Summer after summer, the smokejumpers head for the front lines as the tinderbox forests of the West explode. Fire is the killer and the ally, and every time they escape it, they can't wait for the inferno to begin again.
Out of Louisiana frog swamp and Kentucky canebrake, Kansas cheatgrass and Dakota badland, they appear on the bright cusp of summer, marked like exotic birds in their Forest Service pickle suits or pressed fire shirts. Men and women, flying west, flushed out by lightning. In the airport lounges of Salt Lake City, Denver, and Missoula, they gather in circles, chewing gum, their clean hands looping with the punch line of some random joke. Their faces are weathered and open, reflections, to a large degree, of the landscapes that have shaped them. Their last meal may have been salmon; it may have been a good piece of sirloin. They may have slept eight hours; if they did, many of them won’t again until the first snow falls.
Between now and that snow, however, these men and women–the ones known as helitacs and hotshots and the elite firefighting crews called smokejumpers–will hump thousands of backcountry miles, dig fire lines until their backs are wrecked, and push through so many days of fatigue that the snake-hiss and flicker of flame will seem like a fever-dream. Some of them will be injured; some will die–their bodies identifiable only by dental records. And yet they will go on chasing the erratic mind of wildfire: to the top of the next spur ridge, to the bottom of the next gully.
As it has been for years, this chase often plays itself out most dramatically through the gasoline forests of the West, where a decade of all-time drought conditions and insect infestations has left some forests up to 90 percent dead. It begins with the lightning storms that crash the Southwest during the spring dry season, igniting the chaparral and mesquite of New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas until the summer monsoons douse everything with driving rains. The fires move through the mixed conifers of the Rockies–Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Washington and Oregon flare simultaneously, and the Northwest may burn until Halloween. With the October Santa Ana winds in southern California fanning new blazes, the season’s end is punctuated by some of the wildest and most dangerous fire, often in heavily populated areas. And every year, the gypsy caravan mobilizes: the fire-command officers, the PR staffers, the caterers and contractors, the helicopter pilots and water-tender operators.
As the months pass, the men and women begin to reappear in the airport lounges. This time they stand in tighter circles, raccoon-eyed, inside themselves. They smell of ash, their fingernails are black crescents, their hands are marked by nettles and scabs and bee stings. They have hacking coughs from weeks of breathing smoke; because of it many of them will come down with low-grade fevers and unshakable colds. When they finally arrive back home, they may sleep for eight hours or eight days, floating in a Rip Van Winkle haze, until one night they dream of a burning twig and then flaming leaves and then finally a full-blown fire that eats trees, flowers, rabbits, bones. When they wake up months later, on the bright cusp of summer, the mad circus–the barbecue to end all barbecues–has begun again.
Several weeks after the tragedy at Colorado’s Storm King Mountain that left 14 firefighters dead in July 1994, I drive west out of Missoula, crossing Idaho’s panhandle beneath high kingdoms of cloud and smoke. It’s a hot day near the end of August, and the wind hurries loamy whiffs of burning cedar through the car window. I drop to the tumble-rock bottom of Hell’s Canyon, enshrouded by smoke, and pass into the deep spruce forests near Burgdorf, which are burning a few miles back from the road. Another 20 miles south and I’m in McCall, a town of 2,200 set beside a mountain lake, which has become command central in the effort to control more than a quarter-million burning acres in nearby Payette National Forest.
I arrive during the high point of one of the worst fire years of the century, one that will claim 34 lives, burn more than four million acres, and cost about $925 million to fight. McCall’s main street is choked with army trucks, while helicopters buzz over the lake and planes full of slurry, a bubble-gum-pink fire retardant, dematerialize on the horizon. Buses ferry personnel between town and ten fire camps set in the woods, each one a mosaic of Navajos and Mexicans, homeboys and white boys, part of the America that exists inside the burning America.
Out at the airport, the jumper base looks like little more than a big Amish barn with two planes parked nearby, a Douglas DC-3 and a DeHavilland Twin Otter. Yet this is the home of one of the country’s elite firefighting tribes, the McCall Smokejumpers–the shock troops, scramble squads, and aerial ambulance crews that respond to the first sign of dysfunction in our forests.
This morning, however, the jumpers are killing time in a few rare moments of calm before the next onslaught of lightning, predicted to hit sometime overnight. Bodies are strewn on the lawn, starfished and basking in the sun to the cranked-up groans of Tom Petty’s “Freefalling.” On the tarmac, Zach Morrow, the towheaded young son of two married jumpers, is spinning under the wing of the Doug, arms outstretched. A handful of jumpers take turns wobbling down the runway on a unicycle while others hoot encouragement.
