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Feeling the Heat

Luke Woodard | September 29, 2021

People

Smokejumpers rely on SPAM® products in some of the toughest environments on Earth.

“The fire was growing fast. All of us were digging but we could barely stay ahead of the flames. It was so early in the season that we were working in the snow, trying to cut the firebreak in frozen ground. My arms felt like they were about to fall off and I hadn’t eaten since that morning, but it’s not like I could just take a break.”

It was a typical day at work for Andrew Gavin. He’s a smokejumper: a specially trained firefighter who parachutes into some of the largest and most remote wildfires in the United States. In a country with over one million active firefighters, fewer than four hundred are smokejumpers.

“It sounds crazy,” he says, “but it’s my dream job.”

Smokejumpers in a recently burnt landscape

He still remembers the first time he saw one of these elite squads in action. He was in Utah, working on a wildland engine company, driving to incidents in a small, off-road fire truck, when his crew was dispatched to a fire. A pillar of black smoke was visible for hundreds of miles. It was everything they had trained for, and Gavin was ready for action. Upon arrival, however, he was relegated to manning a water supply station while he watched the twenty thousand–acre blaze from the far side of a mountain.

The afternoon was dark and the sun was glowing red behind the haze. A brow of ash had collected on the brim of his helmet. Radios squawked and a parade of engines rumbled back to the fire line, water tanks topped off with a fresh five hundred gallons. But something caught Gavin’s attention: a distant, high-pitched hum was rising above the commotion. It grew to an earth-shaking roar as a small airplane tore through the smoke. He looked up as a team of firefighters leapt out and parachuted directly onto the front line, where an ominous orange glow hung over the mountain like a storm cloud.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” he says. “Those guys were the special forces.”

Determined to be a Smokejumper

That same year, he drove across the country in an old pickup, applying to every smokejumper base that had an opening. Eventually he got the call, but it didn’t come from where he was expecting. He was offered a spot in Alaska, where a single crew covers all 129 million acres of the state’s forest, fighting wildfires in one of the harshest environments on earth.

Without hesitation, he packed his bags and went north.

The training was as unforgiving as the land itself. Gavin remembers days when his crew would run the equivalent of a marathon, stopping only for sets of push-ups and pull-ups. “It’s not just physical,” he says. “You need to be mentally prepared for what you’re getting into.”

Since wildfire experience is a prerequisite, the crew went straight into a crash course on combat skydiving. Gavin spent a month learning parachute theory and maintenance, and two weeks performing practice jumps into every kind of treacherous terrain Alaska has to offer.

This notorious training regimen reflects the unique challenges of fighting fire in such a remote environment. With emergency services limited in large portions of Alaska, smokejumpers are the first line of defense against the wildfires that can burn up to five million acres of the state’s forest in a single year, often accounting for more than half of the wildfire activity in the entire United States.

A kayak on a lake looking at a smokey sky

Once the jump plane fades into the distance, Gavin’s crew is utterly alone — backup may not arrive for days, if at all. Harder still, Alaska’s interior lacks an extensive road network, so they must be prepared to spend more than a week in the backcountry, cutting firebreaks in the permafrost, often for eighteen hours a day. Along with their firefighting tools, they must carry with them all the essentials for survival: shelter, water, medical supplies and food.

One staple of wilderness firefighting, according to Gavin and others, is SPAM® classic.

Since the first smokejumpers took to the sky in 1939 — the experiment that inspired the development of the 101st Airborne Division — SPAM® products have been an important part of the culture and cuisine of backcountry firefighters. The base in Redding, Calif. has a plaque commemorating the commercial introduction of the SPAM® brand just two years before that inaugural jump. Other crews maintain an annual tradition where everyone eats a can in remembrance of those daring pioneers. In the years since, the food has become so synonymous with the job that, during a 2019 fundraising auction in Missoula, one geneous buyer reportedly bid $380 on a case of SPAM® products to add to his collection of firefighting memorabilia.

Versatile Provision

“We eat plenty of it in Alaska,” Gavin says, “but the bases down in Montana and Idaho take it to another level. Their cooking contests are famous.” Every year, rookies face off to see who can create the best backcountry SPAM® recipe. Entries range from SPAM® pizza and kebabs to more elaborate fare, such as SPAM® with goat cheese or an imaginative take on biscuits and gravy. “Every crew has its gourmet chef,” Gavin explains, “and memorable recipes get passed around.”

Some people, on the other hand, prefer to keep it simple. It’s hard to go wrong with rice, beans and SPAM® classic, rounded off with a chocolate bar for dessert. “Smokejumpers have been eating it for as long as we’ve been around, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.”

Firefighters have a deep respect for tradition, true enough, but history and custom are nothing without utility. Parachute technology and firefighting tools have evolved since those early jumps, but the job hasn’t gotten any easier, and SPAM® products remain one of the few provisions that stands up to the challenges of life on the fire line.

A firefighter holding a platter of some prepared SPAM in the woods

The most physical part of the job begins once the smokejumpers’ boots are on the ground. Instead of dousing the flames with water, they use chainsaws and Pulaskis — an instrument that’s half axe and half hoe — to cut back unburned fuel and stop the fire’s spread. Chopping and shoveling, carrying upwards of a hundred pounds of gear, they move on foot along the fire’s edge, often covering more than twenty miles in a day. The interior of Alaska, where mountains loom overhead and icy streams weave through dense forests, makes for tough walking any time of year, and Gavin’s crew has gone to work in conditions ranging from early-season snow to blistering summer heat.

Under such unrelenting stress, a smokejumper’s body burns through calories like a coal furnace.

Water canteens become lifelines, and a hot meal before bed takes on an almost sacred importance. “Trudging through the soot, cutting line for miles, we don’t have a couch to look forward to at the end of the day,” Gavin explains. “Sometimes all you can think about is dinner.”

Due to the length of their assignments, the Alaska crew favors versatile foods that they can prepare in as many ways as possible. Getting sick of a repetitive meal is a genuine concern. If food fatigue strikes, it can turn eating into a chore, revoking that rare comfort that gets the smokejumpers through those long days on the side of a mountain, feeling the heat at their backs. SPAM® classic, Gavin says, lends itself well to creative, even unconventional, cooking.

“Sometimes if I’m tired, I’ll just dice it up inside the can, season it with a little Gatorade powder, and put it on the campfire coals,” he says. “But I’ve seen people get pretty elaborate.” A favorite meal among his crew is a backcountry crumble, where fried SPAM® classic is placed in a stewpot with oatmeal, canned peaches, dried berries, and condensed milk. After letting it simmer over the fire, the chef tops it with a crushed-cracker crust and voilà, it’s ready to be served on a chainsaw-cut wooden platter.

These moments around a campfire at the end of a long day are a vital part of what Gavin loves about being a smokejumper. “All of us are here for the challenge of it, the fact that none of us know what the next day will bring. But there’s also a sense of family here that I’ve never found in another job,” he says. “And jumping out of airplanes to fight fire, that part’s hard to beat.”

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