Jumping Fire: A Smokejumper's Memoir of Fighting Wildfire
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During one incendiary summer, Murry Taylor kept an extensive journal of his day-to-day activities as an Alaskan smokejumper. It wasn't his first season fighting wildfires, and he's far from being a rookie—he's been on the job since 1965. Through this narrative of one busy season, Taylor reflects on the years of training, the harrowing adrenaline-fueled jumps, his brushes with death, the fires he conquered, and the ones that got away. It's a world full of bravado, one with epic battles of man versus nature, resulting in stories of death-defying defeats, serious injury, and occasionally tragedy. We witness Taylor's story; learn of the training, preparation, technology, and latest equipment used in fighting wildfires; and get to know his fellow smokejumpers in the ready room, on the tundra, and in the vast forests of one of the last great wilderness areas in the world. Often thrilling and informative and always entertaining, Taylor's memoir is one of the first autobiographical accounts of a legendary career.
To most of us, the smokejumping world is as alien as Mars or the deep seabed. Yet for Murry Taylor--as for many other Alaskan smokejumpers--it's not just an annual summer job, it's his heart's blood and life's core. He, with all the smokejumpers, strains yearly to achieve the three-mile qualifying run in the requisite 22.5 minutes or under, his physical pain superceded by the fearsome anxiety that he might not make it, that he might never again do what sounds more like a nightmare than a cherished dream: parachute repeatedly from 3,000 feet out of small planes into searing fires.
Taylor is 50 and has been smokejumping since 1965. Jumping Fire, his first book, focuses on one particularly incendiary summer in 1991, from April 29 to September 24, recording the day-to-day minutiae of an Alaskan smokejumper (including the tale of that summer's doomed love affair) while interspersing the narrative with memories accumulated from his nearly three decades of smokejumping and stories by and about his colorful colleagues.
The writing is vivid and immediate. Taylor clarifies the workings of parachute drogue release handles, Stevens connections, and cut-away clutches, but he doesn't inundate us with alienating terminology. The technical details are explained as they come up in the many scenes and anecdotes that shape the book. There are stories of jumps that ended in strangulation and multiple fractures and jumps that ended more comically, with the hapless jumper planted deep in a puddle of duck excrement, or landing on top of a moose. The guys rib each other mercilessly, perform their preflight gear checks religiously, and come to the assistance of their jump partners with a dedication that is inspiring.
The beauty of Alaska infuses Taylor's narrative. He describes the miraculous shift from winter to summer, with willow trees and red alders budding, massive plates of ice shattering, and the sunset-sunrise specials that last all night with the same care that's devoted to his scenes of blazing trees and scorched hills. By the time he pens the epilogue, dated December 1999, Taylor has become the oldest active smokejumper in the field's 60-year history and is trying to decide whether to sign up for the coming season. Should he choose to finally retire, he could always take up writing full-time. He's a natural. --Stephanie Gold
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