Smokejumper - and record holder - takes one last leap

William Yardley / New York Times News Service /

Published Oct 3, 2011 at 05:00AM

WINTHROP, Wash. — Kristy Longanecker smiled while her husband fell from the clear blue sky.

“He got to live his dream,” said Longanecker, barely bothering to watch. “I'm envious of that sometimes. How many people get to live their dream?”

Thump.

So ended jump No. 896 — one final shock to the skeleton, one final perfect parachute roll, a practice run with no more reason to practice. Last month, Dale Longanecker turned 57, the mandatory retirement age for firefighters employed by the U.S. Forest Service. Friday was his last day on the job, and his was not just another retirement.

Longanecker has spent 38 years as one of the most elite of his kind, a smokejumper. He has parachuted out of airplanes into some of the most remote wildfires in the West carrying little more than a shovel, a gallon of water and a bottle of ibuprofen. He was 19 when he made his first jump, and the Forest Service says his 896 jumps — 362 of which were into fires — are a record that may never be broken.

Sometimes, he might stay in the woods for a night to fight a fire. At others, he would be gone for two weeks, off all but celestial grids.

“Honey,” he would inquire via satellite phone, “did you check the sprinklers?”

He grew up here in Eastern Washington, where the Cascade Range gives way to the dry hills of the Methow Valley. His father was a beekeeper. His mother raised him and his five brothers and sisters. He said he was 8 when he decided on a career.

“When I was growing up, there was the mill, the fish hatchery and other stuff like that,” Longanecker said. “And I remember going, ‘I think I want to smoke jump.'”

His older brothers jumped for a few seasons, then moved on to other things. Longanecker stayed, and he has spent the past four decades on the front lines of an evolving federal wildfire policy. Long ago he was told to put out every fire as quickly as possible. More recently the message has been to let some burn naturally for the sake of forest health.

“In the long run I think it's the way to do it,” he said, “because if there were no humans here, it would burn.”

But he said he would not be surprised if policy shifted again, because humans are here: “If we let it burn, it will all burn.”

He says he has seen climate change up close, from shrinking glaciers to expanding fires and fire seasons. The summers are hotter.

“We had a high of 109 here at the base one year,” he said. “That was unheard of when I was a kid.”

He has dropped into fires from Alaska to Colorado and in Canada. He once broke both ankles when shifting winds complicated a landing on a mountainside. He has survived fires that have killed co-workers, led to investigations and been written about in books.

When he was just doing his job, it was rarely glamorous. Often fires were less than a tenth of an acre, started by a lightning strike from the storms that ride north past Lake Chelan in central Washington. Within minutes after a crew had jumped out of a plane going 100 miles an hour at an altitude of 1,500 feet, his younger colleagues would see him stooped over just like they were, sweating and snorting and digging in the smoke, trying to cut a line in the land that the flames could not cross.

His last jump into a fire was on Aug. 10, a small blaze in the Little Bridge Creek area. It was the same area where Francis Lufkin, his next-door neighbor as a boy and one of his childhood heroes, made what people here say was one of the first smoke jumps ever, in 1939. “It just worked out that way,” Longanecker said.

Many jumpers are seasonal workers who leave in the winter. Longanecker has stayed in place. Over the years he has spent his winters helping shape and groom more than 50 miles of cross-country trails in the nearby Loup Loup ski area. Staying in shape has helped when it comes time to take the annual smokejumper's physical, which includes running one and a half miles in less than 11 minutes.

“I remember being about 35 and realizing, ‘Wow, I'm going to have to start working at this,'” he said.

Longanecker said he would focus more on the ski trails now that he had retired, but he will also stay connected to fire. He has developed a prototype for a parachute that he hopes the Forest Service will adopt. He said his new design will improve maneuverability and make for softer landings.