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A Different Ride To The Fire

by Chris Liedle/News Staff/KVAL Eugene |

REDMOND, Ore. - Oregon enters the 2015 fire season with below average rainfall and record low snowpack.

"People predict there's going to be a bad season. We're in a drought," said Ralph Sweeney, a USDA Forest Service smokejumper. "But we're not here to predict what the fire season is going to be. We're here to be ready for whatever happens."

This is Sweeney's 15th year as a smokejumper, firefighters who parachute in to fight forest fires.

Sweeney is one of only 400 or so smokejumpers at 9 bases across the country.

"We're firefighters, just like everyone else," Sweeney said. "We just have a different ride to the fire."

This month at the Redmond Air Center in Central Oregon, 35 men and women prepared to fight fires in some of the most isolated and rugged terrain in the western United States.

This year more than 500 people applied to become a smokejumper at the Redmond Air Center.

They only have 10 spots open.

Before they can be called to a fire, returning jumpers must go through extensive training to relearn everything from tree landings to parachute failures.

On one day in May, 10 smokejumpers packed the plane to make practice jumps.

Spotters stod near the rear door, looking for safe landing zones.

The pilots flew a pattern over the fire while spotters released "drift streamers." The 12-foot long ribbons weighted with sand descend at about the same rate as a jumper under parachute canopy.

Sweeney said gauging a jump is a matter of mathematics: time how long it takes to get to the ground.

Fly the plane over the landing zone, count down the time, and release the jumpers.

"We'll give them a slap on the leg and that first guy will go out. then, the second guy will swing around in the door and jump out," he said.

It takes about a minute or two for jumpers to reach the ground.

En route to the drop zone, jumpers get a bird's eye view of the terrain, scanning the ground for hazards and mapping a route to the fire.

"When you actually get on scene and you see the fire and you see the jump spot, then it's all business," said smokejumper Matt Britt. "You've got to focus on making it to the spot."

Jumpers release their chutes and get ready for the gear drop to land: food and water; sleeping bags and tents; hand tools and chainsaws.

Sweeney said smokejumpers are prepared to camp for several days until the fire is out. Then they hike out to the nearest trail or road, carrying more than 90 pounds of gear on their backs.

This will be Chris Hinnenkamp's 8th season in the program.

"We do a lot of great work and grab them while they are small, so they don't become big," he said of wildfires. "I think there would be a lot more black forest out there."

Hinnenkamp jumps around 10 fires per year, most of them started by lightning.

By October, the entire crew will have jumped more than 100 fires.

Their missions could be as far away as Alaska or just miles outside the base, near Black Butte.

"If we do our job right, it never makes the news because we are going in to remote wilderness areas, without roads, and we're putting fires out 100-percent and we're coming out of the woods without anyone knowing we're there," Sweeney said.