Region 8 Smokejumping - The Untold Story
by Delos Dutton (Missoula ’51)
from the October 2000 edition
The first fire jumps in Region 8 were made on the Jefferson National Forest, on the Clinch Ranger District. The date was March 31, 1971 and four smokejumpers made the jump on the Skeggs fire, which was burning on State of Virginia land and was rapidly approaching National Forest land.
The jumpers stopped the leading edge of the fire and linked up with the state warden crew on the East flank of the fire. The fire was stopped at 54 acres and had been moving faster than the ground crew could walk. The jumpers had the advantage of being in the right place at the right time and were in better physical condition to fight the fire.
What were smokejumpers doing in R-8 and how did they get there? The concept was introduced at a Fire Management meeting on the Jefferson NF by Clyde Todd, who was the ranger on the Clinch district. Their object was to stop 90 percent of the fires at 10 acres or smaller because of their high land value in critical areas. Their crews were not even close to accomplishing that goal; they would come close to stopping the fires but would lose because they could not catch up with the leading edge.
The Fire Management people on the Jefferson NF wanted a small centralized force to help their six-ranger district to get control of the fire situation. They wanted personnel in top physical condition and well-trained in fire suppression. This presented a problem because their fire season was short (six weeks) and the people they hired were required to do other work, with fire being an incidental part of the job. Their people became skilled in other work and generally unavailable until the fire situation became extreme.
A helitack crew was considered but ruled out for several reasons. Small helicopters could not haul a large enough crew to slow the spread of the fires, and large ones were too expensive. Furthermore, their forest were heavily covered with timber, and the clearings and meadows were on slopes and too small for helispots. The forests in the Appalachian Mountains are very long and narrow, making speed and range a limiting factor. Helispot construction would be difficult because large numbers of the trees would have to be cut down due to the rounded ridge tops.
Smokejumping was considered, but this caused a lot of concern. Their forest had a very extensive road system and most of their fires started close to roads, and they had a hardwood forest that was dormant during fire season. Could men parachute into such a forest on an operational basis without injuries? As they pushed their demands they found that R-8 had already been evaluated and found lacking, but they pressed on and gained authorization for a new study.
The Project Air Officer at the Siskyou Smokejumper base was selected to re-evaluate R-8 for the possible use of smokejumpers. The job went to R-6 because R-1 and R-4 jumpers were involved in the R-3 fire season, and R-5 had an early fire season of its own. A 10-day trip was scheduled for the study and observation of the R-8 fire problems. The reason for selecting Siskiyou Smokejumper Base was the best-kept secret for years.
Most of the people knew it was because we were the best people for the job — but now I must confess it was only because I knew people in high places. My jump partner at Missoula, with whom I hunted elk, was in the national office and so was the ex-Siskiyou pilot who flew the Noorduyn Airplane out of Deming NM in 1953. The forest supervisor of the Jefferson NF was also an ex-Missoula smokejumper.
The Jefferson NF had limited money planned for the project, so it had to be kept small and we made a plan that was similar to a helitack operation. In using Forest Service aircraft, a pilot and trained firefighters, we were very competitive financially with the helitack program and had the advantage by being able to jump close to the fire. A three-year trial program was adopted. It consisted of C-45H aircraft, pilot, project leader and four smokejumpers. The project would be reinforced as needed with the use of emergency fire funds.
The original Smokejumper crew was selected and retrained in early March 1971. The selection process was complicated because we were faced with the problem of selecting our very best men or taking the ones who were expendable — or as I should say, ones who were easily replaced.
Walt Congleton (Cave Junction ’68), Ray Farinetti (Cave Junction ’64) , Bob McCray (Cave Junction ’67) and Gary Mills (Cave Junction ’66)were selected. Hal Ewing would pilot Twin Beech 166Z and I would go as project leader and spotter. Our parachutes and protective clothing were shipped at an