Who let the fire out?

Imagine you are skydiving, hurtling through the air, only to land just feet away from a forest fire. Now imagine that this is actually your job.

If you are Mr. Allen that is. He was my AP Biology teacher last year, but for fourteen years, he worked as a smokejumper.

What exactly is a smokejumper?

Smokejumpers are special firefighters who parachute to remote areas and combat wildfires. The idea is to reach the wildfire quickly and contain it, before it gets out of control.

Smokejumping is a dangerous profession due to the risks inherent in parachute jumping, and the lack of resources for firefighting and rescue once on the ground in an isolated location. Firefighters must pay extreme attention to wind direction, as any slight shift can change the fire’s course. A designated area is chosen for retreat in case the fire gets out of hand. This is usually a blackened area that the fire has already passed through and burned down. Fire needs fuel to burn, so where there is no fuel (i.e. trees, branches, shrubs), there is no fire.

Despite safety precautions, accidents still occur. In 1994, 12 firefighters died because they could not get to a safety zone in time.

When I asked what his most frightening moment on the job was, Mr. Allen said it was actually while he was riding the airplane. Wildfires are usually caused by lightning. When smokejumpers receive a call, the skies are often still stormy. Mr. Allen’s most frightening incident was when lightning struck the airplane taking him to the wildfire.

“The sound was deafening, and the entire plane shook violently,” he described.

So why would Mr. Allen choose such a dangerous job? He explained that one summer when he was young, his family’s house was completely burned down by a wildfire.

“The dogs escaped, but the kittens didn’t make it,” he recalls. After that episode, he decided he wanted to help fight wildfires, so other families would not have to suffer the same loss he did.

During the summer wildfire season, Mr. Allen’s smokejumping unit received about 10 calls a day. Once they arrived on location, the goal was not to put out the fire, but to starve it. This is done through strenuous, backbreaking labor. Firefighters create firelines by digging deep into the ground until they reach mineral soil. They also have to remove branches, leaves, shrubs and anything else that could burn. The idea is to contain the fire and wait for it to run out of fuel at the firelines.

Sometimes though, firefighters have to fight fire with fire. They set off a small fire to burn the area in front of an oncoming wildfire, leaving nothing left for the wildfire to feed on.

Years of smokejumping take a heavy toll on a person’s body. Many smokejumpers develop asthma from years of breathing in smoke. The workdays are extremely demanding as well. Smokejumpers spend days at a time in remote areas, living off of whatever was parachuted down from the plane with them. At night, they usually just sleep in the dirt.

For a long time, it was government policy to put out all wildfires. Remember Smoky the Bear? But it turns out, forest wildfires play an important role in maintaining healthy and diverse ecosystems. The fires recycle nutrients from the soil, help tree seeds germinate, and clear out accumulated plant debris. Not allowing small fires to burn actually increases the risk of having a dangerous, destructive wildfire. All the accumulated debris provides a fire with more material to burn.

That’s why we need  people like Mr. Allen, who are willing to jump out of airplane into a fire, in order to keep us safe while also allowing the natural processes in the forests to continue.

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