Russian
Smoke Jumpers

 

Packed in the belly of an Mi-8 helicopter, a battle-weary crew heads back to base. Seven days of fighting wildfire in the Siberian hinterland? Just another week on the job. National Geographic, 8/02

Holding a fourth of the world's forest, Russia faces a daunting number of wildfires - between 20,000 and 35,000 each year. With more moxie than money, the world's first and largest aerial firefighting force snuffs wildfires across 11 time zones. Fires may burn undetected and unchallenged in the most remote areas, but the country's 4,000 smokejumpers put out thousands that no one else can reach.

As many as 20 firefighters can rappel to a fire from a turbo-powered Mi-8 helicopter, but the Russians haven't forgotten their roots. They also parachute from decades-old biplanes, much as they did when they pioneered smokejumping in the 1930s. Jumping is the thrill that gets them hooked. "Two minutes fly like eagle, three days dig like mole,: Valeriy says of the smokejumper's life.

Where there's a fire, there's a smoke. Asked whether he would rather run out of food or tobacco, one smokejumper says, "You can catch fish in the river, but cigarettes?" The men don't worry much about getting short-winded - most fires move slower than they do. When flames crown into treetops, it's usually a brief show. Sunlit smoke whispers the firefighter's secret: Life can be beautiful even when the world burns down around you. As fire crackles through a forest's understory, clearing brush and

preparing the ground for new life, it's hard for even a sworn adversary not to respect its role in the ecosystem. "Fires are natural," one smokejumper says, "but it's our job to fight them."

With budgets tight and boots loose, rags stand in for socks and saplings double as tent poles. "Ten years ago we had more guys, but the equipment was bad," says one veteran smokejumper. "Now we have fewer guys, and the equipment is still bad!" After quickly turning a sapling into a shovel handle, one firefighter attacks with sand while another beats the flame with birch branches. If smokejumpers kill a fire quickly, it adds a bonus to their monthly hundred-dollar pay. With their mismatched uniforms and 50-year-old biplanes, Russian smokejumpers do what their countrymen do so well: make do with less.

Fast food, smokejumpers style: Pull it from the river and eat. Raw or cooked, fish is a welcome addition to starchy rations of potatoes and noodles. When downtime comes and cards are dealt, the insults that fly are even stronger than the tea.

With helicopter fuel scarce in the post-Soviet economy, firefighters who get left behind when the job is done may have to wait days for a ride out. But even after budget cuts have halved their ranks, an uncertain future doesn't scare men who drop from the sky to do battle with fire. "Put us in the woods with matches and a fishing rod, and we can live," Valdimir says.

Drop in on a video interview with the author and photographer as they recount their time in Russia - on and off the fire line - at nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0208

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Believe me! The secret of reaping the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment from life is to live dangerously! - Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche



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