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Aging Smokejumpers Still Get High on Adventure

Once a seasonal job for the young, wilderness firefighting has matured into a career. Retirement age is 57, up from 35 decades ago.

June 15, 2003|Jeff Barnard | Associated Press Writer

REDMOND, Ore — REDMOND, Ore. -- Back when Mark Corbet started out as a smokejumper, his parents used to ask him when he planned on getting a real job.

Twenty-nine years later, at age 52, Corbet is one of the oldest smokejumpers in the country, taking a job once reserved for the original No Fear crowd and turning it into a career.

"I'd say, 'Just one more year,' " Corbet said. "That's what I'm saying now, 'Just one more year.' "

Back when Corbet signed on, jumpers had to quit at 35, but now can stay until 57. For a column in Smokejumper Magazine, Corbet tallied 22 who jumped after age 50, including one who was 50 for his rookie year. Corbet figures that about half a dozen of the 400 active smokejumpers nationwide are over 50.

"The generation of smokejumper that Mark comes from was the first to turn it from a seasonal job into a career and make it more of a life than just a summer job," said Gary Atteberry, 34, who has spent seven seasons as a smokejumper. "The foundation they built, we stand on it to make this a career for ourselves."

Corbet was born in Diamond, Ore., a tiny ranching community. His dad was a ranch hand and later worked in a lumber mill. The day that Corbet graduated from high school in Burns, he signed up to work at the same mill and earned the money he needed to attend Southern Oregon University, where he took his first parachute jump.

After three years, he transferred to the University of Oregon, where he graduated with a degree in environmental studies. He worked fire for two years -- first on an engine crew, then one of the first crews dispatched to fires in helicopters. That's where he got his first look at smokejumpers.

"They had these great big chain saws, I remember," Corbet said. "The stories they told and the gleam in their eye when they were talking about it, I thought, 'What the hell,' and applied."

A lot has changed since his rookie training in 1974 at the North Cascades base in Winthrop, Wash., where the smokejumpers started back in 1939.

His class ran in heavy jump boots instead of air-cushioned running shoes. To train for packing out 110 pounds of gear after a fire, they carried duffel bags loaded with rocks up long hills, the sharp rocks leaving their backs bloodied if a foam pad wriggled out of place. Once they got to the top, they had a choice -- rest and miss dinner, or haul the rocks back down.

"Well over half the group [of 32] washed out," Corbet said. "My first pack out, I thought I was going to die. I wasn't going to stop, but God, I couldn't hardly breathe fast enough."

His first assignment was helping build a new smokejumper base in La Grande, which closed a few years later. He has been at the Redmond Air Center ever since and is now a squad leader, helping train the next generation.

Few rookies wash out now. Many come from elite Hotshot crews and are no stranger to tough conditioning and hard work.

As a trainer, Corbet looks for people with the mental toughness to climb tall trees despite their fear and keep moving when their bodies tell them to quit.

"There have been a few through the years, they may have been the best physical specimen in the world, but I recommended they not be passed," Corbet said. "When it came down to having to figure out something else when you're dangling from a rope in a tree, they'd get stressed and kind of lock up a little bit. You won't make it very long if you do that."

Much of the jump training now takes place on a virtual reality simulator, where Corbet can throw myriad combinations of squirrelly wind and bad luck at them, making them better prepared for their first fires than he was.

The work -- the hot, sweaty, mind-numbing toil of digging fire line, cutting brush and packing out 110 pounds of gear through rough country when you're done -- remains the same.

It reminds Corbet of that mill job, where he was told to move a huge pile of sawdust with nothing but a shovel.

The money is a lot better than it used to be. A smokejumper can make $50,000 in a good season. And there are winter jobs now for full-timers. Corbet has worked in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Chicago, climbing trees looking for insect pests.

"It's kind of a cul-de-sac career. Once you get to a certain point, there's not a lot of movement," Atteberry said. "But it's addictive when you have the winter off and all you think about is coming back and doing it some more. I guess there are greater rewards than money."

Rewards like having someone pay you to jump out of airplanes, the knot of nervousness and expectation still there in the belly every time, because you can be killed or maimed if you screw up. Seeing beautiful backcountry from Alaska to North Carolina. The incredible range of people -- bikers, teachers, prosecutors, chiropractors, foresters and surgeons -- you call your brothers, even if some of them are women.

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