When a wildfire breaks out in the remote backcountry — likely due to a lightning strike; but sometimes not — smokejumpers are called. These elite firefighters, part of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, parachute into remote areas to contain the often unpredictable and deadly blazes. It’s an extreme, and extremely dangerous, profession, one that requires tremendous dedication and sacrifice, often for not much pay — most make around $45,000. The work is especially demanding if you’re a family man. Mike McMillan, a husband and father of two, spent 17 years as a smoke jumper in remote Alaska. We spoke to Mike about his time fighting fires and, how, after he became a husband and father, it became harder to justify his career.
In 1988, when I was in college, I joined a short-season firefighting crew called a Type 2 Crew. After that, I was on a hotshot crew. Those are 20 person crews that respond to wildfires and do a lot of hiking. I did all that for about seven seasons. Then I finished college, where I did journalism at CalPoly. After that, I had to make a decision. Did I want to become a journalist or did I want to continue fighting wildfires?
Smokejumping is a type of wildfire fighting where you are delivered by a parachute to wildfires, usually in very remote areas. It was a lot more inspiring for me to become a smokejumper. I was qualified. There were guys on my hotshot crew that had gone and done that in Alaska. I liked Alaska, I liked the idea of working there. So, I did. All told, I did it for 17 years in Alaska as well as the lower 48.
When fire season was upon us, and the interior of Alaska was heating up, lightning would strike everywhere. We would go to work at 7:30 in the morning. Sometimes we’d show up to work and there would be an order for smokejumpers to go out right away, and that’s what we’d do as soon as we got there.
Smokejumpers don’t like to say, “Yeah, I was scared shitless.” But I can say when I jumped out of plane, there were times where I looked down, and I didn’t know where I was going to land, yeah, I was scared shitless
We’d wait for fires to happen. Once the siren went off, we’d run to the suit-up racks in the ready-room and suit up in kevlar jumpsuits and grab all of our gear and head for the airplane as quick as we can, within minutes. We’d get briefed en route as to what the fire is doing and then we jump in, take care of it, and get picked up by helicopters and get taken back to base or to a highway, and then come back to base and do it again. You can even jump two fires in a day if you get to an out-station where there’s a lot of lightning.
Smokejumpers don’t like to say, “Yeah, I was scared shitless.” But I can say when I jumped out of the plane, there were times where I looked down, and I didn’t know where I was going to land, yeah, I was scared shitless. I had to circle like a buzzard until I found something. I’ve been too close to fire. I’ve always planned my escape, but you can’t plan based on what you think the wind is going to do. I’ve been in situations where you’re depending on weather forecasts or predicted weather. That’s where you have to be very careful, because the wind can switch 180 degrees, and you don’t have anyone to blame when it does.
I was a smokejumper when I met my wife, Molly. Looking back, I think I intentionally chose the wrong girlfriends so that they would break up with me and I could keep smokejumping. But when I met the right one, she was working at the same place I worked. Molly was a farm girl who graduated from college and decided to come up to Alaska and do flight operations. I saw her walking by, and two years later we were married in Alaska. I continued jumping for five or six years after we got married.
Having my daughter was a life-changing event. If you’re going to have children, you need to be a big part of your kids’ life. You need to be there. Well, not only was I not there, but I really wasn’t making enough money to support my family for the rest of the year. Smokejumping is a seasonal gig and smokejumpers make about $50,000 a year. And, let’s be honest: for being gone that much, and the level of risk associated with the job, it’s not a lot of money. If your goal is to be a provider and be steady, smokejumping is not an ideal path. You might be helping families, but not your own family.
If you’re going to have children, you need to be a big part of your kids’ life. You need to be there. Well, not only was I not there, but I really wasn’t making enough money to support my family for the rest of the year
But when you’re surrounded by such fun-loving, work-oriented people as smokejumpers, it’s easy to enjoy life. Even if you’re missing your family. There are always activities planned. It’s its own type of family.
As the years went on, however, I started becoming less outgoing as my family was growing. I sought out social engagements at parties a lot less. It became less and less important or appealing or fulfilling. It was actually depressing to sit at a bar with your buddies when your wife is trying to cook dinner far away.
My body started to suffer, too. My hips were not what they once were, and my cartilage was bone on bone. As it did, I would start to look out of the window of the jump ship for roads, and how we were going to get out of there. I realized that that is not the mindset that I used to have, and that I should have. I was worried about how far I was going to have to carry 120 pounds on my back, and if there were any trails to do it.
When my son Ian was born in 2010, it just became painfully obvious that my family needed me more than my crew did, and that I needed my family more than I needed my crew.
My son’s birthday is in September. It was a good goal for me to always be home by then. But my little girl’s is in March. She would have her birthday and the next day, I would have to leave for the season. One of those times I left my wife in the driveway, holding Heidi, and my wife was crying. She’s a very strong woman. When I saw tears running down her face, I just said to myself, “I can’t keep doing this.” When my son Ian was born in 2010, it just became painfully obvious that my family needed me more than my crew did, and that I needed my family more than I needed my crew.
When you come back and you realize what you’ve missed, because they’ve grown so much, developed so much, and done so many fun things without you, that sinks in. Your family has to get used to you, and you to them.
I had both my hips replaced and I resigned in 2013 with no worker’s compensation. I was ready to leave the federal firefighting services, heal up, take care of my family, and that’s what I did. I didn’t stop fire fighting, though. Even though I had both my hips replaced because of the work, I was able to pass the PT test, which is the physical requirement to fight fires.
Today, I’m a fireline supervisor for the Boise Bureau of Land Management and task force leader. I’m also a public information officer. Both of those jobs pay about 500 dollars a day with no health insurance or benefits and no retirement. So that’s not ideal either. It’ll likely change. I love firefighting, but I love my family more.
— As Told To Lizzy Francis