- Title: The married couple fighting fires hundreds of miles apart
- Date: 29th September 2021
- Summary: PHOTO OF SAMSARA HUSBAND MARK DUFFEY SMOKEJUMPER WITH HARNESS IN FRONT OF AN AIRPLANE
- Embargoed: 13th October 2021 00:01
- Keywords: Montana wildfires Samsara and Mark Duffey fire lookout firefighters forest fires wildland fires
- Location: PATROL MOUNTAIN LOOKOUT + WEST YELLOWSTONE, MONTANA, UNITED STATES + UNIDENTIFIED LOCATION
- City: PATROL MOUNTAIN LOOKOUT + WEST YELLOWSTONE, MONTANA, UNITED STATES + UNIDENTIFIED LOCATION
- Country: US
- Topics: Disaster/Accidents,United States,Wildfires/Forest Fires,Editors' Choice
- Reuters ID: LVA004EWNTZK7
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: Just outside the one-room cabin that gives her a 360-degree panorama of the Montana wilderness below, Samsara Duffey peers into a pair of binoculars. All around her, the parched mountains are shrouded in smoke blown over from blazes in Idaho and Oregon. Under that gray veil, the Rockies look mystical, almost ethereal.
Suddenly, Samsara focuses. She thinks she's spotted a puff of smoke emerging from a dead tree in the valley right across from her. But it's a false alarm - an illusion caused by the faraway wildfires.
"There is never a bad view from the lookout, and I do have to get up and look around very regularly to scan for any possible smoke or any other issues, it's all good," Samsara says.
For 25 straight summers, Samsara has been retreating into the wilderness to work as a fire lookout, but even for her, this summer's dry and smoky conditions in the American West are tough.
"It's a summer that everybody is a little bit on edge in this area, myself included," says the 45-year-old.
To get to her 16-by-16-foot lookout perched atop Patrol Mountain, Samsara climbs a six-mile trail, whose trailhead itself is an hour's drive from the nearest town: Augusta, population 318.
This old-fashioned way of spotting blazes grew popular after terrible fires swept through the West in 1910, burning an estimated 3 million acres. By around the 1950s, around 5,000 fire lookout towers had been built across the United States. Many have since closed, as infrared cameras and drones replace the human eye. The Forest Fire Lookout Association estimates that only around 400 lookout towers are still operational today.
While Samsara, a lone sentinel on her mountaintop, scours the horizon for fires, her husband, Mark Duffey, is some 280 miles away preparing to parachute out of a plane to fight them.
Mark is part of an elite squad of some 320 Forest Service firefighters known as smokejumpers, first responders who plunge from planes to tackle remote wildland fires.
When the alarm at his base in southern Montana goes off, he kicks into gear. He has around five minutes to put on his jumpsuit and gear - which weigh around 80 pounds total - and hop on a Dornier twin turboprop plane. He and seven other smokejumpers are flying to a blaze in neighboring Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest. Mark lands in a cow pasture, trudges over closer to the fire and digs a ditch in the earth to try to box it in.
"Getting out and fighting fire I feel it's an important task and important job to be done, feel a pretty good sense of accomplishment when we are able to get on a fire and catch it, put it out," Mark, 47, says.
Raised in Montana by a smokejumper father, Mark never doubted he'd end up working with nature.
Mark worked as a wildland firefighter for three years before applying to become a smokejumper in 1998. He has completed more than 100 fire jumps. At his peak, he jumped into 16 fires a season. Because he now also works as a spotter - the person aboard a plane who coordinates firefighting efforts and helps determine the best jumping spot - he does fewer fire jumps, around four to six a season.
This is how the Duffeys spend their summers: apart, unable to see each other for weeks on end, but united in fighting the American West's ever-worsening forest fires.
"The longest I think we have gone without seeing each other is six and a half weeks, but I think our average is more like four weeks, four to five weeks, but it just depends on the fire season," Samsara says.
So far this summer, blazes have torn through 4.9 million acres of the United States, an area 21% greater than the total burned in the same period of 2020, the worst year on record. Summer wildfires, fueled by climate change, have also ignited throughout the world.
In the western United States, climate change is raising temperatures and exacerbating drought, helping to create the particularly hellish fire season this year.
Samsara and Mark met in early 2012 at a class about information-sharing in West Yellowstone. In May 2015, they got married in a civil ceremony in Helena with no guest list - just the two of them. About a week later, Mark was sent on a fire. After the wedding, Samsara moved to West Yellowstone.
"The parts of our getting married was I am continuing to be a lookout, he is continuing to be a smoke jumper, we are both busy all summer doing what we both enjoy, and what we like to do to help both with the resources and to participate in being outdoors as we both do," Samsara says.
(Production: Sandra Stojanovic, Alexandra Ulmer)
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