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In the line of fire

The 440 smokejumpers of the U.S. Forest Service are on the front line of this summer’s wildfire season. Hemispheres caught up with one of the 23 women in those ranks.

Author Steve Friess Photography Tom Robertson

smokejumoers

They knew from the noise what was happening, even though the thick smoke and approaching dusk made it impossible to see the path of the flaming, hurtling log. The ground rumbled, as though a car were tumbling down, each bounce producing a crash from somewhere on the engulfed hill above. Amanda Holt and her three fellow smokejumpers scrambled in different directions, even though none of them knew which way would be safest. Holt leaped behind a large felled tree, then wondered for a few long, very hot moments how she’d fare if the approaching log slammed into her shelter.

In the end, the 15-foot timber missile hit another tree and came to rest several yards upslope from Holt. In the sudden quiet, the four firefighters emerged cautiously from their hiding places, climbed the slope to the site, took a moment to survey the damage the log had left in its wake and muttered “Holy cow.” Then, Holt says, “It was back to work.”

The funny thing about her memory of that moment—one of many life-threatening situations Holt has faced in her eight years as a smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Service—is that she’s not even sure which inferno she was fighting at the time. All the Montana native remembers is that she and her colleagues shrugged it off and returned to the business of digging the trenches that would halt the fire’s progress and spare the rest of the forest behind them.

Such is life in the ranks of the nation’s most exclusive firefighting corps, for which only about 440 men and (since 1981) women qualify each year. Smokejumping is an arduous job that involves parachuting into remote wilderness areas that are threatened by encroaching forest fires but are inaccessible by truck or hose, and digging miles-long firebreaks and cutting down trees that could provide further fuel for approaching blazes. This summer, Holt and her colleagues are busier than ever.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Mike Ferris says the number of forest fires has increased dramatically in recent years, adding that climate change is definitely a factor. “It seems obvious that the weather is getting hotter and drier in the summers,” he says. Malcolm North, a research ecologist with the Forest Service, says, “All the pieces are lined up, and the potential is there for a very bad fire season.”

In the American West this year, severe drought has combined with a winter that produced below average snowpack, which has left large swaths of woodland in states such as California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico especially dry and susceptible to wildfire. It’s a dire state of affairs that has been worsening since the turn of the century. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, in the past decade, 76 million acres of forest have burned in the U.S.—nearly double the acreage lost in the 10 years prior—and five of the largest forest fires in recorded U.S. history have occurred over the same period. Forest-fire damage is clearly on the rise and, with it, the danger to those called to battle the blazes. For Holt and her crew, that could mean spending weeks at a time this summer in remote wilderness, subsisting on airdropped supplies like freeze-dried beef stroganoff and canned beans, hiking for miles carrying 100-pound packs out of fire areas and laboring through the night while coated in soot.

“It’s a dirty, sweaty, smelly job,” says Holt. “It’s not for everybody.”

When I meet Holt in Missoula, Montana, in early April, I am surprised that it is, as she puts it, the job for her. She is a tiny woman, 5-foot-3, maybe 125 pounds, and surrounded by brawny, mostly male, giants. She has a taut frame and sinewy arms but does not possess the sort of rippling biceps or muscle mass one would expect in a person whose job involves lugging heavy equipment and routinely spending 16 straight hours “building line,” as smokejumpers call digging the trenches meant to contain the fires. Had I met her even a few weeks earlier, I might have been even more surprised: In late March she cut off 10 inches of her hair and donated it to a charity that makes wigs for chemotherapy patients. Now she’s got a more sensible, tousled coif that barely grazes her shoulders.

Yet, at 36 years old, Holt is not just a veteran of more than 60 fire jumps but a leader, trainer and mentor. The vast majority of those fires, it should be noted, didn’t make the news—they were usually started by lightning strikes in remote areas and, because of smokejumper efforts, rarely threatened settled areas. Even the big ones—like the Alum Fire last summer in Yellowstone National Park, where Holt and her colleagues spent 12 days and nights fighting a blaze that consumed thousands of acres—get little notice. Holt insists such incidents sound more dramatic than they really are—“just about everybody out there has some kind of close call with a tree,” she says. “A little time goes by, it looks like it was fun. You’re telling the story with everyone else who suffered along with you.”

Holt is spending this summer, as she has the past eight, stationed in Grangeville, Idaho, waiting and preparing for the next siren that signals it’s time to board one of her base’s four smokejumper aircraft and fly wherever the Forest Service needs her. But in this preseason lull, she’s stationed in Missoula, at the nation’s first and largest smokejumper base, to earn her required annual recertification and then to lead training sessions.

Each year, before being sent back into action, even the most experienced smokejumper must pass the standard physical fitness test: seven pull-ups, 24 push-ups, 60 sit-ups, a 1.5-mile run in under 11 minutes and the successful carriage of a 110-pound pack across a 3-mile course. Throughout their weeklong training at Missoula’s cavernous complex, a flagship site complete with a visitors center and the hangar for the region’s smokejumping aircraft, jumpers also get a refresher in packing parachutes, reacting to a variety of possible parachute malfunctions, checking parachutes for damage and mending them after jumps, and building their suits with a fleet of sewing machines. Indeed, each honey-hued Kevlar suit, with its Elvis collar and myriad gear pockets, is custom-made by the man or woman who wears it. “My grandmother attempted to teach me how to sew when I was in school, but I never took to it as much as I did when I started working here,” Holt says. “I guess I just needed some motivation. ”

I’m not the only person to wonder how a woman of Holt’s diminutive stature can manage the physical challenges of this job. Holt’s family—and even Holt herself—doubted the wisdom of such a career choice. She thought about “working in fire,” as those in the field put it, as early as her high school days in Montana, but she figured it required “some sort of superhuman strength.” Her dad, a onetime rancher and logging truck driver who taught her to drive a tractor at age 8, and her mom, a nurse, were circumspect. Still, they raised their daughter, like most smokejumpers, as a child of the rugged West, where mountains and ranches were her playgrounds and challenging physical activity was relished.

