On the frontline of wildfires

Alaska's oldest smokejumper has decided to quit fighting forest fires after 27 years

Posted: Sunday, September 03, 2000

Smokejumper Murry Taylor can measure the toll of this summer's wildfire season in his tired muscles and aching joints.

"We've gone up and down, up and down very steep hills," Taylor said. "I'd say everybody's exhausted from the 18-hour shifts."

At 59, Taylor is the nation's oldest active smokejumper, according to the federal Bureau of Land Management. He is based in Alaska, but after rain dampened Alaska's fires, Taylor was sent south to help fight some of the worst western wildfires in decades.

The 400 smokejumpers employed by the BLM and Forest Service are the first line of defense in fighting wild-land fires. They parachute into remote areas, cutting trees and brush to build lines that will hold back the flames.


A helicopter surveys the flames before beginning water drops Monday afternoon, Aug. 28, 2000, while fighting the Alder Creek fire in the Lolo National Forest near Missoula, Mont. The fire officials say, was started by a lightning strike Thursday, Aug. 24. It is threatening about 40 summer cabins in the area.

Kurt Wilson / The Associated Press

In the back country of the Rocky Mountains, smokejumpers often are the first firefighters on the scene, and their success or failure may mean the difference between a small fire quickly contained and an explosive fire of disastrous proportions.

Smokejumpers don't know where they will be from one day to the next. In a little more than two weeks, Taylor has gone from Idaho to Utah to Nevada, then back to Idaho before returning to Nevada.

He has parachuted into fires burning in mountainous, rocky terrain and dense forests. Long days of working to exhaustion have ended with canned meals and nights sleeping on the ground.

"I like the excitement," Taylor said. "Air tankers are zooming over you. There's something intense and urgent about it, to be with people who are cooperating at an important moment. The experience invigorates and energizes people."


California Air National Guardsmen Gary Volkman, left, and J.J. Moore, look over a Bambi bucket, used by helicopters to drop water on forest fires, at their base at Mather Field in Rancho Cordova, Calif., Aug. 15, 2000. Because they are strategically based between the Sierras and the coastal mountain ranges, Moore and other members of the California Army National Guard's 126th Medical Company feel the rush perhaps more than any other air ambulance unit.

Rich Pedroncelli / The Associated Press

But after 27 seasons on the fire lines and some 370 jumps, Taylor is hanging up his gear for good this month.

"Smokejumping is hazardous," he said. "I'm not as strong as I used to be. It's just a fact."

During his long career, Taylor has broken a collarbone and injured his knee. He has been knocked unconscious three times. Earlier this season, one of Taylor's co-workers was killed when his parachute failed during a practice jump at Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks. Another broke his arm while jumping to a fire. A third suffered a broken leg.

As he prepares to retire, Taylor is leaving with more than just scars. In May, Harcourt Inc. published "Jumping Fire: A Smokejumper's Memoir of Fighting Wildfire," Taylor's first book.

"The slap comes down hard on my shoulder, and I propel myself forward with all my strength," he wrote. "In the next instant I am out and counting.

"Jump-thousand, look-thousand ..."

"The earth and the sky revolve in a blur of tilted horizons, aircraft wings, greens, blues, and rushing noise. My body pitches sideways to the right as I watch my boots fly higher than my head. I fall downward at 90 miles per hour. The forest, the fire, and the mountains rotate in a spin below."

Taylor said he wrote the book because he didn't want the stories of smokejumpers their courage and camaraderie, their disappointments and tragedies lost to time.

"Once I began thinking about writing in the spring of 1991, I began keeping a journal," Taylor said. "I was lucky I chose the 1991 season because it provided a really good framework to tell some of the best jump stories of the past."

As the story begins, Taylor and his co-workers are taking the annual physical training test. For older smokejumpers, the difficulty of running three miles in 22.5 minutes is compounded by anxiety. Failing could mean losing the job they love.

"When Troop and Dunning failed to meet the time limit, no one said a word," Taylor wrote. "Side-glancing at Troop I saw a pleading sadness in his kind brown eyes as he looked over at me. To a man we all felt defeated. Their loss was our loss.

"You can be strong. You can be dedicated. You can have run thousands of miles down those long country roads in the winter cold just before nightfall, alone, hurting, pushing, with no one to notice, no one to care. Run in the rain, run in the snow, against the wind and with it, through the injuries and pain. A smokejumper's commitment to physical fitness is year-round. It has to be.

"I'd run more than 8,000 miles to remain a jumper; Troop and Gary probably more. You can have done it all in the best of faith and still the day will come when you will no longer be able to keep up. On that day your life as a smokejumper will end."

Taylor describes the restlessness and tension during the wait to be deployed to a wildfire, the mixture of dread and elation before jumping and the satisfaction of "catching" a fire before it blows up.

A smokejumper can earn anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 a year, depending upon the severity of the fire season and the amount of overtime and hazard pay. It is a hard way to make a living.

"Charlie and I quickly hustled down the main fire line 30 yards, then turned to wait," Taylor wrote. "Suddenly the fire thundered up out of the draw, crowning in the big timber. The lower end of our burnout came alive and stood up in a crown fire of its own. The ground began to tremble. Somewhere in my head, common sense screamed the obvious. All our effort was going to be pitifully inadequate. For one small moment Charlie and I turned to look at each other, stunned. The world around us was on fire."

Taylor describes a gypsy life as a modern-day dragon slayer. For him, the lifestyle has meant spending half the year at his cabin in the Quartz Valley of northern California and the rest in Alaska and wherever else the fires take him.

"It's hard to live two different lives," said Taylor. "I have two banks, two phone companies, two different cars, two different sets of friends."

It's a life that takes a heavy toll. Taylor's marriage was a casualty of his career, and subsequent relationships have crumbled during his long absences.

Despite the difficulties, life as a smokejumper can transform people, Taylor said.

"People come into this with a certain sense of who they are and what they can do," he said. "It pushes them to new levels of experience. They get this expanded sense of themselves and it turns them into people they can respect."

Taylor plans to write more books about smokejumping. He's found that, like jumping fires, writing is a product of determination.

"If you try your best and don't give up," he said, "miracles happen."

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