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Cliff Creek Fire - A Most Memorable Series of Events

by Rob Shaver (McCall '67) |

It was a busy fire season when I rookied at McCall, Idaho, in 1967. I was fortunate to have 14 fire jumps, which included four in Oregon. It was jumper number 13, on a small Oregon blaze, that was most memorable.

In late August there had been a rash of lightning fires in the Cascade Mountains, and the Redmond jumper unit was stretched to the limit. Around 5 p.m. Aug. 28, those of us high on the McCall jump list were placed on standby for possible deployment to help out.

I was eager to go and see some new country. It was a bit after midnight when we were finally rousted out. We boarded the DC-3 about 1:30 a.m. for the 250-mile trip to Redmond. On arrival we were provided bunks and caught a few hours sleep.

After an early breakfast, we boarded the DC-3 and headed west to the Willamette National Forest. Four of us jumped a fire on Skunk Creek. Nearing tree-top level above a small clearing, I could see several small, rock ledges in the grass that appeared too hazardous for landing, so I opted for the top of a pine tree.

We all landed safely and were soon at work on the fire, which was already a few acres in size, burning in heavy fuel.

By late afternoon or early evening, we were still struggling to contain it when a small ground crew arrived, followed by a dozer. The dozer soon completed a line around the fire, and we were able to take a break.

Our relief was short-lived because the local crew chief decided that we jumpers should man the fire line through the night, while his men rested for the morrow’s mop-up work. Having borne the heat and toil of the day with little sleep the previous night, we were much offended, but being courteous and outranked, we struck off to our task, muttering only to ourselves about such insult.

We took our positions around the fire perimeter and just hunkered down most of the night. From time to time a snag would burn off at the base, begin to snap and creak, then come crashing down out of the overhead darkness to jar us back into nervous wakefulness.

Later in the night the crew chief relented a bit and called us in for a couple hours sleep, but then, all too soon, sent us back to the fire line until dawn.

We had a quick breakfast of cold rations, then packed our gear out some distance to a highway and then were driven into Salem. There we boarded two small planes and flew back to Redmond.

We got to the jumper base about 11 a.m. It was nearly deserted, except for us and maybe four other jumpers who had straggled in earlier. Grubby, tired and ravenous, we headed straight for the kitchen.

The crew there advised us that the hot meal would not be ready until about 12:30. We protested that we would not be here that long, that fires were still showing up, and we would almost certainly be gone before noon.

The cooks, bless them, stepped forward and said: “You come back in 30 minutes and we’ll have something for you.” So off we went to wash and freshen up a little.

Half an hour later we were in the cafeteria line. There were hot dogs and steaming pork and beans, potato chips and some fresh fruit to vanquish our gnawing hunger. I filled my tray and was about to get a beverage when the fire signal sounded. Oh, the despair of leaving a laden tray right there on the chow line! But worse was yet to come.

Shortly, about eight of us were aboard the DC-3 again, heading back west to the Willamette. We arrived over aptly named Cliff Creek at a fire where four jumpers were already on the ground from the previous day.

As we circled above and dropped streamers to gauge wind drift, we could see that the east facing, rim-rock cliff ran roughly north and south high up on the west side of the deep canyon. The cliff was a sheer 80 or so feet high. The fire was burning at the top, at the head of a 100-foot-wide steep notch or chute in the cliff face.

The wearied jumpers were doing their best to keep it from spreading in the thick timber above the cliff, but below them, embers kept rolling down the chute and igniting fresh fuel, requiring them to divide their labors.

They had dug two or three good roll trenches below the fire, but the trenches filled with tumbling ash and debris and burning cones, and the embers spilled again further down the slope to kindle new fuel and come roaring back to life.

Our streamers showed there was a pretty strong breeze out of the west. There were few openings in the timber large enough to insert a canopy, so we were essentially jumping for the trees in the somewhat-flatter ground above the precipice.

Our pilot circled upwind of the cliff, and when the spotter slapped my shoulder, I lunged out of the plane into the swirling air blast behind the 1,200-horsepower radial engine and waited for the opening jolt of the canopy.

Things did not go well. Apparently, as I was tossed by the propeller blast, some shroud lines slipped behind my neck and possibly inside the high collar of the jump suit. At full extension, when the canopy caught air, the lines snapped violently taut. The sensation was a savage, stupefying blow to the head.

My helmet, despite the securely buckled, leather chin strap, was ripped off in an explosive jerk. Cold air rushed around my exposed head. Dazed, it took me a few moments to begin functioning. I was relieved to see that the canopy had properly deployed, but the shroud line mishap had cranked me up like an outboard motor, and I was spinning – not fast – but the shroud lines were twisting and I couldn’t steer.

