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Ex-smokejumper makes mark painting scenes from nature

by webmaster |

Van Gogh captured sunflowers. Whistler had his mother. For Davis Perkins it was rugged Alaskan landscapes, shaped by the years he spent plummeting toward them, 5,000 feet from an airplane.

A former smokejumper, Perkins, 54, has parachuted into forest fires that ripped through some of the most pristine areas of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. These days, he can be found reviving heart-attack victims, soothing elderly patients or painting in the quiet of his San Rafael art studio.

Perkins, now a firefighter/paramedic with the South San Mateo County Fire Authority, spent 13 summers battling forest fires and administering emergency medicine for both the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. In the winters he attended college and painted.

During that time, the San Rafael resident's parachute malfunctioned twice, and a bear once plucked him from his tent during the night. Perkins, who felt like a "giant ground squirrel" to curious black bears and grizzlies, used to carry a pistol to defend himself.

Wildfires could blow up from 200 to 5,000 acres with a shift in the wind or the intervention of "Big Ernie," the legendary god of smokejumping.

"A lot of times you lost (fires)," he said. "They just exploded beyond your control."

Dangerous profession

Raised on a farm in Oregon and disinterested in school, Perkins joined the Army, serving as a paratroop sergeant with the 82nd Airborne Division and later, the Army Reserve.

Because he already knew how to parachute, he was natural as a smokejumper and was hired in 1972.

Stuck out in the wilderness, sometimes for weeks on stubborn fires, Perkins brought along a good book, a fishing rod and a pad to draw portraits of the few people he encountered: fellow smokejumpers and American Indians.

He also sketched scenes from nature he wanted to remember, such as the curves of rivers and how the huge fires created their own weather and changed the clouds.

Like beauty, danger was everywhere. On his first jump, his crew was overrun by a fire and saved themselves by leaping into a nearby creek.

Perkins and his group were lost for a week after his next jump and soon ran out of food, leaving nothing to eat but blueberries. Help came eventually from a private pilot, who saw their signal fire and dropped them a note in a can of Copenhagen tobacco.

"It said, 'I don't know who you guys are, but it's obvious you're looking for someone,'" Perkins said.

Smokejumpers, who number about 400 in the United States, are the first line of defense, cutting lines around forest fires to prevent flames from spreading. When they jump, they aim for the trees just outside the fire, hang their parachutes in the branches and rappel to the ground. On larger fires, one of them stays on to manage Eskimo and Athabascan crews, who are then brought in to help fight the blazes.

Perkins was about to get his history degree at the University of Oregon when one of his professors, a retired World War II bomber pilot, steered him back to art.

"He goes, 'Davis, you're jumping into forest fires in the middle of nowhere. Why don't you paint it?'" he said.

Paintings selected for show

Perkins graduated from the university in 1978 with a bachelor's degree in fine art and went on to hold his first one-man show of landscapes at the Alaska State Museum in 1983. Later that year, his smokejumping paintings were selected for a show at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Three are part of the museum's permanent collection.

Many of Perkins' paintings are snapshots of undisturbed nature with bright blue skies and billowy clouds. His work has been featured in numerous books and magazines, including Jumping Fire, which chronicles Perkins' old friend Murray Taylor's days as a smokejumper.

A year and a half ago, Perkins won a much-coveted spot at Art Works Downtown, a collaborative of studios that are home to photographers, sculptors and craftspeople on Fourth Street in San Rafael.

Affable, patient and funny, Perkins is raising a 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, who he says just shakes her head at the years he spent smokejumping.

Perkins, who has been with the South County Fire Authority since 1985, said it is hard to compare the challenge of working as a paramedic with smokejumping. While the latter is physically rigorous, being a paramedic means you are constantly going to school.

Perkins said he particularly enjoys working with the elderly. "Maybe it's because I'm getting up there," he jokes.

Frequently called to convalescent hospitals in Belmont and San Carlos, Perkins has come to know the residents and their ailments which one has diabetes and who is wheelchair-bound.

"I think what I love about it is calming them down. You can just see it sometimes on their faces," he said. "You can just feel their apprehension diminish."