Through a garage door, I pass into what’s called the ready room, a cavernous, cement-floored hangar with parachutes stacked like mailbags against one wall. On hooks around the room hang Kevlar jumpsuits, padded, puffy numbers with big Elvis collars. The jumpers’ lockers–those belonging to Koy, Outlaw, Hog, Catfish, Hurricane, Real McCoy, Ghost, Sparky, the Human Rototiller, and about 60 others–are small wooden cubbies, stacked in threes. Some are messy with fire gear; some are full of reminders of who the jumpers are when they aren’t jumping: There are pictures of children swimming and men fishing, a photo of a dog in an inflatable pool, and a blue psychedelic tie. A Post-it Note is scribbled with the phone number of a woman, Marla. There’s an onion, an orange, postcards from Fiji and Tonga, more pictures of children splashing in a lake, a girlfriend on a sailboat. So many images of water, it seems, to balance the constant specter of fire.
Two of the lockers are conspicuously empty but for a few items; they belonged to Roger Roth and James Thrash, who died at Storm King Mountain. While Roth was younger and quiet and lived in Florida during the off-season, Thrash was in many ways the heart and soul of the McCall jumpers. A 44-year-old father of two and a hunting guide in nearby New Meadows during the off-season, he was legendary for his cool head in chaotic situations. Thrash’s bones were found inside his fire shelter, near what was left of another body, that of a woman hotshot he apparently tried to save from a fire that tore uphill at 30 miles per hour. Thrash’s locker still bears his name, and inside it are a pair of folded jeans, a pair of sneakers, a toothbrush, and a Frank Thomas baseball card. A few weeks ago, he might have been the first person I met walking in.
Instead, it’s Captain Jack, who lives in an Airstream trailer across from the base. “Where’ve you been?” he hollers when he spots me loitering in the maze of lockers. “Got worried. Thought we’d send a search party.” At 52, Jack Seagraves is still jumping, something of an anomaly among his McCall colleagues, whose average age is 36. He has gray wisps of hair sticking out of a Casey Jones hat and is fit and slap-happy, with a perpetually ironic grin.
“I’ve always been a rebel,” says Captain Jack, leaning both elbows on the operations desk, behind which hangs the jump list, a batter’s lineup, more or less, for who will go to the next fire. “I’ve been a dentist and a minister. But I gave it all up to come back to jumping. I’m a traveling man.”
Standing nearby, Rob Morrow, the stubble-faced father of Zach, diagnoses the smokejumper’s chronic wanderlust as a Christmas syndrome. “When you’re a little kid, you’re hoping that Santa’s going to bring you that bike,” he says. “You’re pretty sure you’re going to get that bike. And then Christmas morning–bingo! Smokejumping is like that all summer. You keep hoping for that phone to ring the night before work, that voice telling you that you’re going somewhere–Anchorage, Missoula, Redding, maybe Yellowstone or Silver City, New Mexico.”
Preparing for the boondoggle of those little Christmases, however, is a major part of a smokejumper’s life. Captain Jack leads me into the rigging room, where the fine art of parachute-packing takes place on four long tables. As the cultic piece of equipment that separates jumpers from other firefighters, the parachute is handled here with reverence; each one has a log entry that details the fires it’s been used on and the repairs it’s undergone. The walls of the rigging room are festooned with photographs of various jumper teams, hung like fraternity composites, dating back to 1943, the year the base opened in McCall. Each new generation bears a striking resemblance to those that preceded it, with the one exception that in the last seven years three women have joined the group.
We pass through a door into the sewing room, crowded with ironing boards and heavy-duty sewing machines. Five jumpers are hard at work, repairing pack-out bags, chutes, and jumpsuits. Another sews tie-dyed curtains for his Microbus.
“About a third of the jumper bros are good seamsters,” says Louis Hartjes, stroking his blond General Custer goatee. “Another third can hold their own in here, and the rest frankly just haven’t mastered it.”
There is something at first funny and touching about these muscly men hunched over their machines, trading their most intimate sewing secrets–everything from bobbin tensions to complex stitches. But sewing duty is a symbol of real status, and McCall’s four year-round jumpers spend the winter right here, repairing chutes, jumpsuits, packs, boots, and whatever else needs fixing to get the show ready for next season. At one point Bob Charley, perched on a stool and reverently watching Hartjes execute a difficult bar-tacking stitch, sighs wistfully and says to no one in particular, “It’d be damn nice to have your own sewing machine at home.”
Back at the operations desk, Scott Anderson, a 36-year-old jumper who lives in Boise, is checking the day’s fire update, as well as infrared aerial photographs that mark new spot fires. Every few minutes he glances at the clock and then taps his pencil on the desk. “As we say, smokejumping is prolonged hours of boredom punctuated by stark moments of terror,” he says. “There may be a lot of bureaucracy and bullshit here, but it would take dynamite to blow me out of this job.”
Captain Jack hustles me into his yellow 1974 Chevrolet conversion van for a trip to a basin meadow five miles away where the smokejumpers are planning a practice jump. Inside, the van has wood paneling and gold shag carpet covered by a throw rug depicting an Indian chief wearing a headdress. In a cup holder by the driver’s seat there’s an insulated coffee mug that reads, I’M A MAVERICK. A jar of kalamata olives rolls back and forth under the seat.
