Jumping Fire: A Smokejumper's Memoir of Fighting Wildfire

Jumping Fire: A Smokejumper's Memoir of Fighting Wildfire

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Jumping Fire: A Smokejumper's Memoir of Fighting Wildfire by Murry A. Taylor

A smokejumper recounts his three decades parachuting out of planes and fighting wildfires in the rugged West.

During one incendiary summer, Murry Taylor kept an extensive journal of his day-to-day activities as an Alaskan smokejumper. It wasn't his first season fighting wildfires, and he's far from being a rookie-he's been on the job since 1965. Through this narrative of one busy season, Taylor reflects on the years of training, the harrowing adrenaline-fueled jumps, his brushes with death, the fires he conquered, and the ones that got away. It's a world full of bravado, one with epic battles of man versus nature, resulting in stories of death-defying defeats, serious injury, and occasionally tragedy. We witness Taylor's story; learn of the training, preparation, technology, and latest equipment used in fighting wildfires; and get to know his fellow smokejumpers in the ready room, on the tundra, and in the vast forests of one of the last great wilderness areas in the world.

Often thrilling and informative and always entertaining, Taylor's memoir is one of the first autobiographical accounts of a legendary career.

About the Author:

Murry A. Taylor has been a smokejumper since 1965. He divides his time between Alaska and northern California. This is his first book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780151005895
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/15/2000
Edition description: 1 ED
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.46(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.46(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt


April 29

Fairbanks, Alaska

Spring was arriving in the far north at its usual fast pace. A thin blue sky brushed horsetail clouds against the Alaska Range a hundred miles to the south. To the north, Birch Hill lay gray and lifeless. In two weeks green-up would begin, but as yet, despite the sunny weather, the land itself still slept under the gray-brown blanket of arctic spring. Ice and snow, left over from a record 144-inch snowfall, lay in mounds in the dark shadows of spruce woods. Little streams ran along the roadsides, shining in the morning light. Thirty of us piled out of the vans and started milling around the starting line.

"OK now. Listen up," Jim Kelton yelled. "Flags are tied on the left side of the road every quarter mile. Mel will call out your times at the one- and two-mile points. I'll be at the mile and a half, and back here at the three-mile finish," he said, displaying his big Cheshire cat smile.

"When the van pulls away, be ready! Start when you hear the horn honk. Any questions?"

"Couldn't we just go bowl a few lanes instead?" Al Seiler asked in a low moan.

"Good idea," Rene Romero said. "Or just go down to Pike's, get a pizza and a couple beers."

Those of us ready to run looked down at the ground and pawed the dirt nervously with the toes of our running shoes.

"I understand," Kelton said wryly, "that they still have a couple positions available rolling sleeping bags over in the fire warehouse." Nobody laughed.

As training foreman of the Alaska smokejumpers, he would see to it that we all passed the PT test fair and square.

"Run for your job," that's what we call the PT test. It's the first anxious moment in every jump season. And even though everyone usually passes it, there are times, due to past injuries, that some don't. In the annual newsletter sent out during the Christmas holidays, Rodger Vorce, our base manager, had put it this way:

With the fat season just ending and the dreaded PT test looming on the horizon, I would encourage everyone to put down the fork and pick up the pace. Every summer a few jumpers attempt to test the axiom that failing the PT test really means the end of your job. Let me assure you — nothing has changed! Who is it going to be this year? YOU? If you should be unfortunate enough to embarrass yourself and your friends by not making it, you'll have one week to pass. So much for the serious stuff. It's Christmas! Go ahead — have some more pumpkin pie, and we'll see you in the spring.

"You know the rules," Kelton said. "If you can't hack it today, pass it in one week or turn in your gear."

"Same old shit," Mitch Decoteau grumbled, flapping his arms to keep warm.

Kelton checked his watch, turned, and headed for his van. There was a little last-minute stretching and running in place, then the group drew up to the line and took a long look down the road. The van roared to life, and as it rolled away, the horn honked and we bolted after it.

