Learning to dive

Behind the scenes with Missoula’s newest smokejumpers

Fire season in Montana typically doesn’t pick up until late July or early August. That’s not the case this summer. As this paper hits the stands, fires are burning on the Lolo, Bitterroot and Kootenai national forests and in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Several other Montana forests are setting new records for dryness, with no rain in the forecast for weeks to come. So many fires are already burning around the country that the nation’s smokejumpers and other initial-attack firefighting resources are already stretched thin.

Living in Western Montana, most of us are aware of the effects of fire season. Whether it’s the smoke we’re forced to breathe, the outdoor play-time that’s cruelly curtailed, or the woodland homes that are threatened, we’re all conscious of Mother Nature’s burning prerogative.

But some of us are more aware than others—they’re called smokejumpers.

We all choose how to earn our daily bread. If we’re lucky, our living parallels our lifestyle and reflects who we are. If we’re really lucky, our job doesn’t seem like actual work at all, but a vocation in which we invest ourselves fully because that’s what we want to do, not just because they pay us at the end of the day.

As a photojournalist, my job is to watch how other people navigate their lives and see just how and why they tick the way they do. Everyone goes through life with different visions and degrees of satisfaction. Some are content with teaching, building, or performing, while others feed off an element of risk and adventure. I find those people especially fascinating. They have a crazy side that’s exciting and a bit dangerous.

I’ve been curious about Missoula’s smokejumpers since I moved here in 1996, but never really knew much about them or what goes on at their base—the largest of five smokejumper training bases in the United States—near the Missoula airport. So in May, while photographing Sen. Jon Tester at a nearby forestry building, I stopped into the Smokejumper Center and met Operations Manager Andy Hayes.

He took me on a walk out to the training field, which has an obstacle course and four large training structures, each used for practicing a different aspect of jumping out of planes.

I also met the new crop of smokejumpers trainees. There were 18 rookies selected from about 213 applicants: three women and 15 men, aged 23 to 35, divided into four squads, each with a squad leader to keep them in line. Everything they did was timed, everything they did was scrutinized, and everything they did was recorded. It looked like a military-style boot camp. Push-ups were handed out for missteps and mistakes were corrected in short order. Two applicants eventually washed out of the program due to injuries.

I began photographing Squad 3 in early June as they finished their second of five weeks of intensive training. I followed them through classroom work, practice jumps, and graduation. Over the course of the month, I saw individuals cohere into a unit, and I saw that unit develop a rare sense of comradery.

For this elite group, wrestling with fire in the wild is a way of life. When Hayes says, “We’re looking at a very severe and extended fire season,” it’s Hayes and his colleagues—he’s a jumper too—who are getting the closest view. Missoula-trained smokejumpers are currently fighting fires in Alaska, New Mexico and Idaho.

“Usually it’s late July or early August when we start to see a shortage in initial attack resources,” Hayes says, “but right now we’re out of smokejumpers everywhere in the country.”

Starting pay for a smokejumper is $13 an hour, but from what I could see, smokejumpers aren’t in it for the money. They’ve chosen a profession full of adrenaline and uncertainty, danger and adventure, and they learned their trade in our own backyard. Now that they’re in the thick of it, parachuting into backcountry conflagrations to chop trees and dig line, it’s almost impossible to see them at work. Maybe that’s why the opportunity to watch them hone their skills at home felt like such a privilege.

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