It's a shoestring operation—just $32 million a year to cover 11 time zones, less than the United States might spend in a few days of a heavy wildfire season. But with their mismatched uniforms and 50-year-old biplanes, Russian smokejumpers do what their countrymen do so well: make do with less. Less money, less equipment, and yes, less caution—even with fire.
When we break camp the next day to return to Shushenskoye, I'm surprised to see that the campfire is left smoldering. It's a hot July day, which would be bad enough without the helicopter's rotor wash blowing everything all over the place, but the risk doesn't even seem to register with Alex, central Siberia's most powerful firefighting official. In the U.S., firefighters would douse a fire on an ice floe in the dead of winter, especially with journalists around. But here they play the odds the way they see them, and perfect safety is burdensome and unnecessary. Fire shelters and fireproof clothing? Too expensive, but that's OK, because the odds of needing them are low. Seat belts? Impractical. Thousands of times you will buckle and unbuckle, and probably for nothing. Campfire? It's not going anywhere.
Not surprisingly, people cause two-thirds of Russia's 20,000 to 35,000 annual wildfires—and by the time we've been in Siberia for a week, I find myself wishing they'd cause a few more. The Shushenskoye area is hot and dry but fireless, and after seemingly endless rounds of vodka-steeped hospitality we finally persuade Alex to send us north to Yeniseysk, where we hear fires are burning across the region.
When we get to the base in the town of Yeniseysk two nights later with our guides, firefighters Valeriy Korotkov and Vladimir Drobakhin, we're eager to finally get to a fire, and the gods respond accordingly: In the morning it is raining. Pouring. I look at Valeriy. "I thought you said Friday the 13th was your lucky day."
"Ahh, the day is not over, my friend."
Valeriy is one of those guys with so much heart that you believe in his luck. A smokejumper the past 25 of his 45 years, he smokes constantly (filtered cigarettes, "because I care about my health") and drinks lustily, but he never seems to lose the bounce in his step and rarely complains— even when he loses the last of his upper front teeth, which we suspect happened sometime during our month together. With a wavy shock of hair, salt-and-pepper goatee, and a suit of camouflage pasted onto his body by days of sweat, he exudes an intensity that seems a bit out of place when we find ourselves in civilization, like some sort of deep-cover soldier back from the front lines.
Midday the word comes: Hurry and get your stuff together, we're going to a fire. I'm just this side of incredulous, given that we've been socked in by rain for 12 hours, but a two-hour helicopter ride later, we land at the edge of a smoldering patch of forest and the sun is shining. Valeriy's lucky day! He and Vladimir quickly chop down some birch saplings to make poles for our canvas tent, and we hike what looks like an old logging road through a blackened forest to the fire line.
Twelve smokejumpers have been on this 120-acre (50-hectare) fire for nearly a week. It seems all but dead on this flank, but the guys chop a few saplings to make handles for their rakes and shovel blades and get to work, scraping clean a foot-wide (0.3-meter-wide) swath of forest floor, then lighting a backfire with pine needles and birch bark. The backfire burns toward the wildfire, consumes its fuel, and stops it in its tracks—the basic technique of wildfire fighting everywhere, whether done with shovels and pine needles or bulldozers and drip torches.