Jumping Fire: A Smokejumper's Memoir of Fighting Wildfire

Overview

Fighting fires since 1965, veteran smokejumper Murry Taylor finally retired from his legendary career after last summer-the worst fire season in more than fifty years. After three decades of parachuting out of planes and battling blazes in the vast, rugged wilderness of Alaska and the West, Taylor recounts in Jumping Fire, with passion and honesty, stories of man versus nature at its most furious and unforgiving. He shares what it's like to hear the deafening roar, to smell the acrid burn, to feel the intense ...

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Jumping Fire: A Smokejumper's Memoir of Fighting Wildfire

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Overview

Fighting fires since 1965, veteran smokejumper Murry Taylor finally retired from his legendary career after last summer-the worst fire season in more than fifty years. After three decades of parachuting out of planes and battling blazes in the vast, rugged wilderness of Alaska and the West, Taylor recounts in Jumping Fire, with passion and honesty, stories of man versus nature at its most furious and unforgiving. He shares what it's like to hear the deafening roar, to smell the acrid burn, to feel the intense heat, to breathe the thick fumes, and to finally run for your life with exploding flames two hundred feet high and a mile wide licking at your heels.
Written with a keen eye for detail and a talent for storytelling, "Jumping Fire is a tale of love and loss, life and death, and sheer hard work, set in an unforgiving and unforgettable landscape, that's second only to Norman Maclean's classic Young Men and Fire" (Publishers Weekly).

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

The Wildfire West

In his gripping memoir Jumping Fire, veteran smokejumper Murry Taylor delivers unprecedented insights into the day-to-day life of Alaska's wilderness fire warriors. Through detailed journal entries that span one hellish summer, Taylor produces a frontline dispatch that indelibly recreates the terrifying realities of his all-consuming profession. From grueling training runs to the thrill of the jump and down into the monstrous fires themselves, this extraordinary record of do-or-die heroism is bound to become smokejumping's triumphant answer to The Right Stuff.

For over 30 years, Taylor has spent his summers leaping out of airplanes and parachuting into raging wildfires. He is a smokejumper -- part wilderness paratrooper, part firefighter -- a career that provides daily doses of an adventure junkie's favorite cocktail of adrenaline mixed with blood, sweat, and tears.

Much has been made in the media of the legendary bravado of smokejumpers and their noble task: to swoop out of the sky and contain raging infernos that threaten to gobble up property, acreage, and lives. Taylor's account certainly fans the flames of that myth, but he also manages to put a human face on its heroes while showing the gritty flip side to the glory. With intimate candor, Taylor's tell-it-like-it-is prose renders the surreality of the smokejumper's life in three palpable dimensions.

Each chapter is a series of journal entries that chronicle the nuts-and-bolts of the job through one incendiary May-September fire season. Along the way, readers are introduced to the tools of the trade, learn the ABC's of dousing blazes, and get to know the other jumpers in all their blustery, swaggering mountain-man glory.

As lightning continually ignites miles of parched Alaskan wilderness, Jumping Fire is punctuated by wild, real-time adventure sequences both in the air and on the smoldering ground. Even readers familiar with the spectacle of smokejumping will be awestruck by the sheer endurance and fortitude of these diehard personalities and the immensity of their task.

A forest fire turns out to be a lot more sinister than Smokey let on, and it's common for smokejumpers to forego days of sleep to put a blaze to bed. Not that most folks will blaze a trail to the local Forestry Service outpost in hopes of signing on as smokejumpers, but Taylor's hardly recruiting -- he's just letting the world know that an occupation this extreme really does exist.

Harrowing tales abound: close calls, gruesome accidents, personal tragedies. Airplane engines burst into flames, parachutes fail to deploy, jumpers are knocked unconscious as they careen into mountainsides, or else are left dangling from towering trees. Then there are the fires. Taylor alternates between breathless descriptions of the eerie beauty of a forest in flames and accounts of the all-too-real danger of blow-ups that can swallow up smokejumpers' lives in a heartbeat.

Much like traditional firemen, smokejumpers display an unflagging allegiance to duty, plus an intense camaraderie. Exhausting and frustrating, the job demands total commitment; but nobody's forcing these guys -- they have an inborn love for their work. The jumpers concur that they're "living a dream." But in the back of each man's mind is the knowledge that the dream can quickly melt into a nightmare -- as Taylor discovers himself on an Idaho mountainside:

We were running in fire. I had often imagined what it must be like to be trapped. The blinding heat, the horror. The fire is on you. Your body is burning. That detached observer within recognizes that your worst fear has, in fact, become your final reality. You are burning to death.

