The final episode of this season of Horizon Line features a collection of tales from Rod Dow, who spent 32 years working as a smokejumper––a parachuting wilderness firefighter. At the time of his retirement in 1999, Rod had jumped into more fires than anyone else. He is the author of Just a Few Jumper stories, a book of 70 true stories from his smokejumping days, available on Amazon. 
Horizon Line is hosted by Ella Morton and Dylan Thuras and produced by Grant Irving. Music by Nolan Schneider. Additional production for this week's episode from Hana Glasser and Rose Annis. A very special thank you to Rod Dow. 

United States


00:00:03this podcast is brought to you by Filson original Alaska Outfitters to 1897 one time ago makers of men and women's apparel accessories luggage and bags filson.com promises to deliver a unique assortment of guaranteed gifts for everyone on your list
00:00:28I'm curious about what led you to become a smokejumper and I did the story in your book about a couch being on fire in a trailer and that seems like maybe a half an hour or an experience that may have led in the direction of smokejumping that one Stark with me when my dad asked us to burn the sofa and take it down to the dump on the grave trailer in Burnet and my little brother well he says it was me I said it was him my little brother said well she didn't say which order to do it in so let's put it on the grave trailer light it on fire and then drive it to the dump
00:01:14well of course the wind 20 mile-an-hour wind is great trailer and tractor went down the road made huge building Flames going out the back and all the neighbors side from that my dad's pretty mellow so he don't want to get mad about it but you know I can't really say that I got into small jumping almost by accident
00:01:41I'm an emotion and this is horizon line stories that explore the lives of Adventure it's today I'll be telling you a story well a few stories about Rod Dow who spent decades consumed by fire walking to the smoke jumper across the United States when he retired in 1999 he held the record for the most fire jumps at 276
00:02:05so what exactly is a smokejumper and what even is a jump
00:02:11what every year thousands of fires begin in the wilderness many of them are caused by human negligence I had to drop cigarettes or a camping fire that hasn't been properly extinguished wildfires are also often the result of natural forces like a lightning strike
00:02:29in some regions like the interior of Alaska up to 90% of fires are caused by lightning strikes
00:02:37most of these files are remote sparking and burning in the deep deep Backcountry an over the last hundred years thousands of men and women smoke jumpers have parachuted in to extinguish them
00:02:52so you're probably Envision firefighters as a bunch of guys and some women who at the sound of an alarm gear up they jump in the red fire truck and they go fight the Flames with a giant hose but smoke shop he works a little differently in small teams these firefighters full from the sky to land beside the flames and dressing up to 95 pounds of equipment which word describes as the hottest sweatiest most uncomfortable gear imaginable that use axes and hers to make a fire line in the ground the fire of its Fuel and creates a dud perimeter that will stop the play in spreading feather excess Flames are extinguished menu
00:03:44I think I to middle school science for a moment I buy requires three things oxygen Fuel and heat in a wildfire that's plenty of oxygen and animal material is the fuel things like dry grass and brush can be satellite relatively easily on hot summer days drives the flammable gases out of the fuel creating even more heat and this is why I fly a Builds on itself and games for says it burns as wildfires off an extremely remotes by the time Flames reach a place where they are easily accessible to Firefighters they can be raging out of control and be much more difficult and dangerous to extinguish
00:04:25smoke shop in Garrett's. Following a real tragedy in 1937 15 firefighters died fighting a blaze known as the Black Water fire in Wyoming
00:04:36in the case of Blackwater a lightning strike in Wyoming Shoshone National Forest Spotify that went undetected for two whole days by the time firefighting Crews arrived the blaze have grown from 2 acres to 200
00:04:52it all eventually exploded into an uncontrollable Firestone 15 firefighters Dives an additional 38 what ended and of a 1700 Acres of forest or consumed are the two and a half square miles burned matching it a forest Lush and green hundreds of years old the home of thousands of animals and 15 people with friends families Futures old turn to char and Ash
00:05:22this couldn't happen again
00:05:26David Godwin was the forests Services assistant chief of the Fire Control at the time and one of the people charged with investigating what happened
