April 3, 2003 7:15 PM   Subscribe

Talk about tough: These guys throw themselves out of 50-year-old aircraft into burning Siberian forests. Unfortunately, the entire article isn't available on line, but the pictures, and the brief text, and the writer's notes are worthwhile anyway. Or you can go listen to the stories told at Idaho's Smokejumper Oral History Project. Or get the history from the National Smokejumper Association. And really, you can't beat Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, which metafilter dug up a while back, but is well worth revisiting.
posted by weston (5 comments total)
That afternoon, over vodka shots at the fishing camp, Alex explains the Russian way of doing things. He’s been to California and Idaho to see how American firefighters work, and when he thinks of riding in their helicopters—all strapped in by seat belts and regulations—he laughs at the memory. “No move, no speak!” he says. You can’t size up a fire if you can’t move around and look at it! You can’t make a plan if everyone has to be quiet!

Red Adair would doubtless disapprove but secretly admire.

Very nicely built post, weston - more than makes up for the lack of the full article. If anyone's hesitating: hey, there's more than enough there to be going on with.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:39 PM on April 3, 2003

Thanks, weston. MacLean's story of the Mann Gulch fire is especially moving.

MeFites may also be interested in Fire Behavior Associated with the 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado which is a study of a recent tragedy that took the lives of some fourteen firefighters, including some smokejumpers.

Excerpts from the end of MacLean's book:

To project ourselves into their final thoughts will require feelings about a special kind of death -- the sudden death in fire of the young, elite, unfulfilled, and seemingly unconquerable. As the elite of young men, they felt more surely than most who are young that they were immortal. So if we are to feel with them, we must feel that we are set apart from the rest of universe and safe from fires, all of which are expected to be put out by ten o'clock the morning after Smokejumpers are dropped in on them. As to what they felt about sudden death, we can start by feeling what the unfulfilled always feel about it, and, since the unfulfilled are many, the Book of Common Prayers cries out for all of them and us when it begs that we all be delivered from sudden death.

Good Lord, deliver us,

From Lighting and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and flood; from plague, pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death,

Good Lord, delivers us.

One thing is certain about these final thoughts -- there was not much size to them. Time and place did not permit even superior young men dying suddently "to see their whole lives pass in review," although books portray people preparing to die as seeing a sort of documentary movie of their lives. Everything, however, gets smaller on its way to becoming eternal. It is also probable that the final thoughts of elite young men dying suddenly were not seeing or scenic thoughts but were cries or a single cry of passion, often of self-compassion, justifiable if those who cry are justly proud. The two living survivors of the Mann Gulch fire have told me that, as they went up the last hillside, they remember thinking only, "My God, how could you do this to me? I cannot be allowed to die so young and so close to the top." They said they could remember hearing their voices saying this out loud.

Of the two great tragic emotions this close to the end, fear had been burned away and pity was in sole possession. Not only is it heat that burns fear away; the end of tragedy purifies itself of it. Before the end of a tragedy the most famous of tragic heroes can stand in fear before ghosts and can shake in front of apparitions of those they have murdered, but by the end the same tragedy has purged those same tragic heroes of fear, as is made immortally clear by the last lines of one of the most famous of these tragic heroes: "Lay on, Macduff; / And damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold....enough...."

I, an old man, have written this fire report. Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.

Norman MacLean - Young Men and Fire

posted by fold_and_mutilate at 10:14 PM on April 3, 2003 [1 favorite]

f+m: it's this incredibly humanity of the tale, examining closely fire and death of young men who were very sharp and alive, that drew me in. The first telling of it that I heard was in the song Cold Missouri Waters mentioned in the earlier MeFi thread... and it still goes straight to my heart almost every time I hear the song. Had to read Maclean's book after that, and I've been fascinated by this ever since.

If you haven't listened to Cry Cry Cry's version of the song, it's worth going out of your way to do it (possibly even using a backed-by-RIAA-criminals online service like pressplay).

Miguel: 'brigado, both for the link and for noticing the thread. :)
posted by weston at 11:06 PM on April 3, 2003

Super links, thanks.
posted by sacre_bleu at 8:29 AM on April 4, 2003

From the photographer who shot for the article:

"One of the younger guys was chewing gum and taking it all in stride. An older guy said something to him that, to my ears, amounted to a grunt in Russian. Then the young guy reached in his mouth, yanked off a big twist of gum, and gave it to the other man. He hardly missed a chew."

Gotta love those Russian smokejumpers. Great post.
posted by Blaze_01 at 11:58 PM on April 4, 2003

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