By Erin Block
Wildland firefighter Grant Davis is called to fight some of the most remote fires in the US – but to reach them, he must first jump out of a plane.
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 intoOlympic 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.