00:05:35he and others concluded that black would have gone so deeply wrong largely Because by the time firefighters were able to arrive at the site the Flames were out of control if they've been able to be just a few hours earlier all of those lights might have been sped Baldwin concluded brightly that when dealing with a bird this to rain dropping firefighters in from the sky would be a much quicker way to get them on the front line. Everyone was so quick to get on board with this idea what internal memo said the forest service had no hankering to assume the responsibility for men risking their lives in any such an undertaking since all parachute jump is more or less crazy but nonetheless a training program move forward on July 12th 1942 men named Lily and Rufus Robinson made the United States first ever fire jump in Nez Perce National Forest
00:06:30today there are nine smokejumping crews in the United States stations in Montana Idaho Oregon California Washington and Alaska 7 of them operated by the forest service and to operated by the Bureau of Land Management
00:06:47so this is the last episode of Alpha Series and in previous horizon line episodes we've discussed Arctic explorers and devil Cowboys we look back at the lives of those who are now gone and tried to piece together what they did why they did it how they felt while doing it but today's adventure is very much alive and can speak for himself or half the time the parachuting in is just fun and the other half of the time it's a little spooky and 1/10 of the time it's really spooky I'm like how other explorers he did not Venture into Uncharted Territory but he did see the world from a perspective that few get to see and he did so with the aim of saving lives and Wilderness are your Landing in areas that have lots of dead snags and rocks and and if you know that it's going to be
00:07:47scary then you're nervous all the way from the plane but mostly going out of the door of the plane is not very spooky it's not scary you used to it it's it's not that big of a deal well it's a big deal cuz it's tons of fun but it's not scary 60s out to the family couch rundown became a Hotshot firefighter after year of fighting flames on the ground rod was introduced to the pursuit of smokejumping by Rich Tomac his longtime friend and college roommate at Washington state was a Brave and Bold kid growing up but imagine after a year of fighting fires in a traditional since you hit that people need you to jump out of a plane wearing a Kevlar suit all across the country for a year and fight wild forest fires
00:08:39it's like going to another planet
00:08:42what made his first jump in 1968 at the age of 20 he says he doesn't remember being scared but there's one thing he does remember very clearly being yelled at through a bullhorn so you get out the door and there's this Norma swell hundred and ten mile an hour wind
00:09:02sold buffeting you and your tumbling around and it opens and then it's complete Dead Silence every jumper remembers that I experience I think of it being extremely noisy extremely wild tumbling around in the air and then all of a sudden everything is calm your under the parachute and it's completely dead quiet and then from out of
00:09:33the Oblivion you hear this whole your brain. I'm lying you know some from out of nowhere and it's the guy on the ground or talk to you and I and the boulevard so it might seem a little strange but that's one of the the memories a sticks out with guys the most said silly bullhorn
00:09:58jumpers are literally jumping into the fire the fall from the sky can be a Serene experience once the parachute opens the combination of the solid the boss landscape in the endless stretch of trees as a calming effect
00:10:17except that The Closer you get to those trees the less calm things get one of Rob's friends a man named Gary Dunning was famously impaled on a tree upon Landing he hit the top of the spiky black Spruce with such force that it went right through his canvas and Kev lawsuit and into his thigh and the tree didn't break it was just lying up there with a spike through his leg totally stuck and none of the other job has landed need him the only way for Gary to get down was to rock from side to side until the top of the tree broke off and he tumbled to the ground
00:10:56when he was finally evacuated the treetop was still family embedded in his leg Gary told the story on Good Morning America going into great detail as the nation watched cereal spierings pause on the way to the mouth sometimes the only thing worse than hitting a tree is missing a tree the jump is a most likely to be injured from a bad landing which even for the most skilled of parachutist is a risk being a jumper require the sudden personality type you have to be independent but go to the team tough and adaptable
00:11:33as with Andre the balloonist and Tenzing Norgay trusting your team members with your life with essential for survival and as we were stablished with that childhood couch bedding incident Rod was always a bit of a thrill seeker as where his fellow smokejumpers I spent that down time between activities that yells it is similar kind of adrenaline rush when was an ice climber another was a bull rider number in Clyde to panic in the face of potentially lethal Second Chances are procedures to follow and no time for freak-outs