By the time we get to the jump spot, Tom Koyama–Koy–is already there, pacing alone in the bear grass dotted by rocks and stumps. Koy is acting as fire-drill instructor today, dressed casually in a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals. He’s been jumping for 22 years and, having survived more than 350 jumps, is regarded as one of the high lamas around the base.
We hear the Doug before we can see it, and when it comes into full view, the engines cut down and the plane begins to wheel in a wide circle over the meadow. Koy props himself up on an enormous fallen spruce and speaks by walkie-talkie to the spotter, who’s poised at the plane’s back door, ready to send the jumpers out two at a time.
Before the jump, the spotter lobs two sets of weighted streamers out of the plane–unfurling yellow and pink snakes that drift toward the ground. If it takes them 75 seconds to land, then the spotter knows the jumpers will have enough time to react should a chute fail to open. If the streamers land directly in the clearing, then it’s assumed a human body will, too–which is not always the case if the jump spot is postage-stamp size or on an incline or if the wind is shifting in such a way that it seems a near-impossible feat of acrobatics to land anywhere but in a forgiving tree. The spotter will often look for a flat landing site a safe distance from the fire, though on occasion jumpers will be forced to descend through smoke, landing close enough to the inferno to feel hot cinders rising up against their skin. Today, however, the streamers float lazily to the ground, the plane loops around once more, and Koy grumbles into the walkie-talkie: “Winds out of the northwest at five miles per hour. Let’s go 142-Zulu.”
Above us, at about 1,500 feet, the first jumper, who’s now perched in the back door, checks the topography below and evaluates wind conditions: Is it rushing fast? Is it burbling? Is it up-air or down-air? Then he passes the word back. The spotter sends him out the door with a slap on the back of his leg.
“When you first start jumping as a rookie, the spotter says, ‘There’s your jump spot,’ and you find the meadow and you jump into it,” says Rob Morrow. “But over time, you begin to see the bigger rocks and bigger logs and bigger trees and the better part of the meadow, and then maybe a couple more years and you’re seeing everything, including the trail that gets you out of there. You size up the fire, the fuels next to the fire. The whole jump becomes highly analytical. It turns into a video game.”
In that perilous moment when the jumpers step free of the plane, when they take what amounts to their own private leaps of faith, they seem shot from a cannon; the parachute, nothing but a rippling ribbon strung out behind the jumper’s body, which may reach immediate bullet-speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. Within seconds, however, there’s a loud fuup as the chute blossoms and the jumper is suddenly pulled up, bobbing in the air.
“The heavy guys hit like sacks of shit,” says Koy, watching his comrades pendulum down in a rain of hoots and hollers. “That’s where you get all kinds of sprained knees and ankles.” Others land funny–on rocks or stumps or hornet’s nests. Should a jumper come down in a tree, which is commonly the last resort for someone barreling earthward in tricky winds toward a tricky spot, the chute may fail to catch in the branches and the jumper may “burn through,” falling straight to the ground. Compressed lumbar spines, broken ankles and tibias, and major back traumas are often the result, which is why jumpers look for lodgepole pines and Douglas firs, both softer trees with sturdy canopies, and hope to avoid ponderosa pines and western larches.
“Smokejumping is a lighter, smaller man’s business,” says Koy. By and large, jumpers are wood-strong, lithe, and fit. Few are taller than five-foot-nine in stocking feet, though there’s a compaction of muscle to their torsos and legs that creates an illusion of bigness. They can motor up a 35-degree slope at 8,000 feet without puffing. Watching them work, you get the feeling that Seneca might have been on to something when he claimed that all living beings are made of fire. The jumpers make a strong case for it–restless, darty, explosive.
Now in full swing, the practice jump seems to be going smoothly. Ten jumpers have landed on the ground and are in various stages of peeling off their jumpsuits and rolling up their chutes. Some pull out tins of chewing tobacco. Some are bare-chested, tanning in the blazing sun. But when one jumper comes blitzing down, running with the wind, everyone freezes.
“Schaeffer, whataya trying to do, end your career?” growls Koy loudly, adding under his breath: “Son of a bitch.” Schaeffer lands hard, rolls, and comes up smiling, an embarrassed grin that’s part cocky sneer. And even as he begins to remove his jumpsuit, bodies keep falling from the sky, peony after peony, bright white against the deep blue ether.
“You know what they say about us, don’t you?” asks a jumper, winking as he trudges past me on his way to the lime-green Forest Service rigs that will drive everyone back to the base. “They can’t send us to hell, because we’d put it out.”
It’s been two months of orange moons and red suns and trees flaring like torched cathedral spires within sight of McCall’s main drag. At night, smoke creeps down from the molten forests into town. Drift smoke, mountain smoke, and lake smoke commingle in slow fingers through the streets and wisp over neatly trimmed lawns, brushing up against house foundations. If you sleep with a window open, you inevitably wake up coughing in the night, adrift in blue clouds.
