U.S. Forest Service Base
Waddle, waddle, waddle. Grinning behind his face mask's metal mesh, Spencer McDonald hoisted himself into the Shorts C-23 Sherpa aircraft and squeezed into a seat on the bench next to his buddy Dan Martinez. People laboring under the illusion that smoke jumping was a glamorous job should spend some time crammed into these tan Kevlar jumpsuits donned over a uniform made of fire-resistant Nomex, helmets, parachute pack on the back, another reserve parachute strapped to the front, and a personal gear bag with first-aid kit and fire shelter on the hip. They would understand what it felt like to be a guy in an oversized snowsuit in the middle of a sizzling-hot August day. Or an ear of corn wrapped in foil on a gas grill. Pop, pop, pop.
"What are you grinning about?" The suit took the bulk of Dan's elbow jabbing his ribs. "It's not funny. So much for taking the kiddos camping for Labor Day weekend," Dan yelled over the plane's noisy engine. "Sheila hates to camp without me."
"She can't be surprised." The wildfire season ran May through September. Which meant smoke jumpers rarely spent the Memorial Day, July Fourth, or Labor Day holidays with their families. It didn't matter to Spencer. In fact, he preferred working the holidays. "You'll make it up to them when you walk them to school in October."
Dan offered a thumbs-up. By now ten smoke jumpers and two spotters in green jumpsuits crowded the bench. The plane taxied and took off, increasing the noise, wind, and heat factors by 500 percent.
The plane headed northwest from the Missoula Fire Base to the Kootenai National Forest near Eureka.
Eureka. Spencer's hometown. He shook off the thought with such force it spun out of the plane and into outer space.
The incident commander rolled out the map. The full-volume chatter ended. The fire, sparked by lightning on August 9, hadn't been spotted by a U.S. Forest Service observation plane until three days later. Efforts by local crews on the ground to contain the fire had been unsuccessful. A U.S. Forest Service Type 2 Incident Command Team would take over containment efforts next.
"The weather conditions are extreme." The commander's deep bass was perfect for briefing in these noisy conditions. "No rain in thirty days, high temperatures, and gusty winds. No rain in the forecast. The fire has shifted to the southeast. Populations in an area called West Kootenai are under pre-evacuation orders."
West Kootenai. Spencer hadn't thought of the folks in that backwater town in years. Amish families mixed in with English families who enjoyed living in one of the few pockets of earth almost untouched by civilization. Hardworking people who also enjoyed the spectacular vistas, hunting, fishing, and boating in the beautiful Purcell, Cabinet, and Salish Mountains.
Now threatened by an adversary that consumed everything in its indiscriminate path.
The spotter talked on his headset. He and his cohort conversed. Radio frequencies, flight restrictions, water sources, safe zones—everything got covered, preparing the way for a safe, effective, efficient jump just outside a raging wildfire that often couldn't be second-guessed.
The plane's engine throttled back to drop speed. The pilot began to circle the drop spot.
"We're getting close." The spotter picked up weighted crepe streamers that would be used to check the wind and the speed of the drop at the proposed jump spot. "Get ready."
They were ready. Intensive PT that included running 1.5 miles in under eleven minutes—Spencer ran it in under eight without breaking a sweat—gave them the physical endurance needed to dig out ground cover down to the mineral level and remove fire fuel in strips a football field wide. Mentally, their heads were in the game the second the horn sounded at the base, giving them ten minutes to suit up, safety check, and sprint to the plane. Spencer checked out the terrain below through the open door on the side of the plane. Black smoke and fierce red flames billowed along the end of a small meadow. Deer and elk bounded through open spaces. Towering pines in the fire zone ringed the opening. Beyond it a skinny ribbon of hunter's path would serve as egress when they had to pack out all their equipment on their backs.
The streamers fluttered in the wind and sank to the ground.