feet in boots over aerial view of forest

When wildfires break out, this elite team of ‘smokejumpers’ parachute in

A dangerous race to fight remote fires begins each summer when Alaska's combustible backcountry is ablaze.

Matt Oakleaf, camera mounted on his gear bag, drops behind the rest of his team to a landing site near smoldering boreal forest. Jumpers can put on 100 pounds of gear and get on a plane in minutes. Their mission: extinguish fires before they rage out of control.
This story appears in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The sun is still high in the Alaskan summer sky when the call comes in at 9:47 p.m.

Sirens wail, and eight smokejumpers race to the suit-up racks. Already in logger’s boots, dark green pants, and bright yellow shirts, each man practically leaps into his Kevlar jumpsuit.

“First load to the box!” a voice blares over the intercom. Itchy, Bloemker, O’Brien, Dibert, Swisher, Koby, Swan, Karp, and Cramer are the men at the top of the jump list. All evening they’ve mostly been hanging around the operations desk at their base at Fort Wainwright, cracking jokes and razzing each other, anxiously and excitedly waiting for their turn to leap out of a plane to fight a backcountry forest fire.

Now they have exactly two minutes to suit up and be on the plane. It’s a much practiced routine: Their hands fly nimbly around their bodies, strapping on kneepads and shin guards, zipping into jumpsuits, and buckling into heavy nylon harnesses. The jumpsuits are prepacked with gear—a cargo pocket on one pant leg is stuffed with a solar panel and raincoat. The pocket on the other leg holds energy bars and a 150-foot rope, plus a rappel device in case of a treetop landing. An oversize butt pouch contains a tent and a stuff sack for the parachute.

Other smokejumpers quickly surround them, helping the men put on their main parachutes and reserve chutes. Then each man grabs his jump helmet—fitted with a cage-like mask to protect his face during a descent through branches—and his personal gear bag, which holds a liter of water, leather gloves, hard hat, flares for lighting backfires, knife, compass, radio, and special aluminum sack that serves as a last-resort fire shelter.

Two minutes after the siren, they are waddling onto the tarmac, each laden with nearly a hundred pounds of equipment and supplies. Fully dressed, they appear awkwardly overstuffed, but every man carries a carefully curated, time-tested kit of the essential items a smokejumper needs to fight and survive a fire in some of the world’s most remote and rugged forests.

The twin turbines of a Dornier 228 cargo plane roar to life as the bulging khaki figures totter single file up through the side door and into the plane’s belly, which is packed with pallets of firefighting equipment that will be dropped with them. The plane lifts off, and the dispatcher radios the coordinates of the fire. Time en route: one hour 28 minutes.

It’s too loud for talk, so the men sit silently, each alone with his thoughts behind his face mask. They don’t know where they’re going or how long they’ll be gone. They don’t know how big the fire is or how dangerous the winds will be. They know only that they’re going into battle with one of nature’s most savage and unpredictable forces.

Five minutes out, the spotter, Bill Cramer, raises his hand, wordlessly calling for a “pin check.” Each man executes a final multipoint equipment check of his jump partner.

They are flying above the Arctic Circle on the southern edge of the Brooks Range when they spot a plume of smoke rising from the dark green carpet of forest, the result of a lightning strike. Cramer opens the jump door and leans out into the slipstream for an assessment: “Fire number 320, 15 acres, 70 percent active, burning black spruce with caribou lichen understory, 11 structures on north and west shores of Iniakuk Lake, 1.5 miles west.”

The pilot circles at 1,500 feet. Cramer identifies the jump site and drops three crepe-paper streamers. Three bright stripes—yellow, blue, and orange—unfurl in the sky, allowing him to assess wind speed and direction.

“Get in the door,” Cramer shouts. The first man on the jump list, Jeff McPhetridge, 49, known as Itchy, dangles his feet out of the plane. “Get ready!” Cramer shouts, and a moment later slaps him on the shoulder. McPhetridge hurls himself from the plane. Three smokejumpers follow. On the second pass, the remaining four men fall into the sky. Their red, white, and blue chutes circle over the flaming forest like tiny moths riding the drafts above a campfire, each man deftly maneuvering his wing in the wind.

One by one, the smokejumpers fly toward the smoke.