00:12:10Elsa has been manufacturing goods from the best materials for the toughest conditions to 1897 Filson products are not only guaranteed to be durable there also guaranteed for life Richard fail in the course of normal use they will repair it or replace it no questions asked that being said it would take a lot of Phil Simms pants and jackets are purposefully designed to stand up to any punishment delivered out in the field when your charging through thick brush like a smokejumper might you be well served by their tin cloth pants which won't puncture or rip like modern synthetic materials and when you're packing a bunch of gear in 1991 Filson expanded from making apparel to making bags that live up to their same quality standards these tough bags used rugged twill and leather to assist and everything customers can throw at them
00:13:09Filson original Alaska Outfitters since 1897
00:13:15all throughout the season of horizon line I've been wondering what it must have been like for the families of these explorers an adventurous to watch them walk into potential Oblivion well runs mother give some indication of how someone reacts to their loved one becoming a smokejumper I remember climbing up to the top of these 84 trees out in back of the house thinking I was going to scare my mom and I hollered at her and she just looked and said all you better come down from there or you know like it was nothing and that's kind of the way she went about the small jumping when I was home she just you know I was her son and she loved me and took care of me and when I was going to smoke jumping she just didn't think about it
00:14:02Broadhead longsword out new experiences the kind why you shouldn't really know what to expect until you tried it as a kid he loved climbing trees jumping off rocks and conducting an ill-advised experiments with dynamite discontinued as he got all there as a young adults ride estimates that he hitchhiked more than 50,000 miles
00:14:23he told us one particularly nolle story about getting into a car with a guy who drove 105 miles an hour on an Upstate New York Highway popping pills of questionable Providence every 15 minutes
00:14:37I got a ride from her a guy in New York he claimed he was a New York city policeman
00:14:46and so we got the three right lanes and he's going a hundred and five miles an hour in the left lane and every time it came up to a car he had to pass the car on the right for someone
00:15:02so we go looping around to the right side of the car and was cardinality shocks so you're floating down the road you know the highway at a hundred miles an hour tipping back and forth cuz there's no shocks in the vehicle and I just pretty much figured I was going to die and I actually kind of got to call him about it it was it was very obvious and I wasn't going to leave for another hour and so I just kind of settled in
00:15:35and then all the sudden the guy decides he needs gas he goes I got to get gas they turn the wheel at a hundred miles an hour so he's going back and forth sliding and turn sideways sliding down that exit ramp and there was his little green Renault down there
00:15:54and I have company at my side of the car I thought well it is going down this time and work right when we got to it probably do is still doing 50 miles an hour on the wheel rubbing wasn't New York City, everyone
00:16:14should I call the cops on this guy I'm getting out of here
00:16:21this, this in the face of Calamity is unnecessary attribute of any smoke jumper they need to make quick decisions and follow procedures while being adaptable in case conditions change sway Rod had to be calm and sink faucet Hut in 1988 in Yellowstone he come down from Alaska with 5 Crews heal quickly assigned to handle the bone out from a large fire at night with the cruise as a supervisor upon arriving they encountered an additional 6 Cruise who would work the same Blaze during the day the warm weather guy before I left
00:17:00he said at midnight the winds going to change not close to midnight right at midnight and man was at guy on the money and the wind change on us and all of a sudden it was time to get out of there and these are not super experienced people there a total of 11 cruise and me basically and so I just started sounding like Napoleon all of a sudden you know and and
00:17:36turnover got a tone in my voice and told him my nobody is going to run we can walk out of here faster than that fires moving and I shattered it one of the cruise that I knew it said Harry remember where that Trailhead is yes okay go and so they started walking real fast if nobody ran and an 11 Cruz got out and is soon as you're going downhill from a fire like that then you probably fairly safe
00:18:11all right because the fire is trying to go uphill
00:18:15I so if you know for sure you don't have any fire below you on the hill
00:18:21I've been you're probably pretty safe and So within 500 yards we were moving downhill in and it looks like Dunkirk was 11 Cruze headlights going down the hill and retreat but but everybody was safe so those kind of things happen you know not all the time but there's a few of those every summer for sure Nationwide
00:18:48the roads cruise on that fire was able to escape unharmed the risks remained that thing that rug said about being fairly safe when going downhill sometimes you may be forced to go uphill and that can be incredibly dangerous
00:19:03that's part of what happens in one of the most tragic incidents in the history of smoke jumping the Colorado Storm King fire it was one of the most tragic incidents in the history of smoke jumping on the afternoon of July 6th 1994 3 smokejumpers including rods buddy Jim thrush at 11 of the firefighters died in a massive conflagration the bun for 10 days before was extinguished
