Working under fire

JDHS graduate takes on forest blazes

Posted: Monday, August 15, 2005

A former Juneau Douglas High School graduate has a rather unusual summer job: Brett Fairchild parachutes into forest fires.

It's called smoke jumping. When wildfires spread out of control, an elite crew is called in to jump near the fire and contain the flames by creating a buffer zone.

While stationed in Oregon with the U.S. Forest Service, Fairchild is learning what it's all about.

"The first two weeks of training was probably the hardest two weeks of my life," Fairchild said.

Smoke jumpers work furiously to dig trenches, cut trees and debris with chainsaws, or do just about anything to prevent the fire from jumping over to the next forest.

They don't have time to complain about the 120-plus-pound backpacks they are wearing.

"Sometimes you're in there and you're sweating, choking, your eyes are burning and you're puking," Fairchild said. "And you ask yourself 'why the hell am I doing this?"

Fairchild does it because he says it's the greatest job in the world.

His father, Scott Fairchild, was a smoke jumper in his younger days. And now the torch is passed to his son.

"All the guys I know who have done this are great guys," Fairchild said.

He was chosen among 200 applicants in Oregon to pursue training. Of that class of 10, six completed the four-week course.

Fairchild is also attending Eastern Oregon University and studying natural resources. A full-time career as a smoke jumper is a possibility, he said.

And Fairchild hopes to apply for assignment in his home state, where fires typically rage in early summer months.

This year's burn in Alaska has been worse than others due to a wet spring that grew tall grass, but a dry summer that has made the ground brittle, he explained.

A huge part of the job is learning how to jump out of an airplane at a low altitude of 1,500 feet.

Sometimes, that means falling through the smoke columns.

"Hopefully, you land on the (intended) spot," he said.

Not all smoke jumpers come back alive; several die each year.

Fairchild said he had a close call when he parachuted into a tree.

"I thought I was going to 'burn out' of this tree and slam into the ground," he said.

Fairchild fell only 20 feet before his parachute got snagged again, and he was able to free himself.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at

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