All this fear, all this danger, all this adrenaline -- at what cost? When removed from the drama of countless conflagrations, Taylor allows hints of a revealing melancholy, for the personal cost of his profession has been high, including his marriage. His is a life apart. "[M]ost normal people are at home sleeping in beds, with pillows and sheets, and maybe even other people, we're out here acting like a bunch of brush apes, running chain saws all night, swilling coffee that tastes like battery acid, eating stale candy bars, spilling gas and oil all over ourselves, filling our eyes with sawdust, ruining our hearing, and then lying in the dirt like a bunch of pigs." This recurring doubt haunts Taylor's thoughts, but having learned the lessons of his job, he stamps it out and gets right back to work.

Taylor's three decades of experience give him an educational and informative scope on his profession. The vocabulary can be a tangle for novices, but a consultation with the book's glossary will quickly demystify jargon like "burnout," "scratch line," or "snookie." The free, natural use of smokejumping argot adds yet another layer of authenticity to Taylor's on-the-scene observations.

In many ways, the narrative of Jumping Fire has the feel of a war story, and for all intents and purposes, the smokejumper's life is one of the closest peacetime equivalents. Smokejumping language further reinforces the parallels with talk of "air attacks," "cargo drops," and "barracks life." Taylor forcefully illustrates that doing battle with Mother Nature is every bit as hazardous as life on the war front, except these commandos aren't getting in a plane to exchange fire, but to extinguish it.

In the end, what impresses most is the indomitable spirit of not only Murry Taylor but this entire passionate breed of backwoods flyboys that sacrifice convention in exchange for the unique rewards of wrangling fire in a vast, unpredictable wilderness. Jumping Fire is a remarkable tribute to the brave souls who risk life, limb, and love to quell the scorching flames of nature's fury.

—Brad Hampton

From the Publisher
Praise for Jumping Fire
"A grand adventure that captures a lifestyle of violent oscillations between terror, boredom, and exhaustion."-Outside

"A beautifully crafted, wise yet thrilling book that will endure as long as there is an appetite for vicarious adventure and a curiosity about why people are driven to do dangerous things that most of us would consider crazy."-Los Angeles Times

"Terrifying, grimly funny . . . An affectionate portrait of a fraternity of daredevils."-The New Yorker

Caroline Fraser
A grand adventure that captures a lifestyle of violent oscillations between terror, boredom, and exhaustion.
Outside Magazine
John Holkeboer
The author writes with authority and hair-raising detail about parachuting into remote locations to fight fires.
Wall Street Journal
From The Critics
A grand adventure that captures a lifestyle of violent oscillations between terror, boredom, and exhaustion.
Outside
A grand adventure that captures a lifestyle of violent oscillations between terror, boredom, and exhaustion.
KLIATT
Being a smokejumper is a dangerous and difficult career. The author details his long life in fire fighting; it began in 1965 and didn't end until the summer of 2000. He was the oldest person ever to do the job, and this book is filled with stories about different fires in his career. It is also a look at a man wondering if he has done the best he could with his life. A glossary of terms helps with the understanding of all the equipment used in this demanding and compelling occupation. Older students who have an interest in smokejumping will enjoy every hazardous moment that he describes. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Harcourt, 459p., $14.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Barbara Jo McKee; Libn/Media Dir., Streetsboro H.S., Stow, OH , September 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 5)
Library Journal
The author is a veteran forest fire fighter in Alaska, one of a corps of highly trained and conditioned specialists who are actually eager to jump out of an airplane into a raging fire. Taylor has spent 25 years doing this work, unusual longevity for such physically demanding activity. The work, which is seasonal and involves long periods of boredom punctuated by intense pain, exhaustion, and fear, would satisfy any testosterone addict. Additionally, the demands of the fire season mean that smokejumpers are separated from their families for months in an environment not exactly conducive to stable relationships. However, Taylor manages a thoughtful and readable exploration of a middle-aged man coming to terms with his life, his successes, and his failures, which unexpectedly struck a chord with this reviewer. For readers who like books like Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/00.]--Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Booknews
In the shadow of Mt. McKinley, above the Yukon River, and the Rocky Mountains are among the places Taylor has fought fires during his 20- year career. His account includes digging firelines, fighting off angry bears, telling funny stories around the campfire, and remembering jumpers who have fallen to their deaths and pilots who have perished in fiery crashes. He is the oldest living fire jumper, and the oldest ever to jump. He includes a glossary without a guide to pronunciation. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156013970
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 6/28/2001
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 478
  • Sales rank: 309,716
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

Murry A. Taylor was a smokejumper on and off for more than thirty years. He was the oldest active smokejumper at the time of his retirement in 2000, and the oldest ever to do the job. He lives in northern California.

