Smoke Jumping: Summer 2009

When people ask me how my summer was, I usually answer their question with one of my own: “Do you have any idea what I do during the summer?”  Though the question is rhetorical, I answer it for them: “I am a smoke jumper.  This summer, especially, was Hell.”  I guess it is a bit of an exaggeration.  I didn’t see Beelzebub running around the forests in which I spent the majority of the summer taming, but the heat and the work involved could only be compared to the fifth ring of the inferno.  While most people cannot fathom what is involved in my line of work, I hope this blog gives you a taste: a taste of ash and soot from some of BC’s most intense spectacles.

Picture this: you are about 10,000 feet above a forest that is being completely decimated by fire.  You look out through the open door, the noise is incredible.  Every nerve in your body is becoming excited, every impulse tells you to sit your ass back down in the chopper and go back home.  Instead, you choose to throw yourself out the door, wait the obligatory five to ten seconds of freefall before pulling the cord and floating down to the earth below—everything gets bigger, especially the flames.  Invariably, you will get stuck in a tree and your co-workers will laugh at you as you try to untangle yourself and climb down (fuckers).  In about five minutes, the same chopper will be dropping your provisions for the next week or so.  The adventure begins.

The most important thing in my gear bag, aside from the food of course, is my Pulaski.  The Pulaski is a single-bladed axe with a grub-hoe on the opposite side, and is, undoubtedly, the greatest fire hand tool ever invented.  I wouldn’t be caught dead in the woods without a Pulaski, or maybe I would: that’s the point.  This year I went through about a dozen Pulaskis.  I didn’t loose them, either, if that’s what you are thinking.  Nope.  I actually wore them out.  It was a very busy season.

Week One:  Averaged about 12-14 hours of steady work per day.  A few of the newbies on the team (Jason and Mark) actually vomited, they worked so hard.  This isn’t a profession for pussies.  We work hard, damn hard, to ensure that millions upon millions of lives will not be lost.  This is to say nothing of the billions of trees we save every year.  Any tree hugger worth his salt would throw down his shovel for tree planting and pick up a Pulaski: I save way more trees than any punk kid from the big city plants on his/her vacation.  Trust me.

The first thing we do on the job is clear the flammable debris along the perimeter of the fire to rob it of fuel and to stop the fire’s spread. The photo [taken with a flash] is of smokejumpers cutting hotline at night on a fire.  A lot of people say to me, “Nick, are you nuts?  When I see fire, I run the opposite direction, but you show no fear, run at it, and somehow manage to stop it dead in its tracks.”  To them I say, “You’re right.  I was born with a gift.  Much like Michael Jordan was made to play basketball, or a bird was made to fly, I was born to fight fires.”  I’m not trying to sound arrogant when I say this but some people take it that way.  Oh well, fuck ‘em.

By the end of week one, out team was almost spent.  We called in a relief team that was stationed near Kelowna and were so happy to see their parachutes in the smoke filled air.  They brought us steaks too, a refreshing break from the dehydrated food in our supply pack.  The funny thing is that even though I was physically spent from working hard all week, I wanted nothing more than to sleep next to the fire on my days off.  In my line of work, you learn to respect fire, even love it.  It is like that dog who mauled you when you were a toddler, or the gangster in East LA who killed your sister: you need to be in its presence.  It is captivating, terrifying and lovely.

I will continue to write entries on a weekly basis.

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