(first published at Eunoia Review)
Kenny A. Chaffin
All Rights Reserved © 2014 Kenny A. Chaffin
They call us smokejumpers but that’s a misnomer, we never jump into smoke if it can be avoided and it can always be avoided. It’s just a sexy, headline-grabbing moniker for what is a dirty, difficult, dangerous job.
After the Crystal Mountain fire Janie left me again. She said she couldn’t deal with not knowing if I’d be back or not. I sometimes think she doesn’t understand my work, how important it is and the care, safety and conviction we take in doing it. We almost always come home. I love her. I do. With her it feels more real than ever, but I’m torn by her reluctant support. Can’t she see this is my passion, my love? I’m a smokejumper. We save lives, the environment, perhaps even the world from global warming.
My dreams are of fire. It does not frighten me. It is warm, welcoming.
At first you do it for the thrill, the rush. Like wild passionate sex. It consumes you, draws you in. There’s building anticipation as the plane makes its way to the drop zone, your heart pounds as you step into the air and slows as silence engulfs you while drifting towards the ground.
All relationships are difficult, but more so when you’re a smokejumper. You can be called out any time of day or night for unknown durations. Even the military has better defined time-frames for deployment, leave, and duty. For smokejumpers it’s all up to the fire. Almost all of us are single, some in relationships, a few married – mostly the firebosses who somehow find a way to make it work. We don’t talk about relationships. On the fireline there’s no time for that anyway. We’re overwhelmed with clearing brush, digging firebreaks, setting backfires.
You do it for those that died. The fourteen on Storm King Mountain in Colorado, the nineteen Granite Mountain Hotshots on Yarnell Hill in Arizona, the twenty-nine at Griffith Park, California; Three hundred in the last ten years.
A wildfire burns at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. It can consume you. You must constantly be on guard. We jump from planes to reach the fire in the backcountry before it gets out of control. With a forest fire you know exactly what you are up against.
They drop us in and once on site we establish a fireline, a perimeter. We fight the fire by clearing fuel it would burn, often by setting a backfire. When our work is done we pack out to the nearest access point. On rare occasions they transport us out by chopper if there is a base nearby.
Before Janie it was Mary. She was a vixen. We did it everywhere – in the car, in the shower, in the woods, in the elevator and yes we joined the mile-high club on a flight from Denver to Seattle. It was pure passion, pure raging sex. She was a wildfire.
The cones of the Lodgepole pine are sealed with a resin that requires fire to release the seeds. This is an evolutionary adaptation to wildfire called pyriscence.
Fire can be fast, passionate, intense, like first-time sex. Each fire has its own personality. Some are torrid and tempestuous others slow and sordid but all have the power to destroy. The first time Janie and I made love I lost myself in her. It was a week after the Wind Ridge fire. She said she could smell the smoke in my hair.
Have you ever watched a wildfire move? It can be forceful, overpowering -- crowning, flashing and torching trees as it races across the forest and up slopes in a vortex of conflagration. It can be gentle like a first-time lover, moving slowly and carefully across the forest; caressing, embracing and loving the trees with its warmth.
The tools we use are minimal, a pulaski -- a combination axe and grub hoe, our helmets, protective clothing and fire shelters. That’s it. One-on-one, man against wildfire, digging a firebreak, setting a backfire, working with air support if we are lucky enough to have it.
It was the Rawlings Ridge fire that got us, climbing the hill in a swirling blast-furnace updraft, preheating and consuming everything in its path. We had only precious seconds to deploy our shelters and the rocky slope was a poor place to survive a wildfire. Jonathan didn’t. The rest of us are lucky to have made it, me with third degree burns on my back, and right arm, the others with similar injuries. Only Carol came away unscathed, having found an optimal place to dig in.
Janie was waiting at the hospital when I arrived. She never said it, but I knew from the look in her eyes, it would be the last time.
I’ve been through the initial healing, the therapies. Will need additional grafting, regrowth and recovery of muscle tone and I will never be as flexible as I once was, but I’ve had time to think, to realize and to know that the only time I am alive and at peace with myself is when fighting a wildfire. It consumes me, thrills me, centers me. It makes me who I am. Janie is gone, but the fire still rages. I will jump again.