Each summer Avialesookhrana's firefighters face the Herculean task of containing fires across two billion acres (810 million hectares) of the largest coniferous forest in the world. Though regional forestry offices help fight fires in more populated areas, smokejumpers—housed in 340 bases across the country—are the sole defense for half of Russia's territory, flying to fires in crews of five or six when parachuting from An-2 biplanes and in groups of up to 20 when rappelling from the Mi-8 helicopters.
"We face danger three times: one when we fly on plane; two when we jump; three when we go to fire," Valeriy says, and the statistics bear him out. In the past three decades 40 Avialesookhrana firefighters have died on the job—24 while fighting fires, 11 while parachuting, four in aircraft accidents, and one by lightning. Valeriy and Vladimir both tell me stories of parachuting fatalities, one when a jumper landed in water and drowned, another when a jumper hit an electric line. But jumping is the thrill that gets them hooked. "Two minutes fly like eagle, three days dig like mole," Valeriy says of the smokejumper's life—and the flying's worth the digging.
The day is late, so after making a couple hundred feet (a hundred meters or so) of fire line the guys break for a smoke. Everyone smokes unfiltered Primas—loosely rolled butts that cost about a nickel a pack and make health-conscious chain-smokers like Valeriy shudder. As we swap Russian and English swear words and laugh, Alexi Tishin, an earnest 28-year-old with a week of stubble and a smattering of gold teeth, says, "This is the best job for tough guys"—you get to jump out of planes, fight fires, live in the forest. He says he especially loves jumping to small fires and trying to put them out fast. If they kill the fire in a day or two, they get a few extra dollars each—no small sum, given that smokejumpers earn on average 3,100 rubles, about a hundred dollars, a month. The incentive seems to work: More than half of all fires are put out within two days.
The smokejumpers are true woodsmen—hunting, fishing, and trapping sable in the off-season to make ends meet, as nimble with an ax and knife as they are with their hands. When they land at a fire and make camp, they don't just make tent poles and shovel handles from saplings, they make tables, benches, shelves—you name it. I'm amazed to see one guy make a watertight mug out of birch bark.
It's a good thing their outdoor skills are solid, because their equipment often isn't. When we return from the fire line, Valeriy discovers that one of his brand-new experimental smokejumper boots has melted. The rubber sole is a mash of black goo. His boots lasted "an hour, at best" he says angrily, before launching into a torrent of complaint about poor Russian equipment. "This tent like from Second World War," he says, pointing at the canvas tent that will welcome mosquitoes and rain into our lives for days to come. The tents have no mosquito netting, the chain saws are heavy and unwieldy, the backpacks have no waist straps, the pull-on boots are made of cheap synthetic leather (and feet must be wrapped in towels to make them fit), the clothing is neither fire retardant nor water resistant. And everything is heavy.
For most of these guys that's just the way it is, but Valeriy and Vladimir are among the 120 Russian firefighters and managers who have been to the United States through an exchange program that began in 1993 between Avialesookhrana and the U.S. Forest Service. American and Russian exchangers alike are struck by the Americans' superior equipment and the Russians' inimitable resourcefulness.
Vladimir, who fills his American fireproof clothing with the stocky build of a linebacker, came home from a summer in the States with boots and tools and a wad of cash that was many times his annual pay, but he also returned with a new appreciation of his Russian brothers. "Put us in the woods with matches and a fishing rod, and we can live," Vladimir says. "We know how to eat mushrooms, catch fish, make a snare for animals. But for American firefighters, it would be a very bad situation."
Valeriy tells me how one time his squad's food was lost when it landed in the middle of a lake. They didn't have fishing gear, so he made a fishhook from a piece of metal on his reserve chute, pulled string from his parachute bag, cut a birch branch, and—voilá—they had fish.