It’s six o’clock on a Sunday morning, the sky a bruised purple, and the first of the jumpers begin straggling into the base for a crew briefing. Overnight, lightning has bombarded the high desert of eastern Oregon and the rolling hills near Council, Idaho, 25 minutes west of here by plane, and plans for a jump have changed several times. While the big blazes in the McCall area have been raging out of control for nearly four weeks, the smokejumpers are often more valuable rushing out to meet the new, incoming fires, swatting them down before they turn big and break away.
The meeting is brief and all business, run by Scott Anderson. He has a brown mustache, a smudge of ash on his nose, and pale blue eyes that are deep-set by hard, high cheekbones. He runs the meeting efficiently but accommodates all questions as the jumpers scramble to find out where they’re going and how long they’ll be stuck in the woods. Thirty of them crowd the operations desk, and when Anderson announces that both planes will fly within the half hour the whole place takes on new voltage.
After the meeting, the jumpers mill around excitedly, throw high fives, share orange wedges, sip coffee, glance at the morning’s sports page. “It’s back to freeze-dried,” laments one jumper as he stuffs a box of cookies into his pack. “The Fig Newtons are key.” Another pauses near Thrash’s locker, picks up the Frank Thomas baseball card, and then puts it back between the old sneakers.
When the hangar door goes up and the chill morning air invades the ready room, the jangle and click of buckles and zippers is counterpointed by the heavy thud of boots on the cement floor. Outside, the plane props begin to sputter; we can smell cooking spruce and see a pink brain of smoke hovering over Chicken Peak in the distance. In their outsize jumpsuits and Bell helmets with caged face guards, the jumpers line up for an equipment check. There’s something both clownish and solemn about them as they make the transition from bed and home to the possibility of weeks away in the woods, the scent and weight of their lives and lovers and kids and dogs still on them but dissipating with the wind kicked up by the whirring propellers of the planes.
“Smokejumping can be extremely difficult on a marriage, because you never know where a jumper is going to be,” says eight-year veteran Brad Sanders. He gestures with his hands when he talks, fingers wide and callused. “Some jumper spouses just get hardened and say, ‘Hey, why aren’t you out on a fire? We need a new couch.’ Others spend the season wanting their husbands or wives back.” Sanders claims that in a “boomer” summer–one that might include more than 20 jumps and lots of overtime–a jumper can make as much as $25,000. This can also create a dilemma: While jumpers, like most seasonal employees, hope to work as many overtime hours as possible, many are foresters and have come to realize that, in some respects, firefighting is futile, if not damaging to the forests.
“On 90 percent of my jumps, I get to the ground, I look at the trees, and they’re on the verge of dying,” says Sanders. “By nature’s way, it’s time for that forest to burn, yet I’m trained to put out fires and that’s exactly what I do. In your mind, though, there’s that constant nagging doubt about whether you’re right.”
One by one the jumpers make their way across the tarmac now and vanish into the bellies of the Otter and the Doug. Both planes begin to taxi and then, in quick succession, rise from the ground, tippy-winged. Once they’re gone, Captain Jack and I commandeer a Forest Service four-wheel-drive and head west in hopes of meeting four jumpers who are planning to land in the Hornet Reservoir area, 80 miles away by car. When we see a trail of smoke rising from the woods, we leave the truck on a ridge and pick our way through jackstrawed downfall, the sun breaking through the canopy in bright bolts.
In a small clearing we find two helitacs, firefighters who have been ferried in by helicopter, working on a piece of land the size of a large garden plot. They’re armed with Pulaskis (part ax, part hoe) and use them ferociously as they turn the soil in search of smoldering leaves and twigs. A helicopter buzzes back and forth between the scorched plot and the reservoir, dumping 75-gallon loads from a Bambi bucket with each run. Captain Jack works the walkie-talkie, trying to contact the jumpers, and it’s not long before Brad Sanders comes crashing through the brush on foot. He and three other jumpers have just finished working on the other side of the ridge at a spot not unlike this one. He points to the top of one tree, to the place where lightning struck–the bark and meat of the tree exploded as if it’s taken a bullet–and the jumpers debate whether the inside of the trunk could be on fire, only to catch later when they’re gone.
“What people don’t realize is that a lot of our calls are like this, mostly small, creeping fires,” says Sanders. “But we need to get around the fire as quickly as possible, cutting the brush to make a control line. Out here you’re away from the headaches and politics. You’re your own boss, and the job becomes pure again.”
After a decision has been made to leave the tree standing, Captain Jack, Sanders, and I climb up the hill and drive back down the road to where the three other jumpers are lounging in the shade, their heads propped on their packs. The fact that they’ve been caught slacking, having done their job quickly and efficiently, and are now waiting for a ride home seems to strike them as the worst possible unveiling. They glare and then try as best they can to ignore me. We stay long enough to clip some M&M’s for the ride back and leave the jumpers as we found them, dirty-faced and spitting, looking more and more, in the rearview mirror, like a surly portrait of extras from a spaghetti western.
