Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Smokejumper

Jan 29, 2019

Smokejumpers have one of the most extreme jobs in wildland firefighting, parachuting into fires in remote areas. It takes a special kind of person to hurl themself out of a plane and into the path of a forest fire; a person like Bobby Montoya. The longtime smokejumper - now retired - told KNAU's Scott Thybony, missing the job feels like a he's lost part of his body. Montoya is the focus of this month's Canyon Commentary. 

Smokejumper photo taken by Bobby Montoya. Scott Thybony's brother, John, is second from the left.
Credit Bobby Montoya

My brother left the Grand Canyon one spring and headed to Boise, Idaho, to begin his first season as a smokejumper. His job would be to parachute into remote wildfires, unreachable by road, and stop them before they could spread. Bobby Montoya, a veteran smokejumper, watched John park his stakebed Ford and climb out. He had let his beard grow and wore his hair tied in a Navajo knot.

Not cutting the rookie any slack Montoya shouted, "Here come the Clampetts!" and started singing the theme song to the Beverly Hillbillies. It was the beginning of a close friendship. 

Years later I was on an assignment at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. I called Montoya, and we met after work at a bar next to the smokejumper base. His hair was ash-gray, and he had a parachute tattooed on his bicep, half covered by the sleeve of his T-shirt. As the two of us entered, aircraft mechanics in the corner shouted his name, the waitress gave him a thin smile, and a pair of young smokejumpers stopped their conversation to watch him take a seat. 

Montoya told me he had a thousand stories of fires and jumps, and I settled back expecting to hear every one. "But they're not important," he said. "It's not about falling out of a plane. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in them, the smokejumpers. I want to know about their parents, about their wives and girlfriends, about their children."

His response surprised me, and I asked him to tell me about growing up outside Silver City, New Mexico. The smokejumpers operated a base there during fire season, and they would fly right over his mother's house. "I knew it was them because the airplane didn't have a door. I used to stand outside the house, looking up at those planes and wishing I could be up there. Be careful what you wish for. Two years later I was flying over and looking down at her house with my heart thumping ninety miles-a-hour and wishing I was down there with my mother. We were on our way to jump a fire, and I was scared."

When I asked about the dangers they faced, Montoya described parachuting into a fire along the Salmon River. The first man to jump, he said, landed in the trees and by the next pass his chute was on fire and he was running for his life. "Sometimes you just don't know what a fire is going to do," he added. "When no one gets hurt, you laugh about it. When you're in your 20s, it's a thrill. Somos immortales - We're immortal. That's how you think."

During his jumping career Montoya broke 26 bones, and finally had to leave the forest service on disability. "Somebody asked me if I was afraid of crashing, and I said, 'No, I'm afraid of dying.' I have gone to too many funerals. Those guys about to die - I know what they're thinking. They can't breathe it's so hot. The fire is sucking the air around you - your clothes and hair start vibrating with the air rushing by you. There's no oxygen. The fire is sucking  it out of you. At the last moment you're not thinking about fire, you're thinking about air."

Getting up to leave, I asked if he missed smokejumping. "When I started this," Montoya said, "it was an adventure. We were all Amelia Erhardts - we wanted the adventure. In that airplane there were fifteen of us, and we were undefeated. Nothing was going to stop us. " He paused, thinking back on those twenty fire seasons. "Yes, I miss it. I miss smokejumping like I miss my own heart beating. "