From early spring to late summer, Brett Bittenbender of McCall, Idaho, commutes via parachute, leaping out of planes at 1,500 feet to land in clearings adjacent to raging forest fires. On the ground, the lanky 42-year-old subsists on Spam and coffee and sleeps on bare earth, often for just a few hours a night.
But for two or three months in each of the past four years, Bittenbender–a member of the U.S. Forest Service’s elite corps of airborne firefighters, the smoke jumpers–has been rewarded with coveted off-season duty in Chicago, climbing trees in search of Asian longhorned beetles.
Indigenous to China, the beetles were discovered in the New York and Chicago areas in the late 90s. They probably came here as larvae infesting wooden shipping materials like boxes and pallets. They prey on hardwood trees, including elm, maple, horse chestnut, and willow. As larvae, they eat the trees from the inside; upon maturing into beetles, they bore their way out to graze on leaves and twigs. Left uncontrolled, they pose a greater threat to North American forests than the gypsy moth and Dutch elm disease combined, and the only way to control them is to destroy infested trees.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Asian Longhorned Beetle Cooperative Eradication Project, established in 1996, puts the smoke jumpers at the service of local governments. With their tree-climbing skills, the smoke jumpers are able to inspect trees or parts of trees that crews with bucket trucks can’t. Between September and December about 20 smoke jumpers come to Chicago to scale between 5,000 and 6,000 trees. They’re a supplement to the small army employed by city, state, federal, and private agencies to conduct 80,000 tree inspections in the area each year.
“I can’t say we’ve halted the beetle, but the numbers are really going down,” says Chris Caris, local director of the beetle project. Between 1998 and 2000, 1,419 trees were diagnosed and destroyed, but last year only 19 cases were found. The count so far this year is 6, and only a single live beetle has been sighted. A citizen spotted it on a light pole at the corner of Webster and Lincoln, near Oz Park, and called the project’s hotline at 312-74BEETL.
On a sunny November morning, Bittenbender and fellow smoke jumpers Nan Floyd and Frank Castillo are checking the park’s trees for the telltale bore holes, which are about three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and for the smaller, shallower niches that the females dig for each egg. Floyd, a slender 31-year-old with brown pigtails sticking out from under a blue knit cap and a red safety helmet, begins by heaving a 16-ounce “throw ball”–think of a hacky sack stuffed with buckshot–at the highest branch within her range. Trailing a light cord behind it, the ball soars over the branch and back to earth. Tying her climbing rope to the cord, Floyd uses the light line to pull the heavier one over the branch, then attaches the climbing line to her harness with a carabiner and secures it with a knot. Grasping the rope between her feet, she pulls herself up into the branches. When she stops to inspect the tree, a lock on the harness keeps her from falling. Weather and light permitting, she and her partners will do this ten hours a day, six days a week, for as long as they’re here.
Tree climbing is a skill that sets smoke jumpers apart from ordinary forest firefighters. One of the biggest hazards of their job is getting their parachutes tangled in a tree. They have to be able to secure themselves, then make their way down to the ground carrying 85 pounds of equipment. It’s a test that carries what Castillo calls “a serious pucker factor.”
The firefighting season typically runs from May to September. Smoke jumpers also work on other off-season projects, like monitoring controlled burns, marking timber for harvest, or maintaining recreational trails in national forests. (Bittenbender took a one-off assignment last February to help scour Texas forests for remains of the space shuttle Columbia.) Their base rate of pay is $14 an hour, but that goes up with overtime and hazard pay. Compared to firefighting, the Chicago assignment is practically a vacation: the smoke jumpers get to eat in restaurants, travel to work in air-conditioned vans, and sleep in beds. The crews’ accommodations at the Oakwood Apartments on West Huron are “really nicer than most of our homes,” says Floyd, who lives in Winthrop, Washington, population 300. “Most of us live in fixer-uppers, or we’re still building our houses, so we live in sawdust most of the time.”
“While they love living out in the mountains and wouldn’t move here, they love getting a taste of urban life,” explains Caris, who, prior to getting married two years ago, liked to join the smoke jumpers on their nights out on the town. “They really use every minute while they’re here.”
“We go to a lot of concerts together,” says Bittenbender. “We’ve seen Greg Brown, Government Mule, Phil Lesh, Yonder Mountain String Band. For Halloween, Frank and I got dressed up and went to the Congress Theater to see Rusted Root. We’ve hit all the museums more than once, and Second City too. We go out drinking at a club occasionally. Lots of people go running down by the lake and join a gym. There’s this bunch of guys who go up to the top of the parking towers and skateboard to the bottom–they did the one at the House of Blues recently. People go to the movies a lot. Right now Nan Floyd and I are taking a stained glass class together. I’m doing a Tiffany-type lamp.”
Smoke jumpers with the most tree-climbing experience get first pick of the city jobs; any positions left unfilled are distributed by lottery. Bittenbender is a veteran of 16 seasons of smoke jumping and 7 of earthbound firefighting. He says he’s always among the first to put in for a Chicago stint. Last season he located three trees with good views of Wrigley Field. This year he was hoping to use them to follow the Cubs’ drive for the World Series. But as luck would have it, they’d all been cut down.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.