The eight men descending from the sky can trace their professional lineage to a lightning bolt that hit a tree just east of Yellowstone National Park in August of 1937. The strike ignited a small fire that began crawling its way through the forest and eventually grew into the infamous Blackwater Fire, killing 15 firefighters and consuming 1,700 acres. A U.S. Forest Service investigation concluded that the only way to avoid such tragedies was for firefighters to attack backcountry fires when they are still small.

In the 1930s, the Forest Service began testing the viability of parachuting small teams into remote areas, and on July 12, 1940, the first smokejumpers were deployed onto the Marten Creek Fire in Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest. Over the next several decades, the Forest Service created seven smokejumper bases in the lower 48, and the Bureau of Land Management established two, including the one in Alaska. Today roughly 450 active smokejumpers are dispatched to wildland fires from these bases.

“Those early years proved that getting men on a fire when it was the size of your living room, rather than thousands of acres, saved money, forests, lives, and private property,” says Chuck Sheley, a retired jumper and vice president of the National Smokejumper Association. “The same principle still applies today.”

Over time, debate has arisen over the need for smokejumpers in the lower 48 as development has spread into previously remote areas. Now 90 percent of fires start within a half mile of a road, and most can be accessed by vehicles. But in the Alaskan interior—a region roughly the size of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana combined—the vast majority of the land is accessible only by aircraft. Many remote fires are allowed to burn, but when a fire threatens lives and property, smokejumpers remain the frontline troops.

Alaska smokejumper training is among the most demanding in the world. Of the up to 200 people who apply each year, roughly 10 are selected for rookie training. The most competitive applicants have five to 10 years of wildland firefighting experience and can do 60 sit-ups, 35 push-ups, 10 pull-ups, run 1.5 miles in nine minutes 30 seconds or three miles in less than 22 minutes 30 seconds, and carry a 110-pound pack for three miles in less than 55 minutes. Each smokejumper must pass a version of this test annually to keep his or her job. (Currently all 64 Alaska smokejumpers are men, though over the years there have been seven women.)

“We only choose people who can perform under stress,” says Robert Yeager, a former rookie trainer. “People who can control their nerves, their anxiety, and their adrenaline, people willing to accept life-or-death challenges.”

Those accepted to the five-week training course already know how to fight fires, but they have to learn advanced parachute skills—how to quickly and accurately calibrate and account for numerous variables that constantly change: the wind, terrain, the state of the parachute, the landing zone. Rookies make at least 20 practice jumps, which are filmed and critiqued. Forty percent of the trainees don’t make the cut.

But those who pass this crucible become members of an elite fraternity that includes Willi Unsoeld, one of the first Americans to summit Mount Everest; Stuart Roosa, the Apollo 14 command module pilot; Ken Sisler, an intelligence officer killed in Vietnam who was awarded the Medal of Honor; and Deanne Shulman, who in 1981 became the first woman to join the ranks.

The smokejumpers land less than 50 yards from the blaze now labeled Fire 320, tumbling onto their hips to absorb the impact. Within minutes they have packed up their parachutes. The pallets with firefighting equipment—chainsaws, shovels, beaters, Pulaskis (combination ax-adze tools)—are dropping into the landing zone. The men barely have time to break open the boxes before the wind shifts.

“Suddenly the wind was coming out of the south, rather than the north,” McPhetridge, the designated incident commander, tells me later. “We were concerned the fire might flank us.”

The men don’t have time to gather the cargo chutes. Instead they go straight to the fire. Flames are shooting up spruce trees and igniting the brittle caribou moss. Smoke is pouring through the forest. The men begin pounding the edge of the fire with their beaters—poles with thick rubber blades on the ends—but it has been a dry summer, and the caribou moss is a six-inch bed of prime tinder. They knock it down, but the flames pop right back up.

“It wasn’t going to go out without water,” McPhetridge says. The men run to a nearby creek and fill up four five-gallon “piss bags” using their hard hats. Evan Karp, 36, a hulk of a jumper with a thick, untamed beard, sets up a water pump and begins laying hose while the rest of the men race back to the fire.

McPhetridge gives no commands or orders. “Everybody knew exactly what to do,” he says later. “That’s the beauty of the unit.”

While one jumper operates the water pump, filling and refilling the bladders, four men attack the left flank and three attack the right flank. The men move along the edge of the fire, pounding the flames, spraying water, choking on smoke.