00:19:31half of the people fighting on the mountain ended up running uphill for that lives in a futile race against the Flames which reached Heights of nearly 200 feet explain to us how things went wrong and this is what he said that it's old adage in firefighting it's cold one foot on the black and that means that if an area is already bench that it's a safe side because there's nothing left for the fire to consume the fuel like the trees the brush the grass is spent so you can use that to your safety advantage you build a fire line on the edge of a fire separating the hot area from the unburned fuel you think of it as trapping the fire setting up boundaries so that it can spread any feather
00:20:18the guy that stoneking did exactly that but the fire had burned off all the grass and low fuel without bending the toll brush above so the fire line was in the correct place for the fire tactics but that one foot in the black roll it didn't apply because even though it was black it wasn't safe
00:20:36there was still lots of people available to the fire in the form of thick Gambel oak know several of the Unlucky things that entered into the Jets and extremely steep slope going uphill the safety deposit timing exactly when the fire took off up the hill with respect to where they were on that hill and the fact that the full cost of a severe wind event coming through that afternoon didn't reach them on the radio
00:21:01those are rods words he wasn't there but these risks of a present on all of his Neely 300 jumps stoneking happens 2 years after Rod had met Lisa the woman who would become his wife
00:21:15they encountered each other for the first time in Mexico when he was spending me all seasons he says she was nervous about him going up to smoke jump in the spring but was like his mother and that she was able to put it out of him mine some extent what was important was that he came back in the fall they married in 1995
00:21:34even the calmest and best laid plans can go wrong when one is up against a natural disaster
00:21:40the rug was never one to dwell on the potential Peril once he had settled down he couldn't risk jumping any longer when Lisa got pregnant in 1999 it was time for Rod to hang up the parachute after 32 years and a record 276 fire jumps he retired from smokejumping but he will always be a smokejumper
00:22:04I retired and Dale Longenecker from Winthrop of one of the other bases here in Washington I knew he was getting close to my record and so I was thinking I might get lucky and find out that he jumped a fire that tied my record and I could get a six pack of beer in a cup in the woods and we could celebrate you know together on The Voice
00:22:34but I kind of lost track of him and then the so I stepped out the back porch Saturday morning with a beer in my hand and I look over to the west and there's a fire
00:22:47holy cow sure enough there's planes dropping the retired and on it and another plane showed up and it starts in jumpers out the back I got you got to be kidding me
00:22:59so I grabbed the phone and called up Winthrop hey I need the list of jumpers you what you just dropped on the wenis
00:23:09Sochi list of offshore enough Longenecker is number 4 on the list
00:23:14chip so I jumped in my rib well I got all my fire clothes on I was retired but I got you know my Nomex fire clothes on and and my back and my hard hat and gloves and stuff and I drove out there and you get to Modern fires there's always a guard on the road they won't let you go in there and sure enough there's a guard there but I was kind of ready for him and so I rolled down the window and said hey I understand Rex Reed's handle this far I need to talk to him right away and I don't know maybe wasn't expecting that and he said yeah well Rex is right over there I so I went over to read and and he looked at me what the heck are you doing here in order you and I said I'll never mind. I'll tell you in a minute where you got the jumpers
00:24:09hey sugar down in the Gulley over here so I hiked down sure nuff Longenecker is there and I bullshitted him for a little while and then I said alright deal how many what numbers yes he said this is 276 I said you son of a bitch tied my record Right Out My Back Door and it it was the only fire that had ever been jumped in the wenis Valley ever and still is
00:24:39and she tied my jump record
00:24:43from Out My Backdoor you kidding me unfortunately that beer was the last one in the fridge I didn't even take any beer with me
00:24:53Looking Back Now Road remember is not the danger and anxiety of fighting fire but the unique Vantage points from which he was able to see the world the beauty that came with the risk and talked to rod and other aspects of Adventure has come into Focus yes these Adventures come with high risk and potential loneliness you've had some tragic stories about this season but maybe up to now we've lost over that these Jenny is get to see the weld an incredible way that the rest of us only get to dream about the road says he wouldn't mind if his son becomes a smokejumper because he wouldn't worry but because he loves his son to experience some of the wondrous sites that so many of us won't get a chance to see and I want to close now with what his son who is now on 17 might get to see if he follows in his Father's Footsteps
