Vulgar yet valiant

  For most of us, a quick glimpse of a plane as it drones overhead on its way to a wildfire is all we'll ever see of smokejumpers or the work they do, but Murry A. Taylor's Jumping Fire: A Smokejumper's Memoir of Fighting Wildfire in the West, offers insight into their hectic lives. Taylor, who has been in the smokejumping business for 27 years, tells us that for smokejumpers, fire is usually the least of all hazards. They face bear attacks, 1,500-foot plunges to the ground, broken arms, legs, wrists, jaws, ankles and backs, and exhaustion that is kept at bay by instant coffee and Ibuprofen. Taylor shows how this high-adrenaline job takes over jumpers' lives, edging out a normal life or stable relationship.


Stressing the macho and gonzo, Jumping Fire also does nothing to alter any perception that these firefighters are irreverent, vulgar, uncouth and crass. They get airsick and toss their barf bags out the door in mid-flight. They are the men who show up to save your cabin in the forest and just might run off with your daughter before it's over.


If you know nothing about smokejumping - or if you think it's done by wholesome, Smokey Bear types who live to teach kids about fire safety - Jumping Fire, full of technical details that don't leave the reader in the dust, will be an eye-opening introduction. If you do know something about smokejumping, you'll be reminded how fortunate society is that those who smokejump are employed by the U.S. government and not up to worse mischief.


Jumping Fire: A Smokejumper's Memoir of Fighting Wildfire in the West, by Murry A. Taylor, harcourt, Brace & Co., 2000. Hardcover: $26. 400 pages.


Matt Jenkins writes from Three Rivers, Calif., where he will spend the summer fighting fires for the U.S. Park Service.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Matt Jenkins