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Smokey's Sidekicks Passion to Serve

by Bruce Dorries |

Smokey’s sidekick’s passion to serve

Smokey the Bear has good reason to take pride in one of “Churchville’s Finest,” Lukas Morrison, who has been battling fires and cleaning up after floods this summer.

He’s a 2011 graduate of Buffalo Gap High, currently leading a crew of 7 that has engaged with the massive wildlife near Idaho City. About 1,500 firefighters have been working round the clock for weeks to contain the Pioneer fire.

After graduating from Ferrum College in 2015, Morrison’s passion for service led him to volunteer with Americorps, which sent him to flood disaster sites in Louisiana and West Virginia. His conservation ethic also took him to New York, and, he’s volunteered with the Wounded Warrior games.

In late July, shortly after the Pioneer inferno began its 75-square-mile rampage, I met a kindred spirit of Morrison’s, a smokejumper based in McCall, Idaho.

Smokejumpers parachute to fires. Things can go wrong, but usually they land with little or no incident. Occasionally they end up in a tree’s canopy. Rappelling down from a Ponderosa pine to terra firms take a great deal of training, and nerve, as does landing a little too close to the flames for comfort.

Kevin Anderson is one of 65 smokejumpers, or “hot shots”, flying out of the lakeside town, which is a two-hour drive from the state capital, and located one mile high on the 43rd parallel. “MYL 43” is an informal identifier used for the base.

A Georgian in his sixth year as a seasonal forest fire fighter, Anderson looks like the other pros we saw while taking a tour he led at MYL 43. Ironmen all, except for one buff and bronzed firefighter checking the rigging of a chute at the base, an Ironwoman. (For the historical record, Deanne Shulman became the first female smokejumper in 1981; she retired from the Forest Service in 2011 after breaking several glass ceilings in the agency.)

You can’t cover more than a few yards of the base without spotting kettle weights, tractor tires, pull up bars, and other instruments of training/torture. Towers for learning to jump from a plane or to rappel from a helicopter, and terrain to practice how to hit the ground rolling, dot the base located next to the McCall Airport runways. The airfield is also dotted with orange and white painted planes used by the hot shots for their bumpy commutes to work. The engines and blades intermittently roar throughout the day.

Anderson told the tour group about the jumpers’ history, mission, methods, and about the hot shots’ aircraft. The no-frills aircraft can carry from 2 to 20 smokejumpers, with equipment and supplies, hundreds of miles from the base. As primary firefighters, the smokejumpers travel by any means necessary to get to a site — fixed-wings, helicopters, all-terrain vehicles, and hardscrabble, bushwhack hiking.

The teams of 20 smokejumpers train to be elite firefighters, he explained. Check out these cool “advanced fire-related” job skill titles: Division Boss, C-Faller, Fireline Explosives Blaster, Incident Commander, Prescribed Fire Burn Boss. Their high level of technical knowledge and fitness enable smokejumpers to take the lead in the field, as well as to provide rescue and first-aid services on fires and other emergencies in rugged and remote locations.

Many of the full-time firefighters at McCall have decades of experience, but most fall in well under 35 years of age, judging from those we saw. Many also have advanced degrees in an earth science, engineering, sociology, biology, or forestry management. The seasonal smokejumpers include students, ski professionals, missionaries, artists, and a few doctors and lawyers.

No “Academic-of-a-Certain-Age Bosses” need apply. As a little kid, I wanted to work for Smokey the Bear and Co. Now, rather than a P.R. icon, I have a set of more real action heroes.