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Read an Excerpt

The door of Jump 17 opens to an unnerving roar, swings aside, and reveals four hundred acres of fire crowning in black spruce. Orange tongues of burning gases lick high into the air. Coils of black smoke roll up from a flame front a mile wide. At the fire's head, flames eighty feet high whip back and forth as if trying to tear themselves free from the earth. At fifteen hundred feet, we orbit and look down. The smoke column rises out of a blue-green landscape to tower above us, its lower third brown and black, its middle a marbled yellow-gray, its top a crown of sunlit silver.

Air rushes into the airplane--thin mountain air, sweetly laced with the scent of wood smoke. The roar is so loud we can barely shout above it. Hitting turbulence, we bounce weightlessly, then slam down on the cargo. From the pit of my stomach nausea flows through the rest of my body. My breathing is rapid and shallow, tightly constrained by the chest strap on my jump harness. I struggle to my feet, grab the overhead cable, and make my way to the door. We have an eight-man load. I will jump first.

Jump 17 lines up for our initial pass over the jump spot. Dalan Romero drops the first set of drift streamers. Banking into a turn, we watch the streamers--one red, one blue, and one yellow--flutter brightly against the backdrop of the dark forest, then suddenly waver, tumble end over end, and sweep in toward the fire. We make a second pass to drop another set. They do the same.

I watch through the door as the fire crests a ridge...Grave, but apparently satisfied with what he's seen, [Dalan] shouts over his headset to the pilots, "Take us to three thousand."

Dalan turns to me, holding up two fingers, and I step closer to the door and brace myself, being careful not to get sucked out by the slipstream. Kubichek, my jump partner, takes his place inches behind me.

"Looks like about five hundred yards of drift," Dalan yells. "The winds are tricky down low. Stay wide of the fire. The jump spot's in the shadow of the column there in that little meadow just north of the barn. Do you see it?"

I nod yes.

Again Dalan's head is out the door and looking forward under the plane. I hear the pilot over the intercom. "We got three thousand, Dalan, we got three thousand." Dalan says something back into his headset, and then his eyes are back on me.

"OK, two jumpers," he commands. "Are you ready?"

I nod yes.

"Get in the door."

I drop into a sitting position, my legs hanging out into the slipstream. Kubichek is close behind, waiting. Sitting there in the door, even though the fire is more than a mile away, I can feel the heat on my face.

Again Dalan's head is out and looking. My field of vision fills with a panorama of the Alaska Range. The land below runs in a flat incline, rising east to the cloud-shadowed foothills of the Toklat River Valley. Beyond the hills, thrusting up out of the earth, is a world of jagged black peaks, blue ice walls, and massive snowfields--the heart of Denali National Park, a stronghold left over from the Ice Age, at once forbidding and magnificent.

Dalan pulls his head in, shoots me a quick glance, then raises his arm behind my back. "Get ready!"

The slap comes down hard on my shoulder, and I propel myself forward with all my strength. 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 ninety miles per hour. The forest, the fire, and the mountains rotate in a spin below. I look up as Kubichek clears the door--he, too, becomes a dark silhouette tumbling in the blue.

"Reach-thousand..."

My right hand reaches for the green rip cord. My fingers curl around it tightly.

"Wait-thousand..."

I am aware of what hangs in the balance of the next few seconds. Resisting the temptation to pull early, I wait out that odd, warped moment when time stretches, then begins to tear.

"Pull-thousand..."

My hand pulls right across my chest and shoots out to the side. I feel myself tilt forward, then a tugging sensation across my shoulders, and the chute is off my back and struggling to open. Tossing my head back, I watch, and there it comes, billowing into a gleaming rectangle of brilliant orange and white. In the aftermath of the roar there comes a startling silence.

I check the rear corners of my chute for tension knots, then reach for my steering toggles, pull down left, and come around into the wind. I look down. The head of the fire has temporarily halted along the crest of the ridge while the ground fire spills down into the valley.

Kubichek lets out a long, whooping yell. He, too, has just opened. I yell back, then turn and try to orient to the jump spot.

