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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.
Fire renews and destroys; fire crews cut trees to protect the forest. But sometimes those moments of contrast are even more pronounced. I was chainsawing a dead snag in Southern California when I let up and this tiger swallowtail landed on my fire shirt. It’s the kind of thing that only really happens when you spend six months a year in the wilderness. I was working in a crew of six or so and everyone stopped what they were doing to look.
There isn’t much solitude on the job, since smokejumpers almost always work in teams of at least two, but there are moments of quiet. This one occurred during a grassland fire south of White Sands National Monument, New Mexico. We’d grown exhausted working through the night to get around the fire, but the rising sun always seems to renew us, even when we’re stamping out the final embers.
Most firefighters have a favorite environment in which to fight fire. Mine is ponderosa pine forest, like this one in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness. It looks hellish, but the lack of brush in the understory means the fire is easy to contain. As the ponderosas heat up, they give off a smell like butterscotch and the light of the fire magnifies the orange in the bark. If I could, I’d fight fire entirely at night.
Of the 25 or so places I’ve fire-jumped into, none was more aesthetic than the Mokelumne Wilderness in California’s Stanislaus National Forest. We camped in a meadow and hiked 2 miles to reach the blaze (called the Irene Fire). That entire area is surrounded by thousand-year-old limber pines and boulders the size of houses. I’d hiked through the High Sierra before, but this felt like a sacred place, especially with morning sun streaming through the smoke and trees. We spent a week there, working our way around the 95-acre fire to contain it.
The Hastings Fire, which burned a black spruce forest near Fairbanks, Alaska, took two weeks to put out. The back burn we set produced enough smoke to block the sun.
The Sheep Creek fire burned 1,700 acres in the Tongue River Canyon of Wyoming’s Bighorn Range in 2015. Our job was to keep the fire from jumping out of the steep-walled canyon and heading toward town. We camped on the canyon’s rim for a week, preparing. Eventually, the fire made a run up the dense pine forest, shooting 100-foot flames from the canopy and overwhelming a lower ridge where this smokejumper had stood lookout. Soon after, the fire met our efforts and halted its advance.
Seated in the plane, the smokejumpers are usually quiet. Every so often, little pieces of information come back from the pilot about where we’re going and what the fire is doing. The adrenaline starts pumping once the flames comes into view. This ring of fire, near French Creek in northern Idaho, radiated outward, consuming hilltops covered in dry grass.
You experience the wilderness differently as a firefighter. Where hikers might be able to lay in a meadow and bask in their surroundings, firefighters spend long shifts swinging tools with their heads down. That, however, leads to moments when you look up and are bowled over by what you see. Such was the case fighting a 6,000-acre grass fire in the rolling hills of Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.