There are Good Deals and bad deals; Smokejumpers are always looking for a Good Deal. Good Deals go bad and sometimes the worst deals transform themselves back around into Good Deals. Some guys argue there are no bad deals at all—that all deals are just that, only deals. However, I think that stripping a fire assignment of any judgment qualifier does a disservice to our work. Every firefighter has spent two dismal weeks counting down the days to the end of a miserable fire assignment. Similarly, anyone who returns for a second season of wildland fire has found themselves at one time or another on a burned-out landscape smiling like an idiot, surrounded by likeminded idiots, having had such a good time that it’s hard to believe the government would pay us to do this kind of work. Smokejumpers, more than most, chase the Good Deal with fervent zeal, even if that sometimes means making the most of a terrible deal.
Yet amazingly, after eight seasons fighting fire, I still cannot decide if the work we cherish, wildland firefighting, is a Good Deal or bad deal.
There is a trade-off when an aspiring smokejumper receives a job offer from one of the nine jump bases. Despite having to subject oneself to the horrors of rookie training and being likely to make only a fraction of the overtime found on a hotshot crew, when the fire call siren wails and you are one of the jumpers slated to fly, the adrenaline rush alone is enough to forget weeks of pain and suffering. Once up in the air, it is incomprehensibly special to size-up a fire from a 1500 foot orbit in a fixed wing aircraft. The plane’s engines are so loud that most communication on board is non-verbal or shouted and limited to short phrases. They shout, “When we get to the ground, I’m going straight for the chainsaw box!” Or, “Do you see the trail from the jumpspot to the heel of the fire?” Or even, “What Forest are we in??”
Even so, a knowing smile or eye roll from a close buddy speaks volumes about what to expect once we jump out of the plane and come crashing to earth.
Sometimes a fire will be so small that no one can justify throwing eight firefighters to suppress it. While traditionally considered an undisputed Good Deal, “two-manners” can be risky. If you don’t get along with your jump-partner, the ensuing fire is likely to be tense and unpleasant. One of my fondest memories is from a cluster of lighting fires in Oregon. I was working a two-manner with a close friend when, after a few days, we got a radio call from a jumper on a nearby fire. He asked for our help mopping up his two-manner a few miles away. We obliged and hiked to his fire only to find our poor comrade was losing his mind and simply needed a different person to talk to.
On the other hand, at times I have been amazed by the sheer volume of work a load of smokejumpers can accomplish on an emerging incident. Unburdened by the traditional command structure, when jumpers are unleashed on a going fire, they will make hay with unmatched efficiency. One of the most coveted praises from a land manager may come as a genuine question, “Who put in all this line?” There is a great pride among jumpers in producing unexpected outcomes from vexing situations. Only after putting in miles and miles of scratch line that inexplicably holds fire, will exhausted jumpers retire to camp. Regardless of the day’s work, once at jumper camp (not fire camp) someone will inevitably build a cooking fire. Like moths to the flames, jumpers will gather round the fire and laugh at how something that looked like bad deal from 3000 feet might have actually been a Good Deal in disguise.
On paper, it’s hard to imagine a worse deal than wildland firefighting. Long hours, hard work, poor compensation, the list goes on. In spite of it all, there is some otherworldly alchemy that materializes when you combine smoke, exhaustion, and great people. This is what makes our work a cherished vocation. Like everyone who has watched with horror as their foolproof Good Deal goes south, wildland firefighting is great—until it’s not. I am in awe of the career firefighters whose enthusiasm for this calling continues to infect everyone around them. More often though, the brutal realities of this career erode our joy for the work until we are bitter old salts.
There is a classic jumper dilemma called “stay or go.” You are on a fire making good money. The initial attack is over but there is still work to be done when a voice crackles over the radio, “stay or go?” Do we stick around something that is pretty good but getting worse by the hour or cut away to face uncertainty with the hope that there is a new Good Deal waiting out there for us. Lifers in this profession can chase the endless fire season in search of the Good Deal around the corner. First prescribed fire in R8, then springtime wildfires in Alaska and the Southwest. When the summer monsoons come, we fight fire in the Northern Rockies and eventually the Pacific Northwest as the fuels there start to cure and crackle. Finally, the autumn rains arrive and with it and shorter days. Suddenly it’s time to make our way back south to California where fire season seems to extend later and later into the winter.
I prefer to think of my wildfire season as just that, a season.
The Good Deals of smokejumping were perfectly tailored to me in my twenties. The Good Deal never went bad per se, but I am not fighting for every hour of overtime now that the fire is caught. I look back at my wildland fire career in the same way one looks back fondly on fishing in the summer or skiing in the winter. I am in my thirties now and have a daughter. The season of my life has changed. As I write, sepia toned nostalgia is yet to soften the hard edges of this profession and I remember the bad times as well as the good. Yet, I cherish my time fighting fire because it reminds me to truly make the most of a Good Deal when I am lucky enough stumble into one since, of course, Good Deals and bad deals are as ephemeral as the changing of the seasons.