Beneath an arcane nimbus of numbers scrawled on a chalkboard and an oil painting of a fire by his wife , Richard Rothermel sits in his cramped office at the Intermountain Fire Sciences Lab in Missoula. He wears a plaid shirt with a single pen in his pocket and has a hearing aid in his right ear; his bottom teeth make a crooked corn row. Depending on whether or not fire is the topic of conversation, he comes off as the consummate physics teacher or someone’s kindly grandfather. While some scientists embrace their celebrity, however cultish, with grandiose proclamations and gestures, Rothermel, 66, remains ever diligent, soft-spoken, lost in the derivatives and energy balances that, for him, divine fire.
What has brought Rothermel such notoriety, and what inspires fire behaviorists from as far away as China, South Africa, and Australia to travel to the lab to meet him, is his 1972 invention of a versatile mathematical model that attempts to predict what a fire will do and is used on every continent except Antarctica as part of a computer program called BEHAVE. “In the beginning, I approached fire less as a scientist and more as an engineer,” he says, looking out his window at the browned-over hills of another scorching summer day. “I figured, even if we didn’t have all the answers to fire, we should at least try to help those firefighters out in the field.”
To that end, Rothermel put himself on the fire line, traveling for three decades to some of the century’s wildest fires, among them the Yellowstone fires, Sundance in Idaho, Mink Creek in Wyoming, and Hog in California. Season after season, he broke fire down, analyzing it like an unruly patient, parsing out its most important variables–flame length, intensity, and spread life. He then plugged those variables into complex equations that accounted for drought conditions, fuels, and even cloud cover, all in an attempt to codify the countless incarnations of fire.
On this particular afternoon, Rothermel has just returned from giving a talk to the Missoula smokejumpers about crown fires, the kind that often travel rapidly through treetops and that killed 11 smokejumpers at Montana’s Mann Gulch in 1949. “A jumper’s job is full of risks,” he says. “Especially now, with the unusual dryness and the intense number of lightning strikes, they have to watch for things like plume-driven fires, ones that burn heavy fuels and create a thunderhead. The fires literally make their own weather, mostly rain and winds called downbursts. That’s how they suddenly blow up.”
Rothermel leads me up to a room where six fire behaviorists sit in the dark against one wall, their faces lit orange. Across from them is a plate-glass window that runs nearly the length of the room, and behind it a fire flares in a wind tunnel, catching and then burning through a bed of ponderosa pine needles laid out over a long platform. A computer races with data–colored bars bouncing frenetically on a graph–and one behaviorist barks out numbers like an auctioneer as the others nod knowingly. The radiant heat is intense enough to feel through the glass, and I can’t help but think that we’re witnessing the computer-death of the fire gods–Hephaestus, Vulcan, and Mulciber–caught behind glass for closer observation. When I ask Rothermel if he believes that fire is a supernatural force, he laughs: “No, no. In fact, I try not to think of it at all in religious or personal terms, because the fire isn’t trying to do anything. It doesn’t have a memory or ambition. It just behaves in peculiar ways based on the physical conditions in which it finds itself.”
Yet for thousands of years fire has been viewed mythologically. As fire historian Stephen Pyne points out in his book World Fire, nearly everyone–from the Aztecs to the Stoics, the Christians to the Norse–has been haunted by visions of “world-beginning or world-consuming fire.” The cosmologies of fire, in turn, are endless. It has been sexualized by poets from Homer to Rilke. The Egyptians thought fire was a ravening monster that would sooner consume trees and humans than die without food. In the Middle Ages, as Gaston Bachelard mentions in his quirky 1938 book The Psychoanalysis of Fire, it was considered a “terrestrial exhalation” meant to nourish the stars, traveling by comet, as if by spoon, to the distant hungry mouth of the sun. And ever since Zeus thumped the Titans with lightning bolts, fire has been seen, and used, as a weapon of war.
Given these multifarious, if at times paradoxical, guises, fire has been more deeply understood as a social, political, and cultural event than a natural one. In America, where our wildlands are regarded as museum pieces–or “vignettes,” in the infamous words of the Leopold Report, whose namesake, Aldo Leopold, died in a 1948 blaze–fire has worn the dark cowl of an intruder. And since fire shows no regard for muscle, bone, and sinew, it’s the one thing that annually reduces our swaggering selves to a mad scramble of scarecrows. So we’ve looked to quash it–as if by beating the holy crap out of it, we might teach it a thing or two about etiquette.
Even the 1988 Yellowstone fires–a media-saturated event that ostensibly made a case for the necessity of fire and a let-burn policy in our nation’s forests–seemed to have left only a faint mark on our psyche. “When the temperatures go up and the humidity drops, suddenly all this stuff we talked about all winter long in the Forest Service–ecosystem management and using fire to our advantage–goes out the window,” says jumper Brad Sanders. “We suddenly need to suppress everything, because the public says there’s too much smoke in the valley or the local landowners say their homes are threatened.”
