rose says. “You know, I wouldn’t want to be a lawyer—that would freak me out having to argue a case in front of a judge and jury, and a lawyer would probably hate my job, especially if he or she is afraid of heights.”
The scariest thing about jumping, Rose says, is running into a patch of “down air” right before a landing. “I ran into some down air one time and it was the hardest landing I’ve ever had,” she says. “My whole spine made a loud crack like when you crack your knuckles.”
With the advent of every new season, Corbet wonders if it will be his last. He’d like to continue working full-time until he passes the threshold for full retirement pay, which is only a couple of years away. “I don’t want to cripple myself up before I’m done,” he says. “In a lot of ways, my wife would rather have me home, but she also knows it’s important for me to get my excitement in life, too.”
Rose, who is expecting a baby boy Sept. 1, hasn’t decided whether she’s going to return to smoke-jumping after she becomes a mother. “That’s going to be a big challenge—how to fit being a mom into being a firefighter,” says Rose, whose husband, Eric Messenger, also is a smokejumper.
No matter what Rose or Corbet decide, our nation’s smokejumpers will carry on, with fresh recruits taking to the skies this summer to snuff out wildfires in our remote Western forests.
“The job keeps me young,” Corbet adds.
For more information on the National Smokejumpers Association, log onto www.smokejumpers.com.