The smoke column rises high overhead, casting an ominous shadow far over the land. Facing into the wind, I try to locate the jump spot. I feel my gut tighten as I watch the ground pass below, appearing to surge one way and then the other as the chute rocks back and forth. Pulling down on the left toggle, I begin moving closer to the wind line. Still, I can't make out the jump spot. I yell at Kubichek that I can't see the spot. He yells something back and starts laughing.

Lightning arcs down out of the top of the smoke column and strikes the ground between me and the fire. Thunder cracks loudly, trailing off in a rumble. Sunlight streams down through a hole in the smoke to pool green and gold upon the land as it might on the floor of a cathedral. A small sunny meadow appears. Kubi and I yell out in unison. In that moment I feel as if I can fly on and on forever, sailing high above all the great forests and wilderness on earth, out beyond the farthest horizon, into the infinite darkness to drift among the stars.

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2001

    READ THIS BOOK

    Outstanding story of firefighting men and the lives they lead.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2000

    Homesick Westerner writes from back East

    Taylor's Jumping Fire is a beautifully written adventure memoir set in interior Alaska and the Idaho backcountry during the wildfire season of 1991. An easy and fascinating read, the book is filled with hair-raising and hilarious anecdotes, dynamic real-life characters, and some of the most poignant descriptions of interior Alaska and the rugged Idaho backcountry I've ever read. As a 48 year-old armchair adventurer and Maryland resident who was raised in Washington State, I began to miss the Pacific Northwest terribly as Taylor recounts Idaho's high country. Also, at 50 years of age, Taylor proves that adventure isn't just for kids. If leaping out of a perfectly good airplane into raging fires isn't interesting enough, Taylor hooks the reader with a second story line, a budding summer romance with a fetching young lady whom he increasingly desires. He passionately pursues her, hoping to continue their affair into the off-season, thinking their relationship will continue to blossom. Fire calls take first priority and constantly interrupt his pursuit, creating a wonderful romantic tension that's drawn into the book's conclusion. The summer of 1991 was one of the driest on record, when the Alaska Smokejumpers struggled round-the-clock to contain lightning-sparked wildfires all over the 49th state and the West. It's inspiring to accompany Taylor and his comrades on an exhausting and harrowing series of jumps to remote wildfires and mishaps. So, why do Taylor and his good friends return to smokejumping year after year to endure the grinding workload for modest pay? Perhaps it's a combination to adventure and the satisfaction of being one the few allowed to jump fire, and the joy of being in like company. Jumping Fire is as honest and exciting as a book can get. You won't be able to put this one down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2000

    Jump!

    Outstanding story and a captivating blend of parachuting, fire fighting and the toll on his personal life. As good as, perhaps better than any Clancy book - certainly more realistic!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 25, 2000

    A definate MUST read

    This is the book to read if you are someone wo likes to follow someone into their life for a while and experience the pain sucesses, acomplishments and loses as well as a face paced, life threating fire seasn in the great outdoors. Great visually for all your senses. Murry does a great job of making uyo feel the wind gabbing yor chue as it opens above you at 3000 feet, as well as the pain of hitting a tree i a rough landing. A definate must read for firefighters and adventerous people a

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2000

    Fuel for your mid-life crisis

    This is a great book. I've never been a smokejumper but I did jump for the 82nd Airborne division, and I can tell you the jumping (and landing!) descriptions are well done. The rendering of Alaska is also good. Mostly I loved the rough comaraderie among the jumpers; it brought back some very old, very good, hilarious memories. I doubt whether many women can understand this side of men.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2000

    Catillac Jack with action.

    Must read for men. Must read for women who wish to understand men.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2000

    Captures the spirit and adventure of smokejumping

    Never before has anyone captured the real-life spirit and adventure of smokejumping like Murry Taylor has in ¿JUMPING FIRE.¿ The reader rushes recklessly along as he follows Murry through an entire jump season, sharing the exhaustion of physical training, the strange dread and elation during fire jumps in rugged mountainous terrain and towering trees, the heat and smoke of raging forest fires, the ruthless humor, and the camaraderie forged by shared dangers. Carried along in the swirling chaos of a long nomadic fire season, you will hear the roar of wind and turbine engines while standing in the jump door, parachute into remote mountain ranges of Alaska, cut fireline all night long on a mountainside in the Idaho wilderness, grieve for lost friends, and joke around campfires in the smoky twilight of Alaskan summer nights. As a twenty year smokejumper, I encourage you to grab your jump gear and come along for a season of ¿Living the Dream.¿ Buck Nelson, Author of ¿HUNTING BIG WHITETAILS¿

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