I pulled the risers wide apart until the turning slowly stopped and I began to unwind. By the time I had regained control, more than half my altitude had been lost while I drifted toward the cliff. I steered into the wind, but the chute’s 6-mph forward speed was no match, and I was driven steadily backward toward the drop-off.

I maintained my heading into the wind, hoping to tree up at the last instant in the timber at the top of the cliff. Bad mistake!

As I overshot the trees and dropped out of the wind, I instantly gained forward momentum right toward the rounded brow of the cliff top. A shot of terror went through me. To this day I can still visualize exactly where my boots were going to hit on that bald rock face, and there would be nothing to grasp, nothing to prevent my plunging helmetless eighty or so feet onto the boulder strewn talus below.

Instinctively, desperately, I yanked the right guide line and at nearly the last instant veered away from the cliff, missing it by perhaps a dozen feet, then steered for the nearest tall tree.

Plowing into the top of a spruce just to the right of its slender upper trunk, I encountered an inch-thick, horizontal limb about throat-high, grasped it with both hands, and tore it from the trunk as I plunged through the branches and finally came to a stop.

For a few moments I just rested in the security of that tree top after the tumultuous trip that landed me there. Stinging sweat running down into various abrasions and the friction burn across the back of my neck soon tempered my relief.

Entangled in limbs and cords, I still had to rope down about 40 feet to the ground then clamber back up the steep slope to retrieve gear and join the others in containing the fire.

The next day, trying to get a photo of my chute still in the tree just below the cliff, I crept to within eight or 10 feet of the sloping edge, got onto some loose pea gravel and began to lose my footing. Had to scramble to get back to firm ground, getting another unwanted thrill. This whole Oregon venture was losing its appeal.

Two days later back at Redmond, I had a pair of black eyes in addition to several abrasions around my head and ears, and the three-quarter-inch-wide friction burn high across the back of my neck. The black eyes were puzzling, and I could only speculate on the cause.

After this same Oregon fire bust, another of our McCall jumpers, who was there recounted his experience.

On our first day out we had watched him jump over a large, hot fire with a number of other men. He descended toward a small ridge top clearing, but at the last moment steered into the standing timber at its edge and treed up within a hundred feet of crowning fire.

We watched with some concern while he quickly made a rope descent to safety. Later he said that the clearing he aimed for had been an old helispot, and upon his approach he could see many small saplings that had been slashed off at a sharp, angle-like punji stakes, waiting to impale him, so he intentionally treed up despite the approaching fire.

He further related that on the same fire, a Redmond jumper was rendered unconscious in a chute opening mishap and hung limp in his harness, while his partner watched helplessly as the injured man drifted over the fire and disappeared into the dense smoke plume.

About the time the partner reached the ground, the other jumper reappeared from the smoke at nearly the same altitude where he had gone in, having been held aloft by the hot updraft. He regained consciousness about the time he finally reached the ground.

With this backdrop, I dismissed my experience as incidental to the adventurous nature of the job and gave it little serious thought.

Years later in law enforcement work, I learned that twinned black eyes – “raccoon eyes,” or in clinical terms, bilateral periorbital ecchymosis – can be the result of a severe blow or trauma to the base of the skull. I don’t know if that fit my case. I don’t think I had a skull fracture, but it made me wonder.

I was further sobered when viewing the documentary film “Smokejumpers – Firefighters from the Sky,” which recounts the tragic death of jumper Tom Regennitter (RDD-67) in June 1970. His helmet was similarly ripped off as his parachute opened, resulting in a fatal neck injury.

Looking back, I don’t know if my chute-opening mishap was caused by something I did or didn’t do. But there were two factors that did contribute to the near calamity going over the cliff.

Had I planed my chute into the wind – that is, pulled down the leading edge of the canopy and spilled air out the back – I could have increased my rate of descent and possibly touched down before reaching the cliff.

Second and most critically, when it became apparent I was not going to land above the cliff, I should have turned downwind and gotten completely away from that death trap to avoid being drawn against it by my own forward speed and the rolling air currents below the drop off.

Sometimes when you’re not smart, it helps to be lucky, and I was very lucky that day. That was a narrow escape.

I had a couple other stirring events that summer when the future was in doubt, but those two very close calls in a single descent made Cliff Creek my most unforgettable jump. I’m grateful for the outcome. It did contribute to a very memorable fire season.