00:25:46get to travel all over and see incredibly gorgeous country from the air
00:25:52you see Full Circle rainbows that people on the ground never get to see cuz you can only see him from aircraft
00:26:01you dream you can fly right through the middle of sunsets at midnight in Alaska
00:26:09was walls of orange and magenta right next to the plane
00:26:17Wildlife everywhere deep gorgeous scary Canyons down in the Rockies
00:26:26I saw the experiences is memorable so I would
00:26:33I be worried about him because there is some danger but
00:26:38I would go if I go ahead and say sure
00:26:49you talk to this guy I did yes on the phone all the way from the Pacific Northwest to New York City this is one of the you know all of our other Ventures are are long past but not not right not right and that's what made this one stand out because in that other three words that describe sudden motivations of sudden emotions to these explorers uniform out and active and that may be right so that maybe slightly erroneous was in the heads of the time this time I got to actually talk to the person involved and hear what it was like from his perspective instead of having to piece together journals an account from other people so that was a really cool opportunity and what really struck me was how come he was at how procedural this job was because even though it involves near-constant parallel there are still well it is even more important to follow these protocols and procedures
00:27:46hearing him walk us through a work day as though it were a nice 5 in the office and yet he is jumping out of a plane parachuting down to fight a fire that was quite extraordinary if it's just if it's just procedural like what did he get out of it that was that was her what what made him want to come back and do it again if it was sort of like you know I just haven't have a job that's also potentially lethal like why did he do it I mean to spite his condomina I do not think that he was immune to the Thrills of the whole thing you know he talks about being taken a rational approach and not freaking out of panicking but he also was really rapturous about the beauty of it like the way that it feels to fall from the sky onto the remotes landscape that it's a site that very few people it's the answer
00:28:36and I think those benefits go alongside the procedural Factor as well as the danger your the semester wrapped up in this one job and it sounds incredible I kind of wanted to try smokejumping after hearing him describe it touches on what we talked about in the previous episode about perspective right like he gets that's a perspective that no one else sees you know obviously that brought him back yeah and it's it's like without a wonderful Dunes hydrogen balloon filler Andre that this contrast between calmness and disaster and defend their occurring simultaneously near the peace and the chaos and so that's what it's like to be an adventurer it's calmness and Chaos all wrapped up together naturally inclined to be great adventures their reaction to extreme situations is it is a kind of preternatural like just this is happening and I will just deal with it
00:29:36this is what will I do next to you I will look into the void I maybe sometime around there altogether like yeah the rodeo shows you know they were all together doing these crazy performances together you know you're blueness they were a crew going out there and I wonder if some of its like when you got a bunch of people around you who sort of oral so doing these insane things like they not they don't seem so insane your bonded together by unifying Madness they are all in which is also just your normal world yeah it becomes normal eyes because your friends are doing it to everyone you know is a smokejumper
00:30:24so this was the last episode of our first mini-series of horizon line thank you so much for joining us we hope that we've expanded your definition of what an Explorer and an adventurer can be the time to the credits I think it is would you like to think I would like to thank all the firefighters the the volunteer and the professional on the welds who out there really taking risks and saving lives thank you very much firefighters that's a good thing you know it was a great firefighter little known fact Katharine Hepburn firefighter horizon line is hosted by Ella Martin and myself don't their ass and produced by Grant Irving music by Nolan Schneider additional production for this week's episode from Hannah Glasser and Roseanne
00:31:24a very special thank you as well to ride out thanks Ronald both a firefighter and someone who helped make this episode possible I'll tell you what he tells the heck of a story
00:31:35and if you'd like to hear more details from his exciting life pick up a copy of his book just a few jumping stories which he says represent smokejumping in a genuine unpretentious way I deserve this cussing drinking cause nausea you buy a fighting another poor choices I meant emotions and this is Dan horizon line

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