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To walk in Dad's footsteps, they fight forest fires

Like father, like son, like brother.

How else would you describe this family of fire fighters who jump out of airplanes into forest fires? Or who fly the plane from which a son or brother drops into fiery caldrons?

Sam Palmer, a smoke jumper, leaps from practice platform.
Sam Palmer, a smoke jumper, leaps from practice platform. Photo: Photo courtesy Palmer family

"He was my pilot, and now I'm Sam's pilot," Earl Palmer, 30, said of his father, Earl Sr., now a retired U.S. Forest Service pilot, and his younger brother, 28-year-old Sam. Earl Sr. of the Lewiston 1st Ward still flies helicopters for Hillcrest Helicopters in Lewiston, Idaho. Earl Jr. was a smoke jumper — someone who parachutes into fire zones — who now drops jumpers from his twin-engine turbo prop. Sam is a smoke jumper. The brothers are with the North Cascade Smoke Jumper Base in Winthrop, Wash., and are members during the summer fire-fighting months of the Twisp Branch, Wenatchee Washington Stake. With fires popping up in several western states in the past weeks, they've been busy.

And if that's not all, Earl Jr.'s wife, Cindy, was what you call a "heli-rappeler," or a firefighter who rappels from a helicopter to fight fires. (Firefighters called "hot shots" are those who hike into a fire zone or are delivered by air to a landing zone.) She's now retired to stay home with their 8-month-old son, Andrew. In fact, Earl Jr. recalled how one day before his father retired, the older Earl "put me out on a fire and then went to the rappeler base and put Cindy out on a fire."

"It's a family of firefighters," Cindy Palmer said during a telephone interview. "I started fighting fires as a way to pay for college," the young Sister Palmer added, which is also true of her husband and brother-in-law. "But once you've started fighting fires and it gets in your blood, you're a firefighter at heart for the rest of your life."

For the two Palmer sons, firefighting — and a love of nature — got in their blood growing up on an Idaho farm. Their father, who married their mother, Diana, after serving in Vietnam, flew for the Forest Service fighting fires every summer; the base was near the family farm. One day when the younger Palmer son was about 10 years old, he watched his father's helicopter flying over. "It was late in the evening, about 9:30 or 10, so he landed in our back field. I knew that had something to do with the firefighter business, but I remember thinking, 'That's so cool.' It scared all our neighbors. They thought a UFO had landed," Sam said, laughing, during a telephone interview.

Cindy Palmer rappels from helicopter.
Cindy Palmer rappels from helicopter. Photo: Photo courtesy Palmer family

After their missions — Earl Jr., served in the North Carolina Raleigh Mission, and Sam served in the Texas Dallas Mission — they embarked on serious firefighting careers during summers while pursuing college studies during winters. The older Palmer son wanted to be a veterinarian — but after the first fire season did a course correction. While working toward his pilot/firefighting credentials, he worked in the Mt. Hood National Forest, then joined the Prineville Hot Shots in 1995. (The Prineville crew is remembered for the loss of nine of its crew among 14 killed in a fire storm in Colorado in 1994.) He was soon a smoke jumper in Redmond, Ore., and then a pilot in the Cascades. He is currently taking extension courses from Utah Valley State College, working toward his bachelor's degree in aviation.

It was in a young single adult program in 1993 that Earl met a hot shot firefighter named Cindy Jorgensen. She later served in the Michigan Detroit Mission, and they were married Oct. 9, 1997, in the Portland Oregon Temple. Sam met Amy Potter at Ricks College. After she returned from the Missouri St. Louis Mission, they were married March 21, 1998, in the Denver Colorado Temple. They are expecting their first child, a daughter. Sam begins school this fall at the University of Idaho in higher education administration.

Fighting fires at this level means being confident in oneself, but each Palmer also credits gospel strength as their backbone. Cindy will never forget the summer of 1993 while fighting a fire in Idaho. Every day they fought that fire it would "blow up" in the early afternoon. "One of those days we had tied a line across the draw, meaning we met up with another crew tying our line. I had a radio but for some reason didn't hear across the radio that we were pulling out. One of our squad bosses came and said, 'We ought to get out of here.' The fire was aimed straight for the draw."

She and her colleagues began making their way up a side hill to the safety zone — all the while watching a 200-foot wall of fire coming at them. "I remember my heart pounding and my legs were tired. I thought, 'Am I going to make it up the hill in time?' When the fire is burning like that it sounds like there's a 747 right over your head. It starts to pull oxygen. You feel like you can't breathe. I remember a calm feeling coming over me and I sang 'Onward Christian Soldiers,' and a voice seemed to whisper, 'You have many things to do. You will make it up the hill.' I made it up to the safety zone with about a minute to spare."

Earl and Sam Palmer pause in front of Earl's twin-engine turbo prop.
Earl and Sam Palmer pause in front of Earl's twin-engine turbo prop. Photo: Photo courtesy Palmer family

Her husband credits the Word of Wisdom for his physical capacity. "A lot of jumpers are very physically fit specimens. I'm not in that category, but I'm equal in physical capacity to do the job, and I attribute that to the Word of Wisdom."

"Smoke jumping is very hard to get into," Sam added. "You have to keep yourself in the best physical and mental state you can. For me, the gospel is an intricate part of being mentally stimulated. It keeps you thinking about the things that are most important in life. In our life, there's no room for mistakes. You can imagine. You're standing in the door of an airplane looking down at everything 1,500 to 3,000 feet below you. There's a little bit of scare every time you go out that door. But the best thing about that scare is it keeps you highly focused."

Whether or not you're putting out small lightning fires or watching thousands of acres literally eaten by flame, you gain an appreciation for the forces of nature and for God's creations, Earl Jr. added. "When you're underneath the parachute above wilderness with nothing but wind blowing through your face mask, it's pretty awe-inspiring. It really makes you appreciate that we do have a wonderful place to live here. It's a gift from God. It's definitely not something man could create.

"What we have is given to us and what we have could be taken away in an instant. It makes you appreciate how fragile life is and how it is a gift to us."

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