Tim Hart’s life was too brief — but it was the one he wanted to live.
Hart died this month at 36 from injuries suffered while parachuting to fight a forest fire in New Mexico. How a kid from Illinois ended up as a smokejumper out West is unlikely but seemed, to those who knew him, the inevitable result of him pursuing his dreams.
Growing up in north suburban Wheeling and Beach Park, attending Zion-Benton Township High School, Hart always wanted to be outdoors. When he got a job at a grocery store, he bribed the other workers to always let him collect the carts, just so he could work outside.
He joined the Youth Conservation Corps in Lake County, where he enjoyed his time fixing trails and foot bridges, hacking out invasive buckthorn, even swimming through muck to unblock culverts.
As he studied forestry at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Hart joined the Saluki Fire Dawgs, and conducted prescribed burns and forest management. After he graduated cum laude, he became a wildland firefighter, and in 2016 became a smokejumper — someone who jumps out of planes to fight forest fires.
“He was the kind of guy who was never going to stop below the top of something,” his wife, Michelle Hart, said. “He had to climb it all the way to the top.”
Hart was injured in a hard landing May 24 while responding to the Eicks fire in southern New Mexico, and was flown to a hospital in El Paso, Texas, but died June 2, authorities said.
At a memorial Saturday in Hart’s adopted hometown of Cody, Wyoming, Gov. Mark Gordon and the U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen spoke in his honor. His crew came on stage for the ringing of a bell nine times, to signal the end of Hart’s duties. Also speaking was his mother, Pam Hart, a retired nurse who now lives in Kenosha.
She noted that Hart had a special bond with his father, Gene “Buddy” Hart, who once served as a volunteer firefighter while the family lived for three years in Saudi Arabia, and who died when Hart was 18.
Pursuing his firefighting career, Hart moved repeatedly, working to protect national forests across the country. He even spent a winter in Wyoming living out of his pickup truck to be near his work.
For years, he applied to become a smokejumper, but was rejected because there were so many more applicants than openings. In 2016, he was one of only three among 300 chosen for smokejumper training. Three years later, he became a squad leader at the West Yellowstone Smokejumper Base.
He met his wife, Michelle, in Cody, and the two got married there outdoors in December 2019, which she remembers as “beautiful but freezing.”
Hart was an avid hunter of elk, deer and waterfowl, and taught himself to play drums, guitar and bluegrass banjo music. He hand-built furniture for his wife, mother and sister, planted a fruit tree orchard at his home and could make his own whiskey.
Smokejumpers dive into remote areas that generally are not immediately accessible any other way. The goal is to subdue the fire when it’s small, before it grows. Using hand tools such as a chainsaw, a torch and a Pulaski tool, which combines an ax for chopping with an adze for digging, a small group of firefighters may try to clear out brush and other fuel, and contain the fire within boundaries.
Along the way, smokejumpers face a series of risks, especially jumping near fires in mountainous, forested terrain. In Hart’s case, he was parachuting into very rugged terrain near the Continental Divide.
The forest service is investigating what happened in Hart’s case, but said only that he suffered multiple injuries after a hard landing. Family members said they were confident proper precautions were taken.
The family asked that anyone wishing to make a contribution may donate to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, which has the stated goal of helping the families of injured and deceased firefighters. There is also a GoFundMe page that has raised $121,000.
“He died doing what he loved,” his mother said. “We’re very proud of him.”
Above all, his mother said, Hart was a conservationist. While driving through Yellowstone National Park, she said, they saw part of the forest that burned in 1988. It was sad to see the destruction, she said, but hopeful to see the new growth.
“Tim won the lottery,” his sister Meg said. “He wanted to be a smokejumper. He got the wife, the house, the land and the dog he wanted. His life was absolutely perfect. … I don’t know a lot of people who could say they absolutely loved their job and their life, but Tim could.”