Falling into fire: Michael McCracken recalls his time as a smoke jumper

MILLBROOK — Michael McCracken had two careers in his life: he taught social studies at Yorktown High School in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., for 37 years, and for 25 of those years, he spent his summers as a smoke jumper.

Smoke jumpers are specially trained firefighters who fight wildfires, often reaching the fires by parachuting into the area, carrying with them enough food and supplies to carry them through 72 hours of fire fighting.

Smoke jumpers, members of the firefighting teams of the U.S. Forest Service, are deployed across North America. Highly trained and experienced, they often provide expertise and leadership throughout long-term fires.

McCracken worked for the Forest Service in the summers between semesters. Every summer he and his family would travel to McCall, Idaho, just north of Boise, to a USFS compound that housed fellow firemen and smoke jumpers.

While McCracken was off fighting fires — “one summer, I spent almost all of it in Alaska,” McCraken recalled — his wife and two children swam, boated and fished at the complex.

After retiring from teaching in 1999, McCracken and wife Dorothy traveled. They lived in Vermont and Great Barrington, Massachusetts, before finally settling on Millbrook, where they have lived for the last 15 years.

Three months ago, they moved into The Fountains, where McCracken spoke Wednesday, Jan. 10, regaling an audience of about 50 with tales from his smoke-jumping career.

Photo by Judith O’Hara Balfe

Michael McCracken talked about his years as a smoke jumper for the U.S. Forestry Service at The Fountains in Millbrook where he and his wife Dorothy recently took up residence.

Though in his 80s, McCracken is still spry and fit. He laid out the basics: Smoke jumping takes rigorous training, as the gear alone can weigh up to 115 pounds. If they can’t parachute into an area, smoke jumpers may have to walk long distances to reach a fire, hauling heavy equipment.

They know the ins and outs of parachuting in all types of weather and less-than-ideal situations, and they must learn to think quickly and clearly, as fires move swiftly and sometimes in unexpected directions.

Asked about his own personal worst experience, he recalled one harrowing drop. McCracken’s best friend and a Lutheran minister jumped first. McCracken jumped too soon after him, hitting the first man’s parachute and becoming entangled. His chute opened also, but they went down face-to-face, hitting a tree, and upon landing, had to have help getting disentangled.

McCracken was 21 years old when he started fighting fires, and 22 when he began smoke jumping, prompted by the reports from his roommate at the University of Virgina with stories of his own adventures as a smoke jumper.

Although the public sees quite a lot of these fire jumpers when the news is reporting massive wild fires, few people are aware that the service, started in 1939, saw its first jump in 1940. Not until 1981 were women allowed to join the ranks of smoke jumpers.

Asked why wild fires seem more common and more vicious today, McCracken responded, “Global warming.

“There’s drought, brought on by global warming. Then, people build houses where houses shouldn’t be built.”

He added, with just a shade of misgiving, “The U.S. Fire Service has been too efficient putting out fires.” Some forest fires are needed to help in the natural life cycle of trees for growth and replenishment. They release seeds, return nutrients back into the surrounding soils, and aid in the removal of dead and diseased trees, thinning the forest, allowing in more light and encouraging growth of healthy trees.

He has advice for new smoke jumpers: “Do it with passion, because it’s important. You’re doing it for your country.” His own love of the service was evident.

Does McCracken miss the excitement of smoke jumping? “Yes. Around the first of March, I still get the urge to start training, to meet the challenge.”

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