I immediately fell into last place. For the previous three months I'd dreaded that very moment. An old injury in my left knee had been aggravated during spring training, and I wasn't sure it could take the pounding of a three-mile run. Would the aerobic capacity I'd developed on the stationary bicycle get me through? Or would I get partway and feel the knee loosen and give out? Being fifty years old and carrying an old injury made it particularly disheartening to so quickly fall behind. Needing, however, to focus mentally and establish a proper pace, I dismissed the hard chargers as cowards stampeding in the face of a summer spent rolling sleeping bags in the warehouse. One step at a time, I told myself. Listen to the rhythm, and press on.

But try as I might, I couldn't silence the voices in my head. The possibility of losing my job was a miserable distraction. Suspended between fulfillment and failure, aggrieved by an odd dance of hope and pain, still, I had twenty-two minutes and thirty seconds to run three miles. No exceptions. No excuses.

At one mile I was maintaining pace and working my way up through the group, passing Trooper Tom and Gary Dunning. My knee didn't hurt too bad. My heart and lungs had settled down. My time at one mile was 6:56. At the mile and a half I moved up alongside my buddy Fergy. My time was 10:26. The year before it had been 9:10.

At the two-mile mark I pulled off my T-shirt and tossed it to Mel Tenneson, who grabbed it on the fly, glanced down at his watch, and yelled back, "14:29 — lookin' good."

The road got pretty lonely after that. Each minute, waves of pain and aerobic stress surged through my body. The voices wanted to know. How smart was it to be smokejumping at fifty? Had my ego tricked me into thinking I could keep up with these younger and, no doubt, stronger jumpers? Had their words of encouragement simply been offered as customary smokejumper decorum, their doubts having been shelved out of respect?

"How much longer are you going to keep doing that?" friends outside of smokejumping demand. "Quit while you're ahead. For god sakes! You're too old."

My father tells it like it is. Old Toots Taylor thinks his son is a damn fool. He shakes his head and lets fly.

"You can't live up in those mountains in a wheelchair, you know," he says. "Give it up while you can still walk."

And then there's mother. Even though her support has been unfailing, I know that inwardly she fears for me more than anyone. "Well, honey," she tells me, "you've always been one to chase after your heart."

I've injured both knees — the left one twice. I've broken my right collarbone. I've been knocked out three times, and my hands and forearms are covered with dozens of small scars from years of tearing through the woods. I went blind with cataracts in 1984; surgery, inter-ocular lens transplants, and $12,000 restored my sight to near perfect.

I returned my attention back on the road, back to the task of running for my job, fighting against fear and doubt. I thought to myself, Just shut up; you're not the only one hurting.

I pulled up alongside Mitch Decoteau. Mitch hates the PT test, too. Not because it's that difficult, really, but somehow combining physical distress with the threat of losing your job produces an inordinate amount of anxiety. Mitch was panting hard and soaked with sweat. I felt my pace falling off. Even though I was still ahead of several others, I knew I had to pick it up. Listening to my feet strike the ground, I concentrated on maintaining the rhythm and not on the pain building in my left knee.

My chest felt like it had been hit by lightning. I had visions of my oxygen-starved body diving into a snowbank. But there was nothing to do but just keep on running. Then around the corner appeared a lovely sight — Kelton in his cool, hot-pink T-shirt, the van, and the finish line. Jim's eyes were glued to his stopwatch as he called out the time. A wave of pain and nausea rose up inside me as I ran past. "Taylor," he yelled, "22:05."

My vision pulsed with a matrix of black dots, and my lungs gasped for more air as I watched Mitch and Fergy come in. The fatal 22:30 came and went with ominous finality. A couple of old veterans barely missed it. They crossed the finish line, then crumpled in disappointment. One was Trooper Tom, a veteran of two combat tours with the marines in Vietnam and twenty-two seasons smokejumping. At forty-six, Troop had more fire jumps than any other jumper in history. He also had two injured knees and a hip he'd fractured in Montana in 1989.

The other was Gary Dunning, the second-oldest jumper in the fifty-two-year history of smokejumping. In 1986, on a windy jump east of Fort Yukon, he'd suffered a smokejumper's nightmare, when a spear-pointed black spruce punctured the middle of his left thigh, leaving him skewered thirty feet in the air. A gust of wind grabbed his chute and toppled jumper and tree to the ground. Gary was unconscious when the other jumpers found him. Last year he had extensive surgery on his left foot. Like most old-timers, our beloved "Secret Squirrel," as we called him, had a pair of jumper knees as well.

