How do you stop flames in a remote forest before they turn into a wildfire? With a parachute, a folding spade and a chainsaw – we visit the Smokejumpers, the U.S. Forest Service’s elite firefighting unit, in training.
The airfield is barely more than an asphalted runway in the middle of a vast plain in Okanogan County, deep in the U.S. Northwest. Gray squirrels scamper about, and a warm summer wind fills the star-spangled banner over the small, wooden command center. But the men here at the airfield have no eyes for its everyday poetry. In bulky jumpsuits, with upturned collars and scuffed kneepads, they are busy checking their equipment – one more time – and again. In an emergency, the final check could save their lives. “Backpack?” – “Ready!”, “Buckles? – “Ready!”, “Belt?” – “Secure!” The questions and answers fly back and forth across the airfield of the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, in the U.S. state of Washington. A final snap of carbine hooks, then Stephen Pofelski, Nick Glatt and eight other smokejumpers, with the swaying gait of dancing bears, climb aboard the twin-engine turboprop airplane from which they will leap 30 minutes later.
Smokejumpers – that’s the name of this elite unit of the U.S. Forest Service, which consists of 400 men and women selected from among 10 000 firefighters. These crews are the first to tackle the flames of the first forest fires that break out every spring, mainly in the U.S. southeast, and eat their way across the country as far as California all the way through to winter. Smokejumpers extinguish fires before they turn into an inferno. To do so, they have to get to the point where the fire starts up quickly as possible. It would take them too long in a fire truck, and some areas simply cannot be reached from the land, so they jump toward the fire – out of an airplane, with a parachute.
In the belly of the red-and-white Casa C 212, Pofelski and the others sit, heads bent, on hard plastic seats the color of dirty snow. The airplane is narrow with a short tail section, hence the smokejumpers’ nicknames for it, “slipper” and “flying shoebox.” The crew listens closely to the crackling radio as they wait for permission for flight Jump 09 to take off. Shortly after, the airplane rises into a royal-blue sky.
The smokejumpers’ battle is sheer manual labor. Taking off from one of a total of nine bases in the west of the United States, they have no water or foam with which to extinguish the flames when they jump out of the airplane over the mountains in Montana, the expanses of Alaska or – as here, in Washington State – over dark-green forests and mountain slopes. All that awaits them on the ground are trees, jagged rocks, wild animals, marshes and slopes overgrown with poison ivy – and the flames, of course.
Sometimes they can hear the fire before they see it, says Pofelski, 31. Pencil-thick veins stand out on the biceps beneath his olive-green T-shirt and his flaming-red beard reaches down to his chest. “It sounds like a freight train thundering by – like a campfire but a thousand times louder.” First he hears the crackling and feels the heat. “Sometimes, we fly toward a green wall of trees without seeing any flames, but the fire is growing beyond it.” The smokejumpers’ weapons are special tools like the Pulaski, an axe with a horizontal blade on the back, the McLeod, a pick with a sturdy rake on the other end, and the classic folding spade and motor saw. The tools are thrown down after the firefighters, in boxes that also contain their provisions.
Eighteen is the minimum age for a member of this elite unit, but most come with a few years of experience on fire trucks or as paramedics. How long can anyone do this incredibly tough job? Fitness is the only deciding factor. Some, says Pofelski, are still jumping at 58. He himself is only in his second season with the smokejumpers and so far, he has done 51 jumps. He started by toiling through the weeks of grueling admission training. He no longer knows the exact number of push-ups, sprints and distance runs he did, but what he will never forget are the three-mile route marches he had to complete with 50 kilos of equipment on his back – in under 90 minutes. Winthrop’s 30 jumpers were called out on 20 missions last year, so it was a relatively quiet season, way different from the record year of 1970, when there were 200 fires raging. There are more than 16 000 square kilometers of forest in the area around Winthrop, which is almost twice the size of Berlin. The next fire could break out almost anywhere. “I feel no fear when I’m out firefighting,” says Pofelski, “but I do have great respect for fire, as every one is different.”
A fire can burn uphill and down, an leap – sometimes even across a ravine
The battle against the flames is waged in as orderly a fashion as possible: Ten smokejumpers always work their way from the heel of a fire or another strategic point along its flanks so that ultimately they have it encircled. Their aim in working around to the front of the fire is to deprive the flames of fuel by cutting swathes, digging corridors around the blaze and sawing down trees and bushes. That, at least, is the theory. A fire can burn uphill and down, leap – sometimes across ravines – and move at over 35 kilometers per hour. As it proceeds, sand melts into glass and iron becomes molten in the flames of over 1200 degrees Celsius, and some fires spark flame tornadoes. The wind is just as dangerous as the fire itself, says Pofelski. “If it turns, the flames can suddenly rush in your direction, a small column of smoke can soon become a hissing wall of fire, and the hot air can make your windpipe swell dangerously.”
The annual wildfire season is growing longer all the time – also as a result of climate change – and that’s tough on the smokejumpers, who only get to take a breather after long months of firefighting far from civilization. During that time, they live is frog-green barracks beneath lime and pine trees, in cramped, airless rooms each with two wooden bunk beds. Last winter and spring were unusually wet, but the humidity has long since seeped into the forest floors and the county’s mountain rivers. Pine needles crunch drily beneath boots, bark crumbles between fingers like dry toast, branches are like matches just waiting to be lit – possibly by a flash of lightning, a spark from a locomotive braking a little too hard or a cigarette carelessly flicked away.
In the old days, spotters in observation towers kept watch for columns of smoke in the forests, and the firefighters would often arrive too late. Then David Godwin, Vice Chief of the U.S. Division of Fire Control, had the idea of parachuting into trouble spots. His superiors thought the idea crazy, but Godwin went ahead and experimented in a small town in lumberjack country, first by throwing dummies out of an airplane and then taking the leap himself along with some volunteers – and so the smokejumpers were born.
The ten men are preparing painstakingly for the new season. Again and again they repeat the elementary steps. First off, dry runs on a metal tower behind the barracks that resembles a sawn-off utility pole. From there, they practice abseiling – in case they land in a tree. And of course, they practice jumping. “You have to trust your experience,” says Pofelski, “once you’re in the air, you run on autopilot and focused only on a good landing. You’ve practiced the moves hundreds of times over, but it takes a while till you are ready to jump out of the plane.” Just a few days after the training session at the tower, the flying shoebox circles a small clearing in the middle of a pine forest. The mountain panorama beyond looks straight out of a cheesy old movie. The airplane door opens; a black strap is stretched across the exit. The drone of the propellers resounds amid the rustling of the treetops and birdsong.
The jumps into the clearing are the highpoint of training and at the same time, mark the opening of the smokejumping season. Suddenly, a black dot comes into view beneath a blue-and-white circle in the sky and slowly tumbles earthward. Legs emerge, and arms can be made out, pushing and pulling on the ropes of the parachute, and the figure rapidly takes on a beige color: It’s a smokejumper. What appears to be a gentle descent reveals its true speed at landing. Legs first, Stephen Pofelski shoots like an arrow to the ground, his feet kick up dust that swirls around his legs like a furious galaxy. Even if the smokejumpers act cool and experienced, on landing, they still high-five each other, laugh and whoop. The men are ready for the coming season, for their new battles, and soon enough, they will be standing behind a firewall somewhere in the middle of nowhere, overtired yet again and covered in heat blisters, with nothing but scree, mountains and impenetrable terrain ahead of them, ready to put out the flames before they are out of control – as fast as humanly possible.
million hectares of forest burned in the USA in 2017.
US dollars in damages were the result.
2 044 800
households in California, the worst-hit state in the U.S., are threatened by forest fires.