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Getting the Job Done

National Smokejumpers Association reunion brings up old memories


"The world roared at them—there was no safe place inside and there was almost no outside. By now they were short of breath from the exertion of their climbing and their lungs were being seared by the heat. A world was coming where no organ of the body had consciousness but the lungs."

—From Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean


Bob Sallee doesn't much like remembering that hot, chaotic, tragic August day in 1949, but he realizes he's the only one who can. At 75, Sallee is the last remaining survivor of the Mann Gulch fire in Montana, a conflagration that consumed the lives of 15 smokejumpers and a fire guard, a controversial event memorialized in Norman Maclean's 1992 book Young Men and Fire.

"I don't like to (talk about it)," says Sallee. "But everyone says I'm part of history. So I guess I am. I guess this is kind of my job."

Today, Sallee, a retired paper company executive from Spokane, speaks to young smokejumpers, heady with the anticipation of parachuting into some of the country's most remote areas. "You can be sitting there thinking everything is all right, and 'bingo,' it's not," Sallee tells them. 

But one place where Sallee doesn't need to repeat his story is among the fraternity of former smokejumpers. This past weekend, he and about 700 of his brethren came together at the National Smokejumpers Association reunion in Boise.

Smokejumpers are an elite group. They number about 400, working for both the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. While their parachuting skills receive the most attention, they are first and foremost firefighters, lugging 100-pound packs and cutting firebreaks in some of the most difficult terrain in the country. 

The profession is relatively young; the first fire jump was made in 1940 on the Nez Perce Forest in Idaho. The man who made that jump, Earl Cooley, is at the reunion. Elderly and frail, it's difficult for him to communicate, but he's surrounded by well-wishers, and his eyes light up with appreciation.

The man who made the second fire jump in the country is also here. At 89, Jim "Smokey" Alexander can still easily remember the experience, parachuting into the Moose Creek basin of north Idaho. "It was quiet," he says. "Very, very quiet." 

For Alexander, the allure of smokejumping was in neither its danger nor its mystique. 

"I wanted to make more money," he says matter-of-factly.  "It was a job. And it was a good job." While lookouts and ground-based crews could make $80 a month, smokejumpers could make $200.

Some jumpers, though, ended up in the job without even wanting it. During World War II, Alvin Ferguson, 84, served in the 555th Parachute Infantry Company, also known as the "Triple Nickels." The company was all African-American, prevented from becoming paratroopers in combat because blacks weren't considered brave enough to jump from airplanes. Instead, they were sent to Pendleton, Ore. and Chico, Calif. to guard against Japanese incendiary balloon bombs, one of which had exploded in Bly, Ore. They also fought wildland fires. 

Ferguson, who eventually went on to become a captain in the 82nd Airborne and complete more than 300 jumps, still wishes he had fought in the war. "I would have loved to have seen combat," he says. 

For those who didn't want to fight, though, smokejumping provided a way to serve their country without going into battle. Conscientious objectors made up most of Stewart "Lloyd" Johnson's team in McCall in 1943. Johnson, 91, was the first foreman at the U.S. Forest Service McCall base. Although he disagreed with the war objectors' views, he says they made good workers. And he was glad to have them because the first year he had only five men. 

Base life was tough; Johnson had to "beg, borrow and steal" what he could to keep the team going because he didn't have support from the Forest Service. Only a few years earlier, Evan Kelley, the Region 1 forester, is reported to have written, "All parachute jumpers are more or less crazy, and just a little bit unbalanced, otherwise they wouldn't be engaged in such a hazardous undertaking." 

Smokejumpers' wives, too, had to be tough. Gale Stephens has been married to a former smokejumper for 30 years. When he was jumping, she lived with him in a barracks in Fairbanks, Alaska. In the first four months, he accumulated 900 hours of overtime. "When you said goodbye, you didn't know if you were saying goodbye for the night or for three weeks," says Stephens. "You had to be independent and yet flexible." 

Rick Hudson, the current manager of USFS smokejumper operations in McCall, now has a crew of 70. The equipment he uses is still remarkably similar to that of Johnson's era (the BLM has gone to square chutes.) But he has more restrictions than his predecessors. While old timers could fight fire around the clock, jumpers now have required rest periods.  

And while Alexander's orders were to "put every fire out by 10 o'clock the next morning," fire is not always the enemy any more. Hudson's staff also "herds around" prescribed fires that are intentionally set. 

The unplanned fires, too, have changed, due to a buildup of fuels and global warming. "Now the fires are bigger; they're more intense; they're overwhelming at times," Hudson says.  

