"ARE YOU READY?"
The spotter was shouting into the side of my helmet. I could barely hear him over the plane’s engines and the wind howling through the open door.
I gripped the bars on either side of the opening and looked out over the rippling green expanse of the Ochoco Mountains in central Oregon.
Through the metal mesh of my face mask, I looked towards the front of the plane. Where I was in the back, we could only see out to the sides.
But the jumpers closest to the cockpit, those who would be last in the load to jump, could already see the header miles out. They turned and faced the rear of the plane, and their hand gestures, body movements and facial expressions told us clearly that this was no small fire.
Down below us, the lightning-sparked fire already covered ten or fifteen acres - as we call it, a “going fire.” Definitely not a two-manner.
The rushing air rippled the heavy fabric of my jumpsuit. My pockets bulged with gear.
A few seconds after I left the plane, my static line that trailed over my left shoulder was supposed to open the parachute on my back automatically. If anything went wrong that I couldn’t fix on exit I could always pull the red handle of the reserve chute on my chest.
From 1,500 feet, roughly halfway to the ground, I’d have 12 seconds to do this and still land safely. At 14 seconds I’d become a permanent part of the scenery.
At 26 I already had years of experience fighting fire under my belt, including six seasons rappelling out of a helicopter in California. In five weeks of training as a rookie smokejumper I had already made 19 successful jumps, on top of countless practice ones from the tower at our base in northern Washington.
But like my four other rookie bros on the plane, this would be the first time putting the two together. My first fire jump.
Was I ready?
Hell yeah. I was ready to go.
Say the word “smokejumper” and the response—if people have heard of us at all—is usually something along the lines of: Aren’t those the crazy guys that parachute into forest fires?
Well, no, not exactly. For starters, it wouldn’t make much sense to land in fires if we possibly help it, would it? We aim close, not in.
We’re not all guys; women have been jumping since 1981.
And we're only partly crazy. Depends on how you define crazy, really. You'll probably find a slightly different answer if you ask a jumper. Smokejumpers are actually very highly trained and experienced wildland firefighters, not to mention extremely safety-conscious.
After all, we’ve been doing this since the first silk canopies popped open over central Washington in 1939. We’ve had time to get it right, and our success rate—and safety record—reflect that.
So why all the misconceptions about a profession that’s older than WWII?
One reason is there aren’t that many of us. Only 450 to 475 jumpers are on duty in the U.S. every year, on average. Fewer than 6,000 people have ever earned their smokejumper wings—total.
And jumpers on the whole are a modest bunch. Self-effacing, publicity-shy, call it what you will, but tooting your own horn is definitely not part of the mentality. After fifteen years of being a smoke jumper, I’m still amazed at how little people know about what we do. And more important, why.
Giving public tours of our base in Winthrop, Washington, I get that question all the time: How can you do this for a living? Why take two activities, parachuting and fighting wildfire, that in themselves would be too much for most people—and combine them?
How do you train for it? What does it do to your personal life? What’s it like to have this as your full-time job? How do you not die? How do you have a spouse?
Answering those questions is part of the reason I wrote this book. I want to show what it’s like to be a U.S. Smokejumper, a job that’s as rewarding as it is respected.
It’s not a job everyone can do, not even close. But someone has to do it. And those who choose to—and all those who have in the past—deserve to have their story told.
I’m just one guy. There are jumpers who have done it longer, gotten hurt worse, had closer calls or moments of heroism I could never hope to equal. I’ve include some of their stories here too.
In telling my own story, though, I want to show that appearances aren’t everything. Even if someone is quiet, doesn’t carry on or seek the spotlight—like almost every jumper I know—it doesn’t mean he or she is arrogant or condescending.
When the mission’s on, we’re savages. But in the end we’re just people, even if our job is a little different than most.
We don’t do it for the glory or the glamour. We provide a meaningful public service, one that’s part of a proud legacy.
This is what we do.
Standing in the door of the plane, the first, most important goal was reaching the ground in one piece.
On the flight in, we had all sat cocooned in our suits and helmets, alone with our thoughts. My mind was buzzing like the plane’s propellers. I silently ran through all the different ways a parachute can malfunction, and what I needed to do in each case to stay alive.
Like the rest of the others I looked out the window, watching the smoke and streamers, picking out a landmark to make sure I’d land facing into the wind as we had been trained.
Then we knew we were on station, over the fire, when the pitch of the engines fell. The pilot throttled back to drop speed and started orbiting left, the side the door was on. It was like taking a long, curving off-ramp off a freeway.
Things started to happen fast. Weighted crepe paper streamers fluttered to the ground, showing which way the wind blew and how long it would take us to touch down.
The spotter started issuing commands.
Jumpers began to leave the plane in pairs a few seconds apart.
When our turn was up, my jump partner and I stepped forward to the door, and listened for the spotter’s commands.
“Legs straps tight?” I gave a thumbs up.
“Hook up.” I connected my static line and gave it a small tug. Now came a quick pre-jump briefing - short and sweet.
“Did you see the streamers and the jump spot?” we nodded, shouted “Yes!”
“Stay the fuck out of the fire, rookie!”
Within seconds, the plane was turning on its final pass for our designated exit point. The spotter shouted the last commands.
“Turning final, fifteen hundred feet. Your static line is clear,” he said to my partner. And then to me: “Your static line is clear.”
“Get in the door.” I stepped towards the open door, right behind my partner.
The spotter slapped him on the leg, the signal to jump. Out he went.
It was my turn. Everything I’d trained for the last six weeks came down to this: no hesitation, no second thoughts. Just muscle memory and the mission.
I launched out into the void.