Joe Don Morton

Smoke Jumper

Dec 1, 2004
Outside Magazine

The wildfire outside the Alaskan town of Arctic Village was small, maybe only five acres, when veteran firefighter Joe Don Morton hurled himself from the belly of a Casa 212 aircraft on June 22, 2004. Even 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in the sparsely vegetated foothills of the Brooks Range, it took eight men and two CL-215 tanker planes three days to douse the blaze. Morton, 34, is a veteran Alaska Smokejumper, one of 68 elite firefighters who serve as the Last Frontier's first line of defense against wildfires, parachuting into the backcountry as soon as flames are spotted. Smoke jumpers are a burly breed, but in Alaska—where 99 percent of the state is wild and roadless backcountry—the job redefines hardcore. "When I heard about guys throwing themselves into the middle of burning, untamed wilderness 500 miles from the nearest road," says Morton, a former Navy search-and-rescue swimmer who got his start fighting fires in Arizona, "I knew it was my calling." Good thing, because 2004 was Alaska's worst fire season on record, with 680 separate blazes charring nearly 6.5 million acres across the state, including the headline-grabbing Boundary Fire, which scorched 537,000 acres of the White Mountains National Recreation Area and threatened suburban Fairbanks in June. "It looked like a war zone," says Morton, who made nine jumps between May and late September, often hauling up to 110 pounds of gear (including a Kevlar jumpsuit, hard hat, ax, and chainsaw) to clear terrain just ahead of the flames. "The large fires kept our guys out there a long time," says base manager Dalan Romero. "They were a challenge to everyone's endurance."