Perhaps this is partly because fire creates a convenient Manichaean universe of good and evil, glorifying anyone who stakes a claim against it. And in many ways the war against fire serves as a reminder that American might makes right. Smokey Bear, as the ranger-general in a Cold War state of mind, has often mixed his antifire messages with religion and nationalism, advertising the fight against fire as nothing less than a jihad sanctioned by the long-suffering furry creatures of the burning woods.
Since 1908, when Congress established a limitless emergency fund for fire suppression, the Forest Service, among other fire agencies, has aggressively fought fire and, in the process, has profited with equipment, aircraft, and personnel. Meanwhile, tax dollars funnel into the local economies of many western fire towns–$7 million found its way to McCall in 1994. Helicopter service, mostly provided by private industry, totaled $80 million in the West. “It’s a potlatch–massive, ritualistic spending in a ceremonial way,” says Pyne. “Though crazy, it’s not necessarily malevolent; it’s just the logic of the situation.” Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, argues that years of fire suppression have created “an incendiary-industrial complex” responsible for about $6 billion spent over the past decade on an effort that has left the forests of the West ragged with spruce beetle infestations and acres of dry downfall.
At its ugliest, the fire industry has also fostered profit-mongering. In the summer of 1994, federal prosecutors charged Ernest Ellison, a former mill worker, with arson on public lands in northern California, claiming that he’d been hired by a group of private contractors to set at least three Trinity County blazes in 1992. Arson fires became so severe that summer that the Forest Service set up surveillance cameras in remote areas in the hopes of catching other culprits.
Back in the lab, Rothermel returns to his office and resumes his seat behind his desk. “We need to think about fire simply as an expression of the earth,” he says. “Fire’s been here ever since we’ve had trees and vegetation and lightning to start it. For some reason, this has been one of the most difficult things for modern people to deal with: Many of our forests have evolved because of their relationships to fire, and continually suppressing it has badly hurt them. What we’re seeing now is that the West not only wants, but needs, to burn. And so it is.”
He remembers sailing backward over the football field in New Meadows during a demo jump, working his toggles, thinking, Yes, something has gone terribly wrong. The wind was howling and all the schoolkids gathered in the grandstand for Career Day were screaming and suddenly power lines and street signs and cars were passing beneath his feet. Instead of landing at the 50-yard line in a tumble of glory, he crashed down in someone’s backyard and she came out in a bathrobe wielding a mean broom. “We call it the Red Dawn jump,” says Scott Anderson. “Guys got bit by dogs, hit jungle gyms, held up traffic. It was ugly. Only three of us made the football field. But it was still better than the rodeo jump, where we landed in cow manure.”
Anderson and his girlfriend, Sandie Waters, are sitting across the table from me at the McCall Brewing Company, a big bustling room finished in wood, warmly lit, with two copper beer tanks behind the bar. Every few minutes the couple greets another friend, another jumper, an old-timer who trades a quick jumping story. There are jumpers at the next table and more perched on high stools, drinking cold wheat beer, sacrificing, as they say, to Big Ernie, the fire god. It is a group with deep family ties and rituals. From the Big Flip, an elaborate coin toss that ends up with a night of revelry in town, to the termination party–what’s called the T-party–a year-end gathering turned rowdy love-in, the social network, the push and pull of razzing and respect that governs the days here, is necessary to balance the long hours and heavy work on the fire line.
And with the twin death-blows at Storm King Mountain, the McCall family has become that much closer. In fact, Jim Thrash’s funeral, attended by hundreds, turned into a spectacle of small-town jumper solidarity, as much a tribute to the jumper life as to Thrash himself. The jumpers, including the pastor, wore their fire boots in honor of Thrash and used their fire shovels to bury him. His casket was draped with a parachute, and he was buried with a Dodgers baseball cap, a fire shirt, a bottle of scotch, and a eulogy read by jumper Greg Beck.
“I know some people may not have thought of it this way, but Jim Thrash and Roger Roth fulfilled every jumper’s fantasy,” says Anderson, sipping his beer. “Everyone wants to live forever, and in dying on that hill, they became immortal.”
Later, when I ask Rob Morrow and Karen Dorris how they’ve been affected by the tragedy, they admit that they’ve just drawn up a will that will take care of their son, Zach. “It was a moment when your place on the jump list determined how you went out,” says Morrow, who discovered Thrash’s body. “It could have been Karen or me, and that lottery concept is something that slaps you. It’s something you have to learn to live with, something we’re still trying to learn to live with. Walking up on Storm King Mountain and finding those bodies, I thought, Shit, this could’ve been my wife.
“I’ve jumped with one of Thrash’s reserve parachutes all summer long,” Morrow continues, clearing his throat. “He rigged it, and I’ve kept it all summer, and it’s like jumping with an angel.”
With the death of the three smokejumpers at Storm King Mountain–the third was Don Mackey, from the Missoula base–the media drew immediate if obvious comparisons to the 1949 Mann Gulch catastrophe. In many ways, the two bear little resemblance, yet thanks in part to the acclaim of Norman Maclean’s 1992 book Young Men and Fire, Mann Gulch remains a brutal emblem of how a bad day’s work can end for a smokejumper.
