Although wildfires in the American West dominate headlines, the single most destructive fire in U.S. history could occur in the Northeast. New Jersey's Pinelands (also known as the Pine Barrens) is the lone island of contiguous forest in the 45-million-person megacity that comprises the Eastern Seaboard from Richmond, Virginia, to Boston — the densest population cluster in the country. Whereas regular fires used to thin out the Pinelands, large swaths have remained relatively untouched for decades due to strict preservation laws. The result is a giant tinderbox of untended woods that's surrounded by 100,000-person suburbs. A Wildfire Risk Assessment published by New Jersey compared the Pinelands to "an inch of gasoline covering all of south and central New Jersey." ... In wildland firefighting, success does not breed success. Stopping fires in their infancy allows forests to grow thicker and more at risk of bad blazes. Before the Forest Service started fighting fires, around 1910, lightning strikes and native peoples used to burn around 50 million Western acres each year. Today, some 30,000 wildland firefighters and their equipment — smokejumpers, fire engines, air tankers — check that number at around 11 million. If that sounds impressive, it's worth noting that 50 years ago about a third as many firefighters kept the annual acreage burned to roughly half what it is today. The flames have become that much harder to control.
Smokejumpers would like you to know that they are not the firefighters who bust down your door or save your baby from the flames or rescue your cat from a tree. They are wildland firefighters, which means they deal with burning forests, not burning buildings. They are also not generally the ones battling the big fires like those in California this summer. Instead, a smokejumper’s job is to parachute in to remote wilderness areas to fight smaller wildfires before they encroach upon populated areas and start threatening homes and lives. (In 2015, the most expensive firefighting year on record, wildfires burned 10 million acres and destroyed 4,636 structures, costing $2.6 billion and killing 15.) Smokejumpers are called in to handle the initial attack—that is, jumping in while a wildfire is still small, and ruthlessly extinguishing it as quickly and efficiently as possible. ... There are only 400 smokejumpers in the entire United States, and maybe only half of those are actively jumping fires on a regular basis. ... Last year, 172 people sent in applications to the Missoula Smokejumper Base; only eight were hired. And there are only nine permanent smokejumper bases in the entire country. Even if you’re tough, talented and skilled, you’ll probably still get rejected for three or five or eight years in a row.