Retired Wash. smokejumper recalls a colorful career fighting wildfires
North Cascades Smokejumper Bill Moody parachuted into Siberia once in a U.S.-Soviet exchange program
The Seattle Times
WINTHROP, Wash. — Clearing flammable vegetation from one’s property can be a life-or-death chore in the Methow Valley, where wildfire is a natural part of the ecosystem. Twisp resident Bill Moody knows this reality better than most as he weed-whacks a 20-foot firebreak around his house on a June afternoon.
Moody ran the North Cascades Smokejumper Base from 1972 to 1989. He took over from the base’s inaugural manager, Francis Lufkin, one of the pioneers of this dramatic wildfire-fighting technique and after whom the base’s parachute loft is named.
At 84, but still trim and fit from a long career in this physically demanding profession, Moody is one of the last living links to the first generation of wildland firefighters to boldly leap out of airplanes and into the heart of a backcountry blaze.
“Lufkin was tough but fair,” Moody said. “He had high expectations.”
Like his predecessor, who was born in Auburn, Moody came from the west side of the Cascades. He was born and raised in Seattle, graduating from Lincoln High School in 1957. The summer before his senior year, he worked at an Oregon sawmill. When the company softball team played a game against a U.S. Forest Service contingent, he learned of a wildfire fighting vacancy and jumped ship from the mill.
While working on a handcrew in the Deschutes National Forest in central Oregon, smokejumpers from the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base joined the fray. The prospect of firefighting paratroopers excited the young man.
Only one season of wildland firefighting experience was required to apply for the smokejumper program, but it was less competitive than today when several years of experience is the norm for recruits. Moody applied shortly after graduating and joined a rookie class at North Cascades for four weeks of basic training.
Moody finished his training on a Friday and landed at No. 6 on the jump list. There was little time to wallow in what he called “the fear of the first many jumps.”
The next day, he deployed to Hells Canyon, where Idaho, Oregon and Washington meet. After putting out the fire, his crew hiked 15 miles out of the deep river gorge. The district ranger was expecting the crew at his ranger station, so he and his wife treated the famished smokejumpers to a chicken dinner, ice cream and apple pie when they emerged from the backcountry.
For young Moody, it was an encouraging introduction to his new career. “If this is the smokejumper life, this is all right,” he said.
Not every mission ended with a cherry on top. On July 4, 1960, a fellow jumper crash-landed into a tree and dislocated four bones in his foot along Toketie Creek, a branch of Snow Creek in the Enchantments. Extracting his colleague from there was “the most difficult and toughest jump spot in my career,” Moody said.
Moody proved adept at rescues, making some 30 pararescue jumps to provide aid to fellow smokejumpers or recreationists in trouble. One incident involved rescuing a boy whose father died when his horse rolled over and crushed him. That response also required putting the horse out of its misery. While lightning strikes typically happen overnight and the fire response begins in the morning, rescue calls more often come later in the day.
“Some of those were pushing the conditions considerably, jumping when it’s just about dark in pretty strong winds,” he said. “We’d take a couple of the most experienced jumpers but we still had to feel that it wasn’t too risky.”
Moody’s decorated career included being tapped for a prestigious U.S.-Soviet technical exchange on forestry management in 1977. He spent a month in Russia and jumped in Siberia with snow on the ground. Despite such accolades, smokejumping is far from mundane. “Even after 33 years, I still get nervous and still have a respect for that environment I’m working in,” he said.
Although the North Cascades is the birthplace of smokejumping, larger and newer facilities like the bases in Missoula, Mont.; Redmond, Ore.; and McCall, Idaho, tended to hog the limelight. But in 1970, the Winthrop base became the nerve center for an all-hands-on-deck operation. Two lightning bursts, one in July and another in late August/early September led to a record year: 1,066 jumps responding to 212 fires. Reinforcements swelled the normally 45-person crew by a factor of four, with sleeping bags unrolled on any available floor space. Upward of 50 aircraft crowded the tarmac, with the Federal Aviation Administration on-site to conduct air traffic control and the National Guard deployed to help with logistics as the base saw 325 takeoffs and landings daily.
“Lufkin was my close mentor during the long, arduous 1970 season,” Moody said. “He turned day-to-day smokejumper operations over to me.”
That trial by fire proved Moody was ready to take the reins. He became manager in 1972, heading into a decade when the Forest Service began changing its policy from automatically suppressing all fires to taking a more nuanced touch.
“We were very aggressive. They used the jumpers a lot in initial attacks. Within minutes or even hours, fires were suppressed,” Moody recalled of his early career. “A lot of fires in the alpine would have conducted a nice underburn like it had traditionally through a lot of Native American history.”
As a Twisp resident, Moody has seen changing wildfire behavior firsthand, from the houses burned in the Carlton Complex fire in 2014 to the firefighters who perished in the Twisp River fire in 2015. But those threats to life and limb have not dissuaded him from staying in his long-adopted home.
“This area has the lifestyle we like and the values we like,” he said, taking a fatalist view of natural hazards. “We’re going to have fire issues here. We’re going to have tragic and large fires. It’s something you put up with — whether hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, something is going to get you.”
For a dyed-in-the-wool smokejumper, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.