You just had a sack lunch yesterday. This ain't Outward Bound, you know. one hungry smokejumper to another. A smokejumper's job description might read: Squelch forest fires by parachuting into them wearing 40 pounds of gear. Operations require days of primitive camping in hot, smoky areas. Rewards include near-death experiences, extreme sleep deprivation, broken bones and more interesting injuries, and knowing you're the world's best defense against forest fires.
In the late 1930s, someone in the Forest Service suggested parachuting firefighters into small blazes to stop them. After U.S. Army officials watched the first fire jumps in 1940, they quickly created the first airborne units for World War II. The Bureau of Land Management launched a jumping program in 1959, the same year Murry Taylor became a firefighter. Taylor became a smokejumper in 1965, and today he is the oldest active jumper, having dropped into more than 200 fires.
Taylor's clean construction takes us straight to the jumpers' camp, close enough to scoff at the tourist who suggests the jumpers take a flying vacation over Alaska because "it's the best way to see the country," and close enough to grind off tooth enamel waiting out a day on call when, alas, no fires need fighting. In plain and simple terms, Taylor describes the vastness of the fires, the land on which they feed, and the immense challenge faced by those who dare interfere with nature's burning desires. He also refrains from embellishing the injuries so many jumpers experience; a good thing, since a description of bones popping as they land badly on hot Alaskan rocks needs no amplification. Taylor's remembered, recalled, or recreated events are so neatly recounted that they sound like a friend's "day at the office" stories; his dialogue and description of place are as accurate as a jumper's safe landing. The book moves fast; read the short glossary of jumper terms in the back of the book first so as not to get lost in jumper-lingo. Then dive into the intense pleasure of Jumping Fire.
Diane Stresing is a freelance writer in Kent, Ohio.