When Troop and Dunning failed to meet the time limit, no one said a word. 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 ours.

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 eight thousand 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.


May 1


Mike Tupper, manning the operations desk for the day, stepped up to the magnet board and scanned the jump list.

"Roll call," he yelled, turning to face the chaos of the ready room. Over sixty smokejumpers quieted.

"Welcome home, boys! It's good to see everybody again. Hope you had a great winter — I sure did! Couple things here before we get started. First off, there's going to be a class on grizzly and black bears given by a field biologist from State Fish and Game. It'll be your basic bears are unpredictable and have big teeth stuff, so if you're interested, let me know. Also, there's going to be a weapons certification class for those planning to carry guns. Same rules as before — nothing smaller than a .357 Magnum. BLM's policy remains the same. Don't shoot 'em unless they're eating you. Check the sign-up sheet on the bulletin board. That's all I have. Welcome home!" Mike stepped back, smiled, and offered his hand palm up in the direction of squad leader Buck Nelson.

"Right after roll call, all ram-air refresher jumpers get your gear and meet in the loft," Buck announced.

Jim Raudenbush, another squad leader, stepped up. "All rookies — Outside now!" he yelled. "Roll call is for real smokejumpers, not wannabees." Bush's words came out hard like a dog barking bricks.

Jim Olson joined in the fray, his eyes bulging with enthusiasm. "Ram-air rookies, meet in the lounge right after morning PT, and we'll check out the video of yesterday's jump."

After my quiet winter living in the mountains of Northern California, the intensity of the ready room added credence to the theory advanced by some nonjumpers (particularly women) that smokejumpers are the outcome of some secret government testosterone experiment gone bad.

"Anything else?" Tupper shouted.

"One more thing," Tom Boatner said, as he stepped in front of the operations desk. Boatner was the crew supervisor. The room quieted again.

"I'm with Tupp." Smiling. "It's really great to see everybody back again. It's always good when this time of year rolls around. Yesterday I talked to Charlie Thomas up at Fort Yukon. He says he can't remember seeing it this dry so early. That's from a man who's lived there sixty years. We had record snow here in Fairbanks, but it was just local. Most of the interior had considerably less. We're looking at one of the driest and warmest springs ever. Same goes for Bettles and out west. Fuel moistures on the Kenai Peninsula are running record lows. For those of you already jump qualified, have your gear on the speed racks and be ready. The state picked up a half-dozen fires down around Anchorage this weekend. It may not look like it here, but statewide it's beginning to look like we could be in for a bust-ass fire season. Our first call could be anytime. So be ready. Be thinking fire. And again, welcome back. We missed you."

"Any more announcements?" Tupper yelled. "OK then, roll call."

"Firestone." "Here."

"Romero." "Yo!"

"Fergy." "Morn — ning."

"Quacks." "I don't think you missed me."

Tupper turned from the magnet board and stared at Quacks. "Well, look who's here? It's the smokejumper from the shallow end of the gene pool."

Here we go again, I thought, as Mike continued down the list. The stage is set; Alaska's drying out. Members of the cast are taking up their roles. Scanning the crew, I noticed some of the faces missing. Troop and Dunning were nowhere to be seen. A season without two of our finest warhorses hardly seems possible.

"Seiler." "Here."

"Taylor." "Yeah."

A few minutes later a dozen of us gathered in the loft for a review of the Bureau of Land Management's parachute malfunction procedures. BLM smokejumpers in Alaska and the Lower 48 use square parachutes similar to those used in sport parachuting. Both the main and the reserve are called "square" parachutes, although their actual shape is rectangular. The BLM system requires a three-foot-diameter drag chute, known as the drogue. The drogue deploys automatically as the jumper leaves the plane. The main canopy, however, must be deployed by the jumper himself after falling under the drogue until he has attained a stable feet-down, head-up body position. The deployment sequence is activated five to six seconds after leaving the plane, approximately 400 to 500 feet beneath it.

By comparison, U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers use a round canopy system — both main and reserve. The round main deploys by static line and opens automatically after the jumper has fallen 150 to 200 feet. The round reserve must be deployed manually.

