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Jumping Fire: A Smokejumper's Memoir of…
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Jumping Fire: A Smokejumper's Memoir of Fighting Wildfire

by Murry A. Taylor

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Taylor began smokejumping in 1965 and, near age fifty, finally quit after the summer of 2000, the worst fire season in half a century. Smokejumpers are a bizarre breed who have to pass an extremely rigorous physical fitness test each year — one thing they have to do is run 3 miles in 22 minutes and Marines say smokejumpers training is harder than boot camp — before being allowed back into training. (Interestingly, one of them, Trooper, paid his own way to China in an attempt to convince the Chinese they should begin smokejumping the large fires they have in China, but the Chinese said it was too lethal.)

Jumping into a forest carries its own form of excitement. They carry about 90 pounds of equipment including a 150-foot let-down rope in case they land on the top of a tree — we won't even discuss what happens if they land in a pond or river — and Taylor tells of one jump in some redwood trees where the jumper snagged the top of a redwood, let himself down 150 feet and was still over fifty feet from the ground. His partner had to work the fire line by himself and then saw down a smaller tree against the larger one so he could climb down. Only problem was the concussion of the smaller tree against the larger almost knocked him out of the tree. The jumpers work in tandem with other groups, including spotters in the planes they jump from who help measure wind drift and try to find the best place for them to land — all the jumpers try to sleep on the plane since it may be the last chance they get for several days. And then there are the air tankers, former military C-97s, huge four-engine planes with radial engines, each having sixteen-foot props, fifty-six spark plugs, and fifty-five gallons of oil, that haul sixteen 250-gallon tanks, each of which can be opened individually. The fire retardant used in Alaska is a mixture of water, betonite clay, and ammonium phosphate fertilizer mixed with red dye. It has few adverse effects, but it's best to be clear of the area because three thousand gallons of retardant is "traveling at 130 miles per hour when released. If the load is dropped too low, trees eight to twelve inches in diameter can be ripped out of the ground like matchsticks." Taylor has a degree in forest management. As a high school student, he was a rebel, accumulating a record number of detentions. His tennis coach insisted he attend the prom, and his date with the daughter of the superintendent, a man who was considering whether to suspend or expel him from school, made a huge difference in his life. He managed to get his act together and the girl's family encouraged him to attend college, something he had never even considered a possibility.

The knowledge of forestry is certainly an important element in the training of a smokejumper. Knowing that birch tree resin is much less flammable than that of black spruce and white spruce, and that the birch leaf litter holds water well and quickly decomposes into soil can help determine where to create fire breaks. Night air and birch trees can stop a wall of fire in a matter of minutes. Taylor has seen animals run to small clumps of birch to escape fires and survive unscathed. Of course, sometimes the animals can create problems of their own, and Taylor recounts one episode where they had to watch out for marauding bears foraging through their cache of food and other essential supplies. It was amusing to hear of intrepid men more than willing to take on a forest fire, but completely intimidated by a large brown bear. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
What a hardman... The world's longest serving smokejumper showed the young fellows how it's done for decades. The lifestyle and requisite attitude seemed to prevent him from being able maintain any long-term relationships but he sure as hell has lived his life fully. ( )
  wilpotts | Jul 22, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0156013975, Paperback)

To most of us, the smokejumping world is as alien as Mars or the deep seabed. Yet for Murry Taylor--as for many other Alaskan smokejumpers--it's not just an annual summer job, it's his heart's blood and life's core. He, with all the smokejumpers, strains yearly to achieve the three-mile qualifying run in the requisite 22.5 minutes or under, his physical pain superceded by the fearsome anxiety that he might not make it, that he might never again do what sounds more like a nightmare than a cherished dream: parachute repeatedly from 3,000 feet out of small planes into searing fires.

Taylor is 50 and has been smokejumping since 1965. Jumping Fire, his first book, focuses on one particularly incendiary summer in 1991, from April 29 to September 24, recording the day-to-day minutiae of an Alaskan smokejumper (including the tale of that summer's doomed love affair) while interspersing the narrative with memories accumulated from his nearly three decades of smokejumping and stories by and about his colorful colleagues.

The writing is vivid and immediate. Taylor clarifies the workings of parachute drogue release handles, Stevens connections, and cut-away clutches, but he doesn't inundate us with alienating terminology. The technical details are explained as they come up in the many scenes and anecdotes that shape the book. There are stories of jumps that ended in strangulation and multiple fractures and jumps that ended more comically, with the hapless jumper planted deep in a puddle of duck excrement, or landing on top of a moose. The guys rib each other mercilessly, perform their preflight gear checks religiously, and come to the assistance of their jump partners with a dedication that is inspiring.

The beauty of Alaska infuses Taylor's narrative. He describes the miraculous shift from winter to summer, with willow trees and red alders budding, massive plates of ice shattering, and the sunset-sunrise specials that last all night with the same care that's devoted to his scenes of blazing trees and scorched hills. By the time he pens the epilogue, dated December 1999, Taylor has become the oldest active smokejumper in the field's 60-year history and is trying to decide whether to sign up for the coming season. Should he choose to finally retire, he could always take up writing full-time. He's a natural. --Stephanie Gold

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:30 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

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 arenaline-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.… (more)

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