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Veteran Smokejumper Still Chases Fires

July 9, 2003

REDMOND, Ore. (AP) _ Back when Mark Corbet started out as a smokejumper, his parents would ask him when he planned to get a real job.

Twenty-nine years later, at age 52, Corbet is one of the oldest smokejumpers in the country, taking a job once reserved for the original No Fear crowd, and turning it into a career.

``I’d say, ’Just one more year,‴ said Corbet. ``That’s what I’m saying now, ’Just one more year.‴

When Corbet started, jumpers had to quit at 35, but now can stay until they’re 57. For a column in Smokejumper Magazine, Corbet tallied 22 who jumped after age 50, including one who was 50 for his rookie year. Corbet figures about a half-dozen of the 400 active smokejumpers nationwide are over 50.

``The generation of smokejumper that Mark comes from was the first to turn it from a seasonal job into a career,″ said Gary Atteberry, 34, in his eighth season as a smokejumper. ``The foundation they built, we stand on it to make this a career for ourselves.″

Corbet grew up in eastern Oregon. He worked in a lumber mill while attending Southern Oregon University, where he took his first parachute jump. He graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in environmental studies. He worked fire for two years _ first on an engine crew, then one of the first crews dispatched to fires in helicopters. That’s where he got his first look at smokejumpers.

``They had these great big chain saws, I remember,″ said Corbet. ``The stories they told and the gleam in their eye when they were talking about it, I thought, ‘what the hell,’ and applied.″

A lot has changed since his rookie training in 1974 at the North Cascades base in Winthrop, Wash., where the smokejumpers started in 1939.

His class ran in heavy jump boots and packed duffel bags loaded with rocks that left their backs bloodied. More than half the class washed out.

``My first packout, I thought I was going to die,″ he recalled. ``I wasn’t going to stop, but God, I couldn’t hardly breathe fast enough.″

Nowadays, with most recruits coming from elite hotshot crews, few wash out. A virtual reality simulator makes them better prepared for jumps. And the money is better, as much as $50,000 a year.

As a squad leader training recruits, Corbet still weeds out a few who won’t make it. He looks for people with the mental toughness to climb tall trees despite their fear, keep their heads in tough situations and keep moving when their bodies tell them to quit.

``It’s kind of a cul-de-sac career. Once you get to a certain point, there’s not a lot of movement,″ said Atteberry. ``But it’s addictive when you have the winter off and all you think about is coming back and doing it some more. I guess there are greater rewards than money.″

Rewards like having someone pay you to jump out of airplanes, the knot of nervousness and expectation still there in the belly every time, because you can be killed or maimed if you make a mistake.Then there is the incredible range of people _ bikers, teachers, prosecutors, chiropractors, foresters and surgeons _ you call your brothers, even if some of them are women.

At 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, Corbet might be the last person picked out of a lineup as the smokejumper, but he can still pass the tough physical test _ seven pull-ups, 25 push-ups, 45 sit-ups, run a mile and a half in under 11 minutes, carry a 110-pound pack over three miles of flat ground and an 85-pound pack five miles over rough terrain.

``Older guys have proven it’s not an age issue, it’s not a strength issue, it’s an endurance issue and using your head,″ said Atteberry. ``Mark has jumped 650 jumps without injuring himself.″

Not seriously, anyway. Forgetting to roll on impact, Corbet jammed his hip a couple years ago on a practice jump that was number 607, and was off the ready list for a day to give him time to see the doctor. He now has 660 jumps, 286 of which have been on fires.

His worst injury wasn’t even on a jump. He tore his rotator cuff last winter loading cargo in an airplane.

That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had close calls.

Once, his parachute caught in a snag _ a dead tree _ leaving him dangling 80 feet above the ground. The snag started to fall, and when the parachute billowed, it caught in a pair of live trees nearby.

``They plucked me out, and that old tree just went crashing to the ground,″ recalls Corbet. ``I was just sitting there trying to get my voice back.″

There were fun times, too. After setting out pumps and sprinklers and cutting fire line to protect some cabins on a lake in Alaska, Corbet and a crew of smokejumpers whittled baseball bats and golf clubs out of sticks to while away the time until the fire came.

One jumper even older than Corbet is Ron Omont, based in Redding, Calif., who at age 56 is looking at his last season and wishing it didn’t have to end.

``I didn’t think I’d stick with it as a career, but here it is 26 years later and I’m still doing it,″ Omont said. ``I just love the travel, seeing the wilderness country, and getting paid to do it.″

Getting in shape gets tougher every year.

``But it sure is rewarding when it’s done and you’ve caught that fire,″ said Omont.


On the Net:

Forest Service smokejumper information: http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/people/smokejumpers/

National Smokejumper Association: http://www.smokejumpers.com/

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