Five minutes. You could be doing anything, but when that siren goes off, you are expected to be geared up, earplugs in, and seated on the plane within five minutes. And as it takes off, you have no idea where you’re going or how long you’ll be out.
But you can be sure of one thing: The easiest part will be jumping out of the plane. On the ground, you work, digging fire lines and breaks, hoping to outmaneuver a wildland blaze. In the field, you wake up every morning and hike to the fire and work. And every evening, you hike back to camp and collapse, exhausted, into the one-man tent or tarp you packed. People who hear this either say the job sounds tailor-made for them or it sounds insane.
I was the former. I was 24 and hiking a long section of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2007 to try to figure out my life. I was a few miles out from Stehekin, Washington, when I came across a guy dressed in a yellow shirt and wearing a firefighter’s lumbar pack. He was a smokejumper. I peppered him with questions for two hours as we hiked. By the time we arrived in Stehekin, I could see my future.
It took five years for me to make it a reality. I learned to jump, spent four years on a hotshot crew fighting wildfires by hand, and captained an engine in Eugene, Oregon, before the dream came true: I was accepted into an elite crew of wildland firefighters who parachute to remote fires.
At first, you think of fire as the enemy. But that gets complicated over time. I’ve watched fires burn through the understory of mature pine forests, renewing and refreshing the terrain. I’ve also seen fires climb into the crowns of trees and leave behind landscapes of ash and ruin. Fires are vital
to a point but destructive beyond that. There’s nothing like them.
We go to places that people don’t usually visit and see things that most people don’t see. I’d been a photographer for years. So I took my camera with me. Now, if I had to choose between packing my sleeping pad and my camera, I’d pick the camera.