The sound of the propellers is music to my ears. It’s the noise I live for and miss during the offseason in the winter months. For me, the blades cutting through the air signals excitement and adventure. Sitting in this small plane with four of my other colleagues, today is no different.
I’m a smokejumper, which means I’m the type of firefighter who parachutes into wildfires, stopping them before they spread. A small one has been spotted in the northern part of the forest here in Redmond. It’s far from posing any real threat to civilians, and it’s our job to keep it that way. But with the drought we’ve been having all over Oregon and the strong winds from today, this thing could go from small to completely uncontained real fucking quick.
“ETA five minutes,” Chief shouts to us, letting us know we’re almost to the drop zone. I give him a thumbs up in response.
Standing up, I walk to the side door, brace both of my hands on either side of it, and lean out the opening. A large, black cloud billows up from the trees and toward the sky, blanketing the ruthless flames I know are below. The wind bends the smoke, sending it south and providing the ammunition it needs to grow.
“What are the wind gusts?” I ask.
“Twenty miles per hour from the north, northeast. It’s tough out there, so make sure you stay above the ridge. You get too close in front of it, you’ll be fucked if it whips around.”
A few minutes later, we’re in position and jumping out of the plane. My arms fold over my reserve that’s strapped to the front of me as I free-fall, waiting for my parachute to catch me.
One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three—
My chute opens, jerking me in the process as it slows my descent. It’s always a good day when your parachute opens like it’s supposed to. Reaching up, I grab my risers and pull on the left one to steer me in the direction of my landing zone. There’s a really small opening in the trees that we’re all aiming for. As long as I don’t hit any crazy down drafts, I should make it. Otherwise, I’m landing in the trees, and that’ll suck balls.
When my feet hit the ground, I’m pumped as adrenaline courses through my veins. There’s no other high like jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, and I can’t believe someone pays me to do it. I’m quickly pulled back to the reason I’m here as my lungs take in oxygen and protest because of the ash and smoke that’s polluting the air.
We take off our jumpsuits, leaving us in a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt that’s flame retardant with cargo pants. After our supply boxes are dropped in for us, we grab our tools and hash out a plan.
“Alright, let’s get around on its west side, start clearing material and work from there,” my boss instructs.
With our tools in hand, we make the two-mile hike to where we need to be. The closer we get, the thicker the smell of burning wood gets. With each step, I get an ominous feeling that moves up my spine. I try my best to shake it off, to tell myself this is any other day at the office, but the thought won’t leave me alone.
“You alright there, Blake?” Sam asks me. We’ve been buddies ever since we went through the rookie course together.
“Yeah, just feeling weird, I guess.”
“What about?” he asks with pinched eyebrows.
“I don’t know.” I shake my head. “It’s nothing.” He slaps me on the back a few times and we keep trekking.
We’ve been chopping away at the small brush for about an hour now. It’s back breaking work, but we’re finally making progress.
I wipe the sweat off my brow with my sleeve before tilting my head back and looking up at the sky. The smoke looks like it’s blowing directly over us. If that’s the case, then it’s likely the fire will start to move toward us, and that’s not a good thing.
“Hey, Chick, you keeping tabs on the wind?” I ask our chief, using his nickname.
“Yeah, reports say it’s coming in from the northeast last I checked.”
“You sure? I’ve been watching and I think it’s shifted.” Both of us look upward through the trees.
“Okay, keep working and I’ll watch it. If it is coming this way, we need to have as much of this cleared as possible, anyway to slow the fire.”
With a simple nod, I get back to work, but this feels wrong. We need to move before we get boxed in.
“I got a bad feeling about this,” I tell Sam quietly as I swing my ax at some more brush. “We need to get out of here.”
“Relax, man. Chick’s watching the wind. He knows what he’s doing.” I try to repeat his words to convince myself, but this small voice inside my head won’t shut the hell up.
Thirty minutes later, we’re still working down the line, but the sound of the inferno is getting louder. I glance over at my boss every now and then to make sure he’s keeping tabs on this. It’s not even two minutes later that he’s telling us we need to move positions. Looking through the gaps in the trees, I see the flames flickering, taunting us, letting us know who’s in charge here.
Without delay, we head back down south to move around and get a better angle of attack on this expanding monster. Sweat runs down my face as the blast of the heat hits me from my left. When everything is this dry, it’s not uncommon for the fire to jump from one tree to the next instead of slowly crawling to it. That’s what’s making me nervous right now. With us being this close, one of these embers could float over and ignite on the other side of us and we’d be surrounded. Then we’d be fucked.
Right as this thought crosses my mind, I look ahead and see the worst-case scenario. Up in front of us is a wall of fire with a narrow path through the middle.
“Should we try to go around?” Sam asks.
“Who knows how far it goes. There’s a small opening. We need to hurry and get the hell out of here,” Chick tells us.
Crouching down low, we all start running through this tunnel of fury. The crackling of the burning forest and roar of the blaze is deafening. I feel it at my back, orange and red fingers clawing at me, trying to engulf me, but I keep pushing on.
A loud pop sounds to my left. I stop and look just in time to see a huge tree coming down.
“Watch out!” I shout. I dive out of the way, the tree narrowly missing me. “Son of a bitch,” I mutter to myself. Getting up, I look back and see the tree is blocking my way out of here. Worse, it’s now separating me from the rest of the team.
“You okay, Blake?” Chick yells.
“Yeah, you guys go. I’ll go around and meet up with you at the drop zone,” I say over the flames.
“Okay, watch your ass.”
Hurrying back the way I came, I get the hell out of this burning trap and head back west to try to move around this thing. With any luck, it hasn’t spread too far in that direction and I can get back on course soon.
I hike for forty-five minutes before I’m in the clear and can move south again. All looks good headed this way, and I’m thankful for that. The terrain is steep, with numerous cliffs around. It’s hell to traverse with all of my gear and I find myself stepping the wrong way on the loose gravel, losing my footing.
I fall back on my ass and tumble down the side of this hill with no control. My hands reach out for anything to grab hold of to stop myself, but I’m going too fast. When I see the ledge I’m quickly approaching, I go into panic mode. With every ounce of strength within me, I dig my heels and hands into the ground in a desperate attempt to stop. I slow down, but it’s not enough.
Right before I fall over the edge, there’s only one thing going through my mind.
**copyright Rachael Duncan Author 2016**