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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.