Former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth addressed that issue as the keynote speaker for the reunion, along with his frustration at the lack of resources to attack the problem. "The expectation is that somehow we're supposed to put fires out for the same cost as 40 years ago," he said.  

Bosworth said around 44 percent of the Forest Service budget is devoted to fire fighting, while just 15 years ago it was 18 percent.  

He told the crowd what it already knew, that there are some who want to do away with the smokejumper program, which is relatively expensive, in favor of aerial attacks. That, he said, was not his view. 

"It's absolutely critical that we put fires out when they're small, before we get into an extended attack and we lose lives," he said. "Those situations are simply unacceptable. One way to deal with that is an initial attack. That's what smokejumpers are really good at," he said to resounding applause.  

Bosworth predicted, though, that more smokejumpers will be moved to fires on the urban-wildland interface—fires that often have a higher "value" than those in the backcountry because they threaten homes and businesses. 

"We need to examine whether the best firefighters should be on the lower priority fires," he said. 

"We're really taking a look at where we put people on fires," says Doug Houston, the current president of the National Smokejumpers Association and a fireline management consultant. "If it's not defensible, then we probably wouldn't put people at risk." 

Despite the changes, Hudson, 56, still loves his job, and has jumped out of a perfectly good airplane almost 600 times over the past 34 years (although jumpers joke that there's really no such thing as a perfectly good airplane.) "In a sense, I never grew up," he laughs. His enthusiasm has carried over to his son, Garrett, 25, who's in smokejumper training right now. 

Hudson has noticed differences in the rookies now compared to the past. For one thing, they don't drink as hard, and they watch what they eat. "They're all training for triathalons or something," he says. They're also older on average—around 28—and often already have a degree. He also jokes that he started when "men were smokejumpers and sex was safe."

The first female smokejumper was Deanne Shulman, who was based in McCall beginning in 1981. She filed an EEO complaint in 1979 to be accepted into the program. There was resistance to bringing women into the field, and there still is in some quarters. But Hudson says women "can do everything men can do if they're determined to do it."

Still, they're a rare breed. Jenny Camp, 26, is one of only five women out of 86 jumpers based in Boise. "They're actually really nice," she says of the men. "I feel like I'm their little sister." 

"I think they've been accepted tremendously, which is really encouraging to see," says Paige Houston, 38, based in Alaska in the mid-1990s. "I've never felt camaraderie like I did jumping. You know you can put your life in someone else's hands." 

That camaraderie is in full force at the reunion, with the requisite back-slapping and tale-telling. "You see someone you had an adventure with and you haven't seen in 30 years, and it's like you haven't seen them in just a couple weeks," says Hudson. 

"We tell the same old stories year after year and they get better because so many people have died and they can't challenge us," laughs Stan Tate, 74. An Episcopal priest, Tate recalls how he fooled the panel of the game show What's My Line, who had to pick out the smokejumping priest. His take? $50.  

For Tate, who authored a book called Jumping Skyward, smokejumping also has a spiritual side. "Once your chute opens, you have a minute or two of pure peace," he says. "It's so absolutely transcendental. It's just like jumping into a synagogue or church." 

"It's just this freedom. It's like flying," says Wally Wasser, 52, who holds the national record with 715 jumps. 

"It's a rush you never experience again in your life," says Guy Hurlbutt, a retired Boise Cascade executive who jumped in the 1960s. "I wish I was doing it right now." 

And smokejumpers say the lessons they learned have served them well. "It gives you a sense of discipline and a sense of accomplishment," says Alexander.

"I look back and say, 'I did it as a smokejumper; I can do it now,' says Tate. 

"I learned the limits of my endurance," says Hurlbutt. "I found out that I have more reserve inside than I thought." 

It was that bit of reserve that saved Sallee as he scrambled to safety with one other smokejumper in 1949. And 45 years later, it was that same drive that pushed Eric Hipke, 45, to escape a massive fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado. The 1994 blowup killed 14, including two smokejumpers from McCall. Hipke, who suffered third-degree burns, says he, like Sallee, survived because he didn't know the rest of the crew and kept running when they stopped to communicate. Ironically, his story was preserved by Norman Maclean's son John, in Fire on the Mountain

Today, as he stands yards from Sallee, Hipke has something else in common with him. Both men went back to smokejumping despite their close calls. For Sallee, it was a financial necessity. "I was going to college and needed the money, and it was the best job I could get," he says.

For Hipke, it was the chance to once again feel on top of the world. "Just being out there and the way you got there is amazing," he says. "You go to places you didn't even know existed."