September 17, Upper Yukon Territory, Alaska:

The “Pingo Fire” sent wisps of gray smoke rising from the forest floor, drifting to the horizon. This fire had burned for months. Our job, after parachuting 3000 feet to the shores of a frozen lake, was to control a rogue spotfire that had crossed Kocacho Creek. Flames were advancing south toward the Native Alaskan village of Venetie.

Our twin-engine Casa banked sharply above a sea of tall white spruce, forcing me into the narrow, oval window I leaned upon for support.

The vast interior landscape blurred past in an array of fall colors.

The eight of us scanned the skyline for the bright yellow streamers our spotter had just dropped from our orbiting jumpship. The long strands of paper gently fluttered beneath the treetops, and out of sight. Winds were light, but I still hadn’t located our chosen jumpspot as the first two jumpers waddled toward the open door. Exhaust from the engines filled the ship’s interior - and our nostrils - an overpowering but familiar odor now feeding the torrent building in my stomach.

I readied my gear, and myself, to leap into the sky and the forest below.

My jump partner leaned closer, straining for a better view from the small window we shared. I stepped back, surprised by the sudden smell of fresh gasoline. Over the deafening roar of the propellers, he cupped one hand to his mouth, yelling in my ear, “Chainsaw leaked on my shirt last fire.” I nodded with approval and smiled, realizing none of us had time to change our briney clothes before the next fire call. Feeling restless, I couldn’t wait to jump out of this airplane.

Moments later it was my turn. With the slap of the spotter’s hand on my shoulder, I pried myself from the doorway, falling into weightlessness. Frigid air angrily whipped at my face, filling my helmet’s metal mask. I pulled the green handle from my harness, freeing my parachute from its container. Arching backwards I watched as my canopy snapped open, filling with air, taking shape in an exhilarating bloom of red, white, and blue.

We all landed safely, avoiding thin ice growing along the marshy shoreline of the shallow lake. We hurried to gather our gear, and quietly disappeared into the dense boreal forest under the dimming light of day.

As we walked through thickets and woods, I tied strips of pink, plastic flagging to occasional low hanging tree branches, visually marking progress toward the spotfire. Plotting our path on handheld GPS units, we followed narrow game trails, designating them as landmarks.

The jumpship buzzed low overhead, dropping the heaviest paracargo boxes containing water pumps, fire hose and fuel cans, targeting the creek bank nearest the spotfire. We soon eyed smoke drifting above the trees just ahead, cautiously approaching several cardboard boxes aflame and hissing loudly. Their round cargo canopies were still attached, melting into misshapen nylon blobs.

Our crew boss hastily radioed the jumpship, ordering more paracargo for the next shift. He razzed the ship’s spotter, a friend and veteran smokejumper renown for his cargo-kicking accuracy.

Debating whether or not we were standing a safe distance from simmering 5-gallon fuel cans, the first one exploded, sending rolling flames into a black cloud mushrooming skyward. Within seconds the next can blew, sparing us pump, hose, and water support for the night’s shift.

The jumpship returned the next morning, carefully dropping supplies. We doused the last of the flames. We built a warming fire in the ashen remnants of our three-acre spotfire, standing among the spruce for the remainder of the morning, sharing stories in light spirits, reflecting upon 2004, an Alaska fire season of a lifetime.

I stepped away from the group, walking toward the trickle of running water. An occasional chorus of laughter arose from the campfire, echoing through the forest and fading again. I wondered how next wildfire season could possibly compare to this one.

I picked up a smooth, round stone, skipping it across the ice spreading from the banks of Kocacho Creek.

Mike McMillan

Chainsaw & Fuel Cans
Spraying The Last Hot Spots