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Smokejumpers Create Generations Of Brotherhood

Jeff Davis, 77, was a smokejumper for 22 years. He now lives in Silver City, N.M.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Jeff Davis, 77, was a smokejumper for 22 years. He now lives in Silver City, N.M.

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Smokejumpers Create Generations Of Brotherhood

Smokejumpers Create Generations Of Brotherhood

Mónica Ortiz Uribe

Jeff Davis, 77, was a smokejumper for 22 years. He now lives in Silver City, N.M.

It’s fire season. When a wildfire starts some of the first to put their lives on the line are smokejumpers. These daredevils fall from the sky to work in some of the most rugged and remote spots in the country.

Jeff Davis is a retired smokejumper who survived 22 years in the business. Walking into his small apartment in Silver City, N.M., is like walking into a jungle. It's consumed by five-foot tall ferns.

"I got a sign up there that says, 'I need the high country.' I'm not any good down in these neon, plastic valleys," he said.

By 'high country,' Davis means the wilderness. Just north of Silver City is the Gila National Forest, which includes the nation's first designated wilderness. Davis spent nine fire seasons there chasing smoke.

"So I'm trying to bring the wilderness down here," he said.

At age 77 with a fragile back, Davis' backcountry days are done. Still he manages to run eight miles every day. Staying in shape is programmed into his psyche. It was a key part of his life as a smokejumper — arguably the most thrilling job in the U.S. Forest Service.

"We're a firefighter," Davis said. "The only difference is our means of access to the fire. We jump in. We go in by parachute. The purpose is we can get there fast, faster than anybody."

Mónica Ortiz Uribe

Jeff Davis, 77, makes model smokejumpers using clay and Barbie dolls. He spent nine fire seasons jumping fires in the Gila National Forest of New Mexico.

The idea is to put the fire out before it has a chance grow.

"We used to drop 1,000 feet above ground level," he said. "From 1,000 feet you've got 11 seconds from the door to the ground if your chute doesn't open. Time kinda slows down. You're right in the moment. You're acting just by instinct."

Smokejumpers often drop into unfamiliar terrain. Once on the ground, they're pretty much on their own. They've got a chunk of map and 120 pounds of gear on their back.

"We grab our tools and we go to the fire," Davis said.

They put the fire out, not with water, but with muscle. Using shovels and pulkaskis they dig a line around the flames. The line resembles a forest trail.

"The temperature might be 100, 110 even," Davis said. "And we're just sweating like pigs, radiant heat was just burning us good."

The smokejumpers might stick around for days watching for hot spots. They camp out and contend with the elements — whether it's a rainstorm or a grizzly bear. But that never bothered Davis.  

Mónica Ortiz Uribe

Jeff Davis shows off photos of his youth when he worked as a smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Services. In these photos he poses with his pet bull snake, "Mouse."

"It wasn't a job, it wasn't a career, it was love affair," he said.

He describes the easy fires like paid vacations with spectacular scenery. Then there were the ugly fires. Wild, uncontrollable blazes that cost firefighters their lives. Davis witnessed these in California where the greasewood acts like matches doused in diesel.

"You watch a whole hillside just suddenly painted with fire," he said. "It went up that hill so fast you couldn't even imagine it. And the sound you can't hear and the fury of it."

Some develop into firestorms with temperatures that can reach 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. They'll even create their own weather.

Davis remembers rescuing a crew from the destructive Coyote Fire near Santa Barbara in 1964. He saw man staggering up a cliff with his arms stretched out.

Monica Ortiz Uribe

Smokejumper models adorn the apartment of Jeff Davis, who spent 22 years in the profession.

"So I went running over to him and I grabbed his arm to pull him out of that burn and all his skin on his whole arm slid off like a barbecued chicken," he said.

Today, Davis's apartment is a shrine to his profession. Old photographs cover the walls. He makes model smokejumpers with clay and Barbie dolls. It's obvious he misses it.

"There was an old jumper buddy of mine. A couple of years ago he calls me and says, 'I think we can get you out on one of these skydiving clubs and get you a jump," Davis said.

The only catch was Davis had to do it strapped to another skydiver — for health reasons.  

"I says, 'Hell no, I'm not cargo'," he said. "I'm a jumper. I'm either jumping or forget that. And if I got a chance today, I'd do her. My fake hip would fall out and stick in the air and my pacemaker would take some extra thumps."

These days Davis gets by on a modest disability check. The younger jumpers know that. At the end of fire season they'll leave a care package at his door.

"We're brothers," Davis said. "Whether they're men or women, we're bros. We cover each other's butts. We watch each other, we save each others lives or we hold the ones that die in our arms. And we get them out of there, we don't leave anybody behind."