The jumpers dig trenches, cut trees, and empty and refill the bladders without stopping. By 3 a.m. the next day, after several hours of backbreaking work, they’ve completed the fire perimeter. With blackened hands and faces, the men crawl into their sleeping bags for a few hours of sleep. They’re back on the fire line at 7 a.m. Some use chainsaws to cut down green trees to expand the fire line around the smoldering black edge of the blaze, others are digging with their Pulaskis.

The initial attack is over, and McPhetridge walks the perimeter of the fire. It’s only 33 acres, a tiny fire compared with the huge conflagrations that make headlines in the lower 48. But left unchecked, it could’ve burned thousands of acres, perhaps tens of thousands. He calls the fire dispatcher with an update and is told headquarters is pulling his team out. A crew of firefighters drawn from local Alaska native communities will be helicoptered in for the final mop-up duty. They will go over every square yard of the “black,” digging and dousing, making sure the fire is completely out.

Just before 9 p.m. the day after they parachuted in, the eight smokejumpers are helicoptered 50 miles to Bettles, a tiny village consisting of a couple lodges and a dirt airstrip deep in the Alaskan interior. Mission accomplished.

Or so they think.

Two bad things happen after the smokejumpers are pulled off Fire 320. First, the equipment for the Alaska native crew is delayed in Fairbanks, so they never make it to the fire scene to do the mop-up. Second, winds sweep down from the north and breathe new life on the embers. The fire starts to blow up, and the afternoon after leaving the area, the smokejumpers helicopter back in. By the time they’re on the ground midafternoon, the fire has spread across 150 acres, and they immediately call in reinforcements. Another load of eight smokejumpers drops in, and together the 16 men begin to cut a line along the reborn fire’s left flank, using the Iniakuk River to hold the right flank. But because of the dry conditions and abundance of the brittle caribou moss, the blaze can’t be beaten into submission. Without lots of water, it won’t go out. The smokejumpers call in the Fire Bosses—crop dusting–style planes equipped to carry 800 gallons—to bomb the flames. They zoom in low and release their loads of water, then circle back to Iniakuk Lake, glide over its turquoise surface at 80 miles per hour, scoop up another 800 gallons, and return to drop it on the fire.

Still, the flames persist. The fire is now burning so hot that it reignites right after a drenching. Fanned by the winds, it gains momentum, flowing like molten lava into green timber. Bigger scooper planes are called in, CL-415s, which can release 1,600 gallons at a time, along with a helicopter with a huge water bucket hanging from a long line. While multiple aircraft fly successive water-bombing missions, the men on the ground race to cut a defensible fire line north through the forest—chainsawing trees, mowing down the underbrush, pounding out flames. By 10 p.m., seven hours after jumping in for the second time, they have tied the north end of the left flank into the curving Iniakuk River.

Around midnight the smokejumpers withdraw to a campsite near the fire. Their faces are blackened with ash, their eyes raw, their bodies battered. Each man wearily cooks his dinner over the campfire. They eat military MREs as well as cans of chili or string beans, tins of sardines, and loads of energy bars. But the night’s specialty is Spam, slow-fried with fresh onions and peppers over scarlet coals.

The men swat mosquitoes and squint into the fire. Their clothes are caked with salt from sweat, but someone is always willing to tell a story. Like the time David Bloemker dislocated his shoulder. The season had ended in Alaska, and he was down in Montana parachuting on a fire in Kootenai National Forest.

“Then the wind just died and there was a log I hadn’t seen in a bad spot,” says Bloemker, 45, who’s spent two decades as a smokejumper. “I flared but came in too hot. My toe caught on a tussock of bear grass. Smashed my shoulder and blew out my labrum. Had to hike to where a helicopter could land, maybe a couple of miles.”

The men nod silently; most have already heard this tale. The stories serve as more than just entertainment—they’re a way for smokejumpers to teach each other. The real-world lessons of fighting unpredictable fires in remote wilderness are too numerous to fit into a couple years of training. Freakish wind changes, embers of old fires that survive winter only to ignite in spring, parachute malfunctions, backup-parachute malfunctions, chainsaw mishaps, colleagues who never made it home from their last deployment—these and hundreds more are gleaned over long careers and passed on by exhausted firefighters around campfires such as this one.

