Grant Davis watched as members of his crew leapt out of the hovering Shorts Sherpa C23-A plane. He couldn’t see smoke coming from the trees or the streamers that marked his destination 1,500ft below. This wasn’t just his first jump into Olympic National Park; this was his first jump ever.
“Get ready!” the jumpers’ mission spotter yelled to Luke Jackson, Davis’s jump partner, who without hesitation fell with ease into the wind. Davis edged his feet toward the opening of the plane door, and then leapt into the untouched wilderness – to a forest fire that waited for him below.
Davis is a smokejumper, a wildland firefighter called to fight or contain some of the most remote fires in the US. There are no roads to get to these locations, and jumping from a plane is the only option. Some of these fires take days to fight, which means parachuting out of a plane with enough goods and reinforcements to last the mission. A chainsaw and handsaw, used to remove burning trees and prevent the fire from spreading, are just two tools that must fly from the sky with him.
Beyond being Davis’s first, this jump was memorable for other reasons. The jump spot was marked in the upper stretch of the Queets River, a rainforest within Olympic National Park, where fires only reoccur on average every 500 years or so. Though fires do happen, fires that actually burn are highly unusual. In 2015, this area saw the driest and warmest spring on record, and it was one of the first times in history that any smokejumper had parachuted here since the program began in 1939.
With nearly one million acres, Olympic is a herculean park. Mount Olympus stands proudly at 7,980ft, and glaciers have never felt closer to rainforests. Recognized as a Unesco World Heritage site, it’s clear why Davis’s job is so important. While natural wildfires can bring balance back to an ecosystem, it’s up to Davis and his band of firefighters to find the perfect equilibrium of encouraging vitality and preventing destruction.
Only hours before lingering over the threshold of the aircraft, Davis was completing one of his rookie duties – sweeping floors in the cafeteria. Now, he was focused and prepared. Though uncommon, it’s not unheard of for a jumper’s parachute to fail or for someone to get stuck on a branch and tumble hundreds of feet to the ground. However, broken legs and backs were the least of Davis’ concerns at that moment. His main goal was to land as safely as possible – and the closer he got to the jump spot, the better off he was.
“I got ya buddy, on my right! Yeah, I got you buddy!”
As he lowered closer to the earth, the wind and air engulfed him in a tunnel of his own screams. Not hearing Jackson’s voice wasn’t a good sign but it wasn’t uncommon.
The ground got closer and closer as Davis prepared to land on a soft sandy bar below, just 50 yards from the jump spot and likely not far from where US President Franklin D Roosevelt visited in 1937, only a year before designating this area as Olympic National Park. As Davis’s feet touched down, his parachute fell all around him. The very trees he was protecting encompassed Davis on all sides. He took a moment to burn off the adrenaline of the jump – it was time to get to work.
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