“When you think about Storm King, as when you think about Mann Gulch, you wonder why it happened and why some of us were lucky to live and some weren’t,” says Bob Sallee, the only living survivor of Mann Gulch.
My conversation with Sallee takes place in a silver twilight outside the Spokane paper mill where he works as an executive. The mill is a big brick building, the grounds are lush, and he wears dress slacks and a white shirt open at the collar. His eyes are rheumy and his hair is shock white, as is his neatly trimmed mustache. And while Sallee, who’s now 64, jumped for only two years, he became famous because he miraculously survived Mann Gulch with Walter Rumsey and Wag Dodge and showed up as a 18-year-old kid on a “full-page spread” of Life, his lips pressed in an ironic grin for the camera.
When I ask if the survivor’s plight is a life of nightmares, he says he never dreams about Mann Gulch. “But I’ve had one picture all my life,” he says. “The cleft in the rocks that Rumsey and I went through. Just a narrow break in the rocks, a goat trail up through it, only wide enough for one person. The rocks, the arrangement of the rocks, is what I remember. We saw fire below us in the canyon and then flanking us. When it blew up it was like a jet airplane taking off, a huge explosion and roar, and I knew something bad was happening and I didn’t look back anymore and I just went for those rocks.”
Sallee is pensive for a moment; the sun sinks suddenly, erasing the shadows thrown by the huge oaks surrounding us. “The problem today is that when you teach people to fight fire, they go into it expecting to win,” he says. “If a tree flares up and singes your whiskers, you don’t think much about it–you just hurry on a little faster. If a tree falls, it’s an adrenaline rush, and then you go about your business. What we forget is that this is all deadly stuff.”
When lightning first struck a mile north of McCall three weeks ago, the Corral blaze was nothing but a few flickers in the duff; seven days later, after it overpowered a group of smokejumpers, the blaze jumped 32,000 acres and now has gobbled almost double that again, making it one of the biggest fires of the summer. Twenty homes have been evacuated, and 150 firefighters were rushed from their camp when the supply lines were overrun; meanwhile, as the fire runs north, it threatens the spawn on the Salmon River.
“You’ve seen a polite fire,” says Captain Jack, gesturing toward the black moiling clouds that rise off the hills and dissipate into a bluish-gray haze. “Now you’ll meet the delinquent.” Our party today includes photographer Raymond Meeks and his assistant, David Herwaldt. We’ve been issued itchy Nomex pants, fire shirts, and helmets that we wear uncomfortably now. Instead of the moonscape that we’ve expected to see, the fire actually burns in a mosaic pattern, penetrating the wilderness in separate, serpentine strands that occasionally come together when the wind blows hard. For every acre that the Forest Service counts as burned, there are often a surprising number of trees left intact.
As we hike to the edge of the furnace, Captain Jack locates Dave Reeder, a gray-bearded gnome who looks as if he’s been living the last month inside a fallen tree. As the division group supervisor who calls the shots over these four miles of forest, Reeder is in constant dialogue with his walkie-talkie, ever watchful of the hodgepodge of firefighters and army troops under his command. “Part of the adrenaline rush comes from worrying about everyone,” he says, glancing quickly up the hill and then back over his shoulder. “It gets pretty heavy out here. More than 30 people have been injured; one guy’s jugular was cut by a chainsaw, but somehow he lived. There was a Chinook helicopter that disintegrated; the rotor went right through the cockpit and killed a man.”
According to Reeder, the Corral fire is one of the most unpredictable he’s seen in years, superheating the forest to temperatures in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Above our place on the valley floor, spruce trees flash and make loud ripping sounds in the air. When we move up into the fire, the sounds thicken, more like heavy rainfall, and the flames flower wildly in the trees. Flakes of ash sift down in a constant shower, into our mouths, down our backs. Widowmakers–slender burned stubs of tree–are strewn over the hillside or totter on the dangerous edge of falling; Captain Jack and Reeder kick them down as we go. The heat, which is enough to melt a lens cap, concerns Meeks and Herwaldt, who go through the motions of fretting before diving deeper into the flames. At one point the tape recorder in my hand becomes so hot that I stuff it into my pocket.
In our attempt to get intimate with fire, we get lost. Captain Jack and Reeder are traipsing around somewhere that’s not here, and here has suddenly become a forgotten closet of the woods where the fire rushes, swells, and then avalanches over one tree, hungrily catching in the next. The flames repeat themselves, tree after tree, moving swiftly along the trunk and up to the crown, shriveling branches as they go. They burn around us now like a maze of Roman candles, and we’re bombarded by shooting colors–bright pumpkin orange, lurid red, cobalt blue, tea green. In the face of it, we’re tempted to stand still, to let the quasars and white dwarves of fire have their way with our euphoric skinny bones.
