Fire sends them flying from Alaska to Florida, stepping out of airplanes with only 1,500 feet of parachuting room, landing in some of the most rugged back country in the nation.
All for the love of snuffing fires.
Still, the smokejumpers now preparing for another fire season seem to support more blazes in national forests, national parks and wilderness areas.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced his fire plans this winter, with the aim of burning as much as 1.3 million acres a year beginning in 1998. He says fire is a natural way to restore forest health.
The proposal has elicited strong reactions from all sides in the forest management debate.
But the top forest firefighters, the men and women who take the riskiest route to douse the flames, say it’s a good idea.
“I think if the biologists are coming up with that, then it’s a good thing,” said Ed Lynn, a Coeur d’Alene native. Lynn is a former logger who is training for his third season of parachuting for the U.S. Forest Service.
Michael Hill, also retraining for his third year with the parachute troops, calls the prospect of more fires “awesome.”
“There’s so much heavy fuel out there,” Hill said. “A lot of it’s because we’ve created the situation, because we are so effective.”
That’s the irony of smokejumper support for Babbitt’s policy. Their skill, the work of highly effective ground crews and the success of Smokey Bear’s public relations campaign have led to more than 50 years of efficient fire control.
Maybe too efficient.
“In Alaska, we’d travel 600 miles, jump on a fire this big,” said Sabino “Sonny” Archuleta, holding his hands to demonstrate a blaze the size of a small camp fire, “and it would take three days to retrieve us.
“And for what? There’s nothing out there.”
Smokejumpers have been bailing out of airplanes on an experimental basis since 1934 when a Utah forest ranger hired stuntman J.P. Bruce to demonstrate the idea. Although much faster than dispatching fire crews on foot or by mule train, the Forest Service resisted.
“In the first place, the best information I can get from experienced fliers is that all parachute jumpers are more or less crazy - just a little bit unbalanced, otherwise they wouldn’t be engaged in such a dangerous undertaking,” Evan Kelly, Missoula’s regional forester wrote to Washington, D.C., in 1935.
That attitude changed by 1940, when the first team of parachuting firefighters dropped onto a lightning-sparked fire in Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest. Today, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management employ about 400 smokejumpers, who each make an average of 10 jumps a season.
Their initiation is rigorous.
New recruits have to pass a series of physical tests their first morning. The stress is so tremendous that trainees sometimes collapse during the push-ups, sit-ups or 1-1/2-mile run.
By afternoon the smokejumper hopefuls are taken to a mountain camp. They shoulder an 85-pound pack to do a cross-country endurance test.
The next morning they are roused at 3 a.m. to dig a practice fire line. They run every morning and every evening.
On the third day, recruits don a 110-pound pack and hike 3 miles in 90 minutes. “At that point, generally the mental and physical stress will get the people who don’t really want to do it,” jumper Everett Weniger said.
Two years ago, his rookie class was out digging practice fire lines in the snow. All of them passed the endurance test. One, however, washed out in the parachuting phase because of a fear of heights.
The men and women who parachute into fires bring more than muscle to this tricky trade. Many have college degrees. Weniger’s is in fine arts. He paints in his spare time.
Lynn, of Coeur d’Alene, teaches eighth-grade science in Kellogg and is pursing a master’s degree in counseling. He was married Saturday at Cataldo to a woman he met on a fire crew a few years ago.
He and the other jumpers say they don’t think about dying, don’t think about the two major catastrophes that have killed smokejumpers - the Mann Gulch fire of 1940 and the Storm King fire of 1994.
“Teaching eighth-graders is more dangerous than jumping out of an airplane,” Lynn said. “You have to have the right attitude. I know I’m not going to burn up in a fire. I know I’m not going to get hit by a tree. And yet I know it could happen tomorrow.”
Amanda, Lynn’s 4-year-old daughter, is effusive about her dad’s career. She’s been jumping off of everything since he got his wings - even after getting a black eye on a collision with a dresser.
Some smokejumpers, like Lynn, suggest a combination solution to the latest burning controversy. He would like to see highly flammable areas logged - by helicopter if they are roadless - and then burned.
That provides logging jobs, timber, and still allows burning, Lynn said.
That’s popular with the timber industry and their political champions. Scientists like Leon Neuenschwander, a fire ecologist at the University of Idaho, conditionally support the idea.
The problem is, the largest, most fire-resistant trees are the largest and the most lucrative for commercial logging. As a result, “we’ve been logging since the 1880s in the Coeur d’Alene Basin, and we’ve made it worse,” Neuenschwander said.
“We could make a difference if they picked areas to be logged that were at most risk to fire and left the most fire resistant trees.”
As it is, there have been fewer fires since logging and fire suppression began. Yet the individual fires are larger than they used to be, even rivaling the blazes that made up the conflagration of 1910.
Politicians and historians often invoke the 1910 disaster when speaking of the horrors of fire. That year, 15,000 separate blazes in North Idaho and Montana charred a total of 3 million acres, killing people and consuming homes.
The largest individual fires in Idaho, Western Montana and Canada have occurred since 1986, Neuenschwander said.
While smokejumpers support Babbitt’s push to idle Smokey’s fire extinguisher and give him a match, they are skeptical the policy will persist, they say. The idea will survive only until there is another high profile national park fire.
Then public outcry and political pressure will again douse the fires.
More liberal fire policies were gaining momentum in the 1980s, until the Yellowstone fire of 1988 created thunderous reprisals from Congress.
“Yellowstone blew up,” Archuleta said. “I figure Glacier is going to do the same thing.”
Neuenschwander agrees. “There will be a big one, and there will be a backlash.”
There’s plenty of historical precedent. When controlled burns blew out of control in Michigan in the late 1970s, federal officials reacted so strongly that almost no one wanted to chance a burn for years, Neuenschwander said.
“The federal government always punishes the many for the sins of the few,” he said.
Some of the fire policy changes made after the Yellowstone fire, Canyon Creek Fire in Montana and Selway-Bitterroot fires in 1988 were appropriate, Neuenschwander said. “I wouldn’t want those in my back yard.”
On the other hand, the forests of Yellowstone and North Idaho evolved under fire, he said. “Eventually, it’s going to burn under one scenario or another.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SMOKEJUMPER FACTS First jump: The first smokejumpers parachuted into a fire on the Nez Perce National Forest the afternoon of July 12, 1940. Total number of jumps: More than 350,000 jumps made in the smokejumpers 57-year history. Number of parachute-related deaths: 3. Firefighting deaths: Thirteen died in the Mann Gulch, Mont., fire in 1940, and three died in the Storm King fire in Colorado in 1994. Number of smokejumpers: 400, including Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Number of women jumpers: 15. Average number of jumps per person per season: 10. Record number of jumps: 346 in 2-1/2 months on the Gila National Forest in New Mexico during the summer of 1974. - Ken Olsen