In the loft, everyone gathered around Mitch Decoteau. Mitch had spent part of his winter in Spain, where he is co-owner and instructor at the Costa Brava Skydiving Complex. As a small boy Mitch became fascinated with a man known as Jump Jackson, a stunt jumper who traveled with barnstormers. From that time forward, Mitch knew beyond a doubt that he wanted to spend a good part of his life parachuting. In 1982 he was a member of the American four-way team that took first place in the World Parachuting Championships. Renowned among international sky divers, Mitch was awarded his diamond wings in 1990 for being one of the few sky divers to have ever clocked seventy-five hours of free fall. Mitch organizes international skydiving competitions around the world during the winter months and spends his summers jumping fires. He rookied at Missoula in 1978 and then transferred to Alaska in the early 1980s.

Mitch was wearing a T-shirt with BOOGIE IN BALI —'89 written in electric blue and green across the front. It's good we had Mitch. Mitch provided an experienced perspective on malfunctions. I asked him once how many he'd had in his nearly five thousand jumps.

"Thirteen," he said. "Thirteen where I had to use my reserve. If you don't have to use your reserve, it doesn't really count as a malfunction; it's just maybe like a slow opening or something."

Unlike Mitch, the BLM counts all malfunctions, whether you have to use your reserve or not. The year before there had been three among the Alaska jumpers: two total malfunctions and a partial. Fergy and Slasher had had the totals. The partial — a tension knot — had been mine.

Fergy's mishap, thought to be deployment-bag lock, occurred on a practice jump over Birch Hill. When he pulled his drogue release handle, the main chute flew free from his back but didn't open. When he looked up, all he could see was the deployment bag and a blur dancing at the end of his suspension lines. Some of the canopy was partly out, but the rest was knotted in a ball. Falling near ninety miles per hour, Fergy didn't waste any time. He simply pulled his cutaway handle to release the main chute. Fergy's reserve opened fine, and he flew it in without further incident.

Slasher's malfunction was on a fire just south of the Yukon River, thirty miles west of the Alaska Pipeline. Like Fergy, Slasher hadn't delayed but had gone straight for his cutaway clutch and his reserve rip cord. He, too, thought his looked like bag lock, but, as with Fergy's, the real cause remains unknown. Malfunctions that remain mysterious are not something smokejumpers take lightly. Each one gets a critical evaluation, some to the point of absurdity.


Excerpted from "Jumping Fire"
by .
Copyright © 2000 Murry A. Taylor.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Pat Kelly

I've spent over thirty years fighting fires and leading fire-fighting organizations and Murry Taylor's Jumping Fire is an insightful and passionate account of the pain, pressure, sacrifices and rewards that make up the life of the seasonal firefighter. He captures the physical and mental commitment that the job demands and his passages on fire-fighting episodes are excellent.
— Pat Kelly, Former Assistant Director of the National Fire and Aviation Program, U.S.B.A. Forest Service

Michael Thoele

Michael Thoele, author of Fire Line: Summer Battles of the West
Jumping Fire is Murry Taylor's exquisite and revealing paean to smoke-jumping. Packing the scars of a fire fighting lifetime, Taylor captures West's last great itinerant lifestyle in a tale where the battles of mind and heart and body are as incandescent as a torching spruce.

John Maclean

From the Author of Fire on the Mountain: the True Story of the South Canyon Fire

Grab your boots and chutes. Murry Taylor puts you in the harness for a thrill-a-page account of smokejumping based on his already-legendary career. You see the stupendous landscapes, feel the crush of the brutal landings, work to exhaustion, and then hike out eager to be back on board, ready to jump again. Taylor has lived the dream; now he lets the rest of us in on it.?

Patrick McManus

Forget fiction. Jumping Fire is the best action/adventure thriller I've read in years! Murry Taylor is one terrific writer.

William Kittredge

From the Author of Hole in the Sky

Jumping from airplanes, fighting the fires, beating the odds, losing the new love? Murry Taylor gives us a modern story of adventure and on-the-job heroism. Nothing touristy or politically correct about it, Jumping Fire is the actual thing, and a vivid compelling story.?

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