But a quick blast of heat later we come to our senses, stumbling backward in search of the others. When we find them, we stick close, shuffling down to a clearing out of the fire just as Mark Benz, an army chaplain, approaches, carrying hoses and shovels and Pulaskis. Nothing about him indicates that he is clergy except for a cross on a chain around his neck, but even this he keeps tucked under his fire shirt. Benz, 52, has an expressive Tom Waits face and tells me he served in Vietnam. “This is like going to war,” he says as a helicopter skims overhead and dumps water up the hill. “Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima, Tet. Thank God, fire can’t shoot back.”
We stand watching three firefighters run a hose from a stream to a patch of burning grass. I ask Benz if fire has a soul, and he smiles, kicks his boot at the ground, rubs the side of his mouth with his finger as if he has a fat lip. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, it does. When the forest torches up, there’s a moment of ecstasy. You hear the crackling, and there’s something ancient in it.”
He pauses for a moment, takes in the burning landscape. “The spirituality of fire makes the world physical for me,” the chaplain says. “I’m not sure that describes it. But the soul of fire is a divine one. It humbles you. Makes you human.”
We linger for a moment more, and then I head down the hill with the others. When I look back up, I see the chaplain moving in on the fire, alone and flickering among the flames, swinging his Pulaski.
The T-party is held across the tarmac from the jumper base in a hangar owned by Karen Dorris’s family. It’s the end of September, and a sharp chill in the air has brought out the wool sweaters and fleece. With five inches of snow in the forecast, the season seems on the verge of ending. Outside, against an orangy purple sunset and a distant curtain of black clouds, Captain Jack keeps solemn counsel with himself, nervously pacing the runway, checking his notes, taking long sucks of rum from his I’M A MAVERICK cup. As the emcee for tonight’s hootenanny, he’s begun to feel the pressure of the spotlight.
Inside the hangar, two dopey-looking moose trophies watch over the proceedings from the wall, the jumpers’ pink and yellow streamers are strewn festively in the rafters, and a row of taped-up drawings offers a tableau of the season–a midair collision that left two jumpers unharmed but rattled, one jumper’s trip to Russia as part of a fire education program, a kindled romance, a portrait of Jim Thrash and Roger Roth with the words CLOSE TO GOD across the bottom. A cornucopia of fried chicken, ribs, salad, cole slaw, potatoes, soda, brownies, booze, and more booze is strewn over three long picnic tables.
I sit at a table with jumper Pat Withen and his family, as well as Holly Thrash, Jim’s widow, and her two children. Holly, 43, is a handsome woman with a calm, strong presence that doesn’t go unnoticed in the room: From time to time, people approach and offer a hug or clasp her hand. Her two children, a boy and a girl, are blond-headed and well behaved, and she talks to them with a fond directness–tousles her son’s hair, hugs her daughter.
Meanwhile Captain Jack has stepped to the podium, taking everyone on a loopy, Mount Gay-inspired ride through the season. At one point he does ventriloquy in a Pepe LePew accent, using his fist as a puppet; at another he presents Mr. Thrifty, a two-foot-high plastic skeleton with labels that indicate the broken sternums and broken teeth and broken shoulders of the McCall jumpers this season. He raises a glass and toasts all “the broke jumpers,” and everybody responds with a primal grunt.
At our table conversation is interspersed with Captain Jack’s patter, and when I ask about the disparity between Smokey Bear’s antifire message and the Forest Service’s supposed desire to implement a more active let-burn policy, Holly Thrash says, “We’re fighting almost every fire because we’ve had 50 years of Smokey Bear, one of this country’s most successful and misleading ad campaigns. Urban people don’t know what wildland fire is really all about, and so they want it stopped. The regeneration of the forest is something we’ll never see in our lifetime. It’s a shame.” She says this tersely but not impolitely, and then says no more. She might be alluding to the chain of controversial decisions that endangered the firefighters on Storm King Mountain; the fire was fought within sight of the homes and highways of Glenwood Springs. Not long after Captain Jack offers a toast to her late husband, she gathers up her kids and leaves, smiling good-byes as she goes.
Shortly after the ceremony, the DJ strikes the mother lode of seventies rock, sending most of the jumpers to the far side of the room, closer to the kegs. Zach Morrow, however, dances until he’s hauled off by his parents. Judging by the high fives and handshakes and hugs all around, everyone seems pleased to have crawled through this season, and the jumpers linger late, reveling, slapping backs, singing comically to the music. And despite the music a few of them even start dancing; several others wrestle on the floor.
By the time I’m thinking about bed, sometime after midnight, the hangar is hot and loud, throbbing with music and laughter, the party still on its way to some unknown, bacchanalian climax. When I open the door, the voices from behind rush out into the cool night–“I’m hurt, motherfucker, I’m hurt!”–and drift across the empty tarmac. Above, the stars are shot through with light like so many falling parachutes. More roughhousing, a plaintive cry, and then laughter. In the distance to the south, in the blue-black shadows of Payette National Forest, there’s a stark bone of lightning. Then another.