The fascination never abated, so Holt left college in 2000 for a job at the Powell Ranger Station, 50 miles west of Missoula, dousing small blazes, setting and overseeing prescribed burns intended to reduce the potential for future fires, and learning the art and science of anticipating fire behavior. In the process, she heard about the smokejumpers and set her sights on trying out. “I put a pull-up bar in my bathroom, and every time I walked by it, I’d do as many as I could,” she says. “I would fill a backpack with 80 pounds of water and put on skis and climb hills with it.” Her family didn’t see it coming, but her longstanding lust for risk and thrill, she says, should have been a clue. “No one I’m related to should be shocked that I jumped out of a plane. If it goes fast and it’s fun, I’m all about it. I couldn’t believe you could do something like this and have someone pay you to do it.”

THE SMOKEJUMPER CORPS, which started as an experiment in 1939, welcomed its first woman, Deanne Shulman, in 1981, to much media fanfare. Shulman and other female pioneers acknowledge that the adjustment period was challenging, with some men resentful of their presence and uncertain of their abilities. Today, Holt and other women and men currently in the field insist that it is decidedly a non-issue. The number of women does remain small, however; of the 440 smokejumpers on the nation’s nine bases operated by federal agencies, only 23, or about 5 percent, are female.

Holt shrugs off the imbalance not as anti-female bias in the hiring process but rather as a lack of interest from women in manual-labor jobs. She, like several other active female smokejumpers I interviewed, deflects questions about the prospect of sexism or inappropriate behavior as outdated and irrelevant. “The job is the job, and if you can do it, it doesn’t make a difference,” she insists.

Retired female smokejumpers, however, say they would never have acknowledged to an outsider the problems they had with men in the field while they were still active. “I’m not going to lie, there are some guys who clearly wish women weren’t jumping,” says Sara Brown, whose five-year jumping career ended in 2007 after a midair collision with another jumper sent her freefalling into a crash that shattered her legs. “They make it a little uncomfortable, make snide comments, test you. There were definitely guys that wanted to point out every single weakness possible.” She recalls an instance when one of the burlier smokejumpers goaded her into carrying a 40-pound chainsaw out of the woods, then mocked her for arriving at their pickup spot a half-hour late. “But the word did get back to the rest of the base who it was that carried the chainsaw, and everyone asked the guy why he didn’t carry it. So those things are corrected by the men who are supportive.”

Even more undermining, Brown says, were rumors she heard of male smokejumpers making women leap from planes at the wrong moment so they would land far from the target and be forced to walk longer distances to the fire.

But such sabotage seems alien to the women at the Missoula training center. “Who hasn’t heard [sexist] comments?” Holt asks dismissively. “But if you’re out there and you’re pulling your own weight, they don’t seem to have any problems. It’s not that big a deal. That said, being easy to get along with never hurt anybody, either.” Sarah Doehring, Holt’s boss in Grangeville and the Forest Service’s first female base manager, notes that having a mixed group “takes the rough edges off the guys.”

HOLT AND I sit on neighboring rocks one bright, calm afternoon on a hillside in a shallow valley a few miles from the Missoula base. A plane buzzes overhead, loaded with smokejumpers preparing for practice leaps, and Holt is among the instructors awaiting their descents. It’s the first go of the season for this wave of jumpers, and these conditions—a wide-open space, a smooth hill, virtually no wind—are ideal. Later in the week, they will jump again, in more challenging terrain—cliffs or densely wooded areas more typical of a real-life scenario.

As the dots pop out of the plane at 1,500 feet, sprout their blue-and-white parachutes and float to Earth, Holt holds an iPad up to take video. Later, she’ll review with the jumpers the positions of their arms and legs, the way they turned their bodies to move closer or farther from the orange blanket that is their target, how they rolled when they landed. “This is just to take the rust off, because they haven’t thought about doing this for a couple of months,” she explains. For her part, Holt winters in Salt Lake City, where she stays with friends and skis both for fun and to stay fit. “We’re all a little wobbly when we come back.”

Beyond that, Holt is private about her personal life—she wears a silver ring but refuses to explain its significance, and she declines to discuss what happened to a late fellow smokejumper, even though her helmet is adorned with a sticker in his honor. In any event, Holt says fire season—which typically lasts five months—has a way of interfering with anything resembling a normal social life. “The best way to schedule a fire jump is to buy some concert tickets and make plans with your friends. Or buy some produce.”

Not that she’s complaining. If anything, she seems a bit antsy being earthbound while others are in the air, even if just for practice. “As soon as that siren goes off, as soon as you’re circling the fire and you smell the smoke, it’s game on.”

Holt hasn’t set an end date for this part of her career. If they continue to meet the physical requirements, smokejumpers can serve until the mandatory retirement age of 57. For now, she expects to “hang on for a few more years.” Nothing, she says, is quite as gratifying as sitting around a campfire after a 16-hour shift in the middle of the woods, “making some of that delicious freeze-dried food, razzing your buddies and going to sleep.”

Steve Friess, a journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who has written for The New York Times and Newsweek, loves the heat.

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