Into The Fire
As soon as they've safely landed, the jumpers begin working to contain the fire by digging trenches, cutting down trees, and "backburning''--lighting controlled fires that burn the vegetation around the wildfire. In most cases, firefighters can extinguish a blaze in a day or two, but Freshwater has spent as many as five days battling a single fire.
Once the flames die down, Freshwater and the other smoke jumpers spray the remaining "hot spots'' with water and touch the cinders with their bare hands to make sure the fire is completely out. Tired, dirty, and reeking of smoke, the jumpers pack up their gear--up to 130 pounds each--and hike out to where they can be picked up and taken back to the base.
Since the peak fire season is midsummer, smoke jumping is an ideal second job for teachers who love the outdoors and can meet the tough physical challenge. More than 20 of the nation's 300 smoke jumpers teach school, according to Freshwater, an 8th grade physical science teacher at Mount Vernon (Ohio) Middle School. He says the 70-person smokejumper base in McCall-- one of the Forest Service's six major bases--"caters the most to teachers'' by letting them arrive late and leave early in the season.
As demanding and dangerous as smoke jumping is, Freshwater manages to make it sound more like a summer vacation than a summer job. "This is my recreation,'' the 34-yearold teacher says. "It can be hard work, but it's definitely enjoyable.'' Long enamored of the wilderness, Freshwater worked on trail maintenance crews before switching to smoke jumping in 1984. He and his wife even spent their honeymoon on a fire tower in an Idaho forest. "We got in a little airplane and flew about an hour,'' he recalls, "and then we took horses and mules 25 miles to the fire tower, where we spent the summer alone together watching for forest fires.''
Freshwater says that the arduous nature of firefighting fosters a sense of friendship and trust among smoke jumpers. "It's almost like a fraternity,'' he says. The camaraderie and the view he gets of the forests from 15,000 feet is what keeps Freshwater hooked. "I get to see a lot of beautiful country in a way most people don't,'' he says. "I'd never get to see it that way except in this profession.''
M. Dominique Long