Bloemker stands up, dumps the remains of his tin cup into the fire and adjusts the .44-caliber Smith & Wesson on his belt. The revolver prompts another story.

“We were deep in the interior near Bear Lake, funny enough. We’d heard there was a habituated bear in the area, breaking into cabins. When we got off the fire and back to camp, we could tell a bear had messed with our gear. The next day the bear came back and tore into one of our tents. We started up a chainsaw and scared it away. That evening the bear came back again, but this time we couldn’t scare him away. He started getting aggressive, stalking some of the guys through the trees. He made a false charge. Then he made a second false charge. On the third aggressive move I braced myself in the notch of a tree and shot him between the eyes.”

The story is a reminder that fire isn’t the only adversary in the backcountry. But by this time some of the grimy men are fast asleep.

The smokejumpers are back on Fire 320 at 7 a.m., but during the night the winds have shifted again. The fire has exploded to 600 acres. The flames are now throwing embers hundreds of feet into the air and across the river. It is quickly decided that the far side of the river is indefensible, so the men start cutting a line south to tie up the left flank. They toil for hours, breathing smoke, spitting ash, sweating through their filthy clothes.

But “Big Ernie,” the smokejumpers’ name for the fickle god of forest fires, has a twisted sense of humor. Just as they’re getting close to anchoring the left flank to the river, winds sweep the fire south along the unprotected opposite bank, then shift to blow embers west back across the river, planting a new “spot fire” behind the men, one that threatens to surround them.

The smokejumpers must remain hypervigilant to such changes, McPhetridge says. “You can’t control the winds. You can get killed.”

The spot fire rapidly spreads in all directions through dry caribou moss. Most of the men shift southward in an attempt to circle the spot. Two men with chainsaws are cutting everything in sight along the edge of the flames. Some of the crew are dragging the unburned trunks into the green areas to deprive the fire of additional fuel. Others are pounding the flames along the black with beaters. The Fire Bosses roar overhead every four minutes, dropping water. The men step back but are still drenched.

After hours of frantic work, the northern and western edges of the new spot fire are almost under control, but the flames are now howling southward, borne by a northern wind. The 16 smokejumpers just can’t get ahead of the fire. Their only option is to pull out before it cuts off their escape route.

The next day the fire will grow to 1,500 acres and the smokejumpers are forced to retrench, moving from offense to defense. One of the veteran jumpers laments his crew being pulled off the fire before it was completely extinguished. “We’d caught it at 33 acres,” he says. Smokejumpers ruefully call this “catch and release.”

Their only goal now is to protect the few cabins and a lodge on Iniakuk Lake. Using Zodiac watercraft, they shuttle fire hoses, water pumps, and sprinklers to each structure on the lake. The pumps are set in the lake and the sprinklers set to protect the roofs of the cabins.

Jeff Poor owns the cabin closest to the fire. A scraggly old trapper who was once from the East Coast but “went as far away as I could possibly get,” he built his cabin by hand in 1976. “More’n happy to see these smokejumpers!” says Poor, who sells his pelts—wolf, marten, lynx—to Russian buyers. “Always happy to have the help.”

Pat Gaedeke, who with her husband built the lodge at the end of the lake in 1974, is the one who initially called in the fire. She is beside herself with joy. “I can’t believe all the resources they’re using to help us,” she says.

Eventually, after dozens of sprinklers and thousands of feet of hose are deployed, each structure is protected inside a half circle of plumbing that can thoroughly soak the property and prevent it from burning.

The smokejumpers are back at their camp by 10 p.m. Exhausted, they sprawl around the campfire. Cans of peaches are passed around, and the men pull out the slippery halves with their blackened fingers. A chunk of cheese is making the rounds; each man lops off a portion with his knife. “Hey, you guys remember when ...” and someone starts a story.

The eight smokejumpers on the initial attack ended up spending 16 days on the Iniakuk Lake fire before being relieved. The fire burned more than 36,000 acres, but all the structures in the area were saved. “The fire burned all summer and was still burning when we left in September,” says Pat Gaedeke. “Mother Nature finally put it out when it began to snow.”

Mark Jenkins wrote about Myanmar’s toughest mountain climb for the September 2015 issue. Staff photographer Mark Thiessen has covered firefighting around the world for nearly 25 years.

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