After accident, smokejumper chooses to run

OAKRIDGE, Ore. — The people in Oakridge remember the same thing: the running.

Sara Brown’s footsteps were a constant in high school, pounding out five miles, 10 miles, until it became a way of life.

Running these days isn’t as easy as it once was for the 30-year-old.

It’s painful. Slow. She’s lost her rhythm.

Two years ago, the veteran smokejumper dove out of a plane into a wildfire and shattered all of the bones in her right leg.

The accident robbed her of a five-year career jumping with the U.S. Forest Service part of an elite crew of firefighters who leap out of airplanes into small wildfires that otherwise would be too difficult to reach.

And as doctors pored over surgical options to fix her ankles and leg, she realized it was about to rob her of the running as well.

Through the medical haze of choices — endure more surgeries and hang up her shoes or amputate her leg at the knee and keep going — Brown saw a clear one.

“She chose the running,” her mother, Marcia Brown, said. “She has always been a runner.”

Adrenaline, endurance, stamina — they were all cornerstones of Brown’s high school track and cross-country career, as well as her summer work fighting wildfires.

After a few summers working for the Forest Service in Oakridge to help pay for college and another summer at Zion National Park in Utah, she made it through rookie training and was hired as a smokejumper out of Redmond, Ore.

Women make up only 4 percent of the 450 active smokejumpers in the United States, Brown said. The requirements to apply are demanding: Rookies must complete seven pull-ups, 24 push-ups, 60 sit-ups, run a 1.5-mile course in under 11 minutes and carry a 110-pound pack over a 3-mile flat course.

But the grueling days and intense physical requirements of her job didn’t seem to faze her.

Like running, it took grit — the ability to dig in when others might want to quit.

“It was hard work,” she says. “But it was fun.”

In June 2007, Brown’s last jump came quickly, without warning, over a fire in a rural area of New Mexico.

She had transferred to the West Yellowstone, Mont., base three years before, and was working during the summer fire season while pursuing her master’s degree in the off-season at Washington State University.

On that hot June day, after 87 previous jumps, Brown and her partner leapt, and a huge gust of wind tossed them both off course.

“I tried to get control of my chute but he was coming right at me,” she said. “His body hit the material of my chute and it collapsed — it dropped me.”

The 100-foot fall shattered her right leg, snapped her wrist and injured her left leg.

Because of the crew’s isolated location, it took six hours to get her to the hospital. When she arrived, doctors in Silver City, N.M., sent her to a bigger hospital in El Paso, Texas.

After weeks of recovery, she returned to school full time in a wheelchair as a doctoral student and teaching assistant at Colorado State University.

Balancing office visits and physical therapy, she watched doctors try to piece the legs back together again.

“She’s done a lot of things,” her mother said, rattling off trips to Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Peru. The three stays in South Africa. The trek up Mount Kilimanjaro.

For Brown, not being active wasn’t living, and after seven failed surgeries, doctors told her they could fuse or replace her ankle, which would limit her movement, or they could amputate.

Depending on her recovery, they said, amputation might give her a chance to run, bike and hike again.

“I spent about a month deciding,” she said. “But I kind of knew that’s what I was going to do from the beginning. I just decided I would take that risk.”

These days, it’s hard to catch Brown.

Last week, she was honored with the Smokejumper Courage Award from the National Smokejumpers Association, considered to be the equivalent of a Purple Heart for her bravery during her career and the accident.

She also received $4,500 as part of the award, which she says will help pay her father, who is spending the summer working as her research assistant.

The pair is spending the summer months trudging the hillsides of rural Wyoming and Colorado, conducting wildlife research on old wildfire sites for her Ph.D. program at the University of Wyoming, where she transferred this year after her adviser switched schools.

When she graduates, she says she’d like to work for the Forest Service as a scientist or work for a small, private university.

For now, she’s focused on the little things the next few steps, not the next few years.

She’s started running again, after close to two years of not being able to walk.

Working with a physical therapist, she says she hopes to smooth out her stride, and get to a place where she can run like she used to, all the while continuing to chase her dreams.

“You do what you can with what you’ve got,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t always get a choice.”

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