Smokejumpers Know Fire
They have the guts to parachute into a tiny forest clearing -- or nonchalantly rappel down a hundred-foot tree if they miss.
The Forest Service continues to innovate parachute canopy design to improve both performance and safety.

If any outfit deserves a reputation for never-say-die toughness, the Forest Service's smokejumpers is it. But the parachute loft here at the Missoula Aerial Fire Depot is no place for a bad attitude. Beards with early gray and faces marked by hot sun and tough decisions are common. It takes experience and sound judgment to become -- and stay -- a jumper. These days, says ten-season jumper Marguerita Phillips, "the machoism is in your head."

Granted, daredevil parachute stuntmen trained the first fire-suppression teams to be dropped from airplanes. But even back in 1939 the recruits themselves were veterans of old-fashioned smoke chasing -- by truck, mule and foot. It's been that way ever since (occasionally still with mules).

A recent rookie on the Missoula team, Josh Cantrell, is perhaps the most eager. But even as the youngest jumper here, he knows fire. He is a forestry major who's worked six seasons fighting fire, including his four years in the Navy. Josh and the other jumpers are connoisseurs of fire the way other people savor automobiles, fine wines or fancy orchids: It is their passion and their obsession.

Firefighting Ecologists

Scratch a smoke jumper and you'll often a fire ecologist underneath. This appears a little odd, since smoke jumping was part of the Forest Service's all-out war on forest fire, the evil destroyer of economically valuable timber on the eve of World War II. After 60 years as Smokey's elite shock troops, you'd think jumpers would be a little hostile toward the idea of letting wildland fires burn.

But they, more than anyone, know that absolute fire suppression has become a losing battle. In the 20 years jumper Paul Chamberlain has been stamping out wildfires, he's seen the woods change before his eyes and found his job getting more difficult and more dangerous. The jumpers are victims of their own collective diligence. Fewer big fires mean more young trees; more trees mean more fuel; more fuel means bigger, hotter, nastier fires that wipe out entire stands.

Jumpers board their plane for a mission.

Veteran jumper and parachute rigger Scott Belknap says he'd trade his pulaski -- the traditional half-hoe, half-ax firefighting tool -- for a drip torch instead. Rather than digging line to keep a fire from burning as little area as possible, Scott thinks it would be better to set a backfire at a natural boundary, then let the two fires burn each other out where they meet.

Belknap may eventually get his wish. Andy Hayes and Josh Cantrell once jumped on a fire in a remote, steep section of New Mexico's Gila National Forest. The blaze began a series of nighttime runs, spreading aggressively and temporarily separating firefighters from their gear with 75-foot flames.

Concerned for their safety and judging that the fire was helpfully consuming the brushy fuel from beneath the older, fire-hardy ponderosa pines, the jumpers received permission to pull out and leave the fire to run its course. When they left, perhaps 20 acres had burned, or about the size of 20 football fields. By the time the summer monsoon rains put it out a few days later, it had scorched 1,200 acres -- a hundred times more area than if they had succeeded in controlling it immediately.

Hayes sees the decision to leave not as a defeat, but as a new willingness by management to trust the jumpers' on-ground expertise. There was a time when they'd have been ordered to stay and fight no matter how beneficial the fire seemed to be, jeopardizing their lives and preserving kindling for an even bigger fire later.