As forests across the Northwest bake in the hottest days of summer, the U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers based at Grangeville Air Center are getting nervous.
With one eye on the calendar and the other on the weather, the most experienced forest firefighters in America are lacing up their boots, double-checking their gear and preparing for the worst: no fires.
So far this year, the 22 airborne firefighters have been called upon just once - for a fire that burned only a single tree. By comparison, the Grangeville smokejumpers had made 56 jumps onto 15 fires last year by the end of July.
“I pretty much gave up my dreams a few weeks ago,” said squad leader Robin Embry, 35. “It’s easier just to give up on the season than to come to work every day thinking, ‘I’m going to get a fire today.”’
Many forest users might consider such dreams a nightmare. But firefighters who depend on the income they make during the Northwest’s typically short season fear impending college tuition and other expenses more than a towering wall of flames.
Smokejumpers work an eight-hour day - until they are called to a fire. Then they often work 16 hours or more a day, earning overtime that keeps them returning to the seasonal work year after year.
Heavy winter snowfall combined with a wetter than normal spring has kept the fire danger low to moderate across the region, said Janelle Smith, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
“We just haven’t had the hot days we usually have that dry everything out,” she said.
As of Friday, 1,834 fires have burned in the Northwest and Northern Rockies, an area that encompasses Washington, Oregon, North Idaho, Montana and North Dakota, the fire center says.
Last year, 2,949 fires were reported during the same period. More revealing, just 19,913 acres have burned in the region this season, compared with 114,370 acres last year. Southern California is the only region of the country facing extreme fire danger, Smith said.
Meanwhile, the smokejumpers have gotten pretty good at thinning trees and marking timber for local ranger districts, said base manager Jerry Zumalt. Others sit behind sewing machines in the parachute loft, churning out backpacks and other gear.
Smokejumper Brett Bittenbender, 36, hasn’t relinquished hope for employment in a different sort of sweatshop.
“It might happen in August,” he says, wistfully. “It all depends on lightning.”
But Smith doesn’t leave him much room for hope.
“Even though we’re getting thunderstorms and warmer temperatures, it’s still pretty green. Any ignitions we get probably won’t go too far,” she said.
With his worn leather boots resting on his desk, Zumalt takes it all in and offers his own prediction.
“I’ve seen good years and bad years,” he says. “Everybody says it’s pretty gloomy…. I’m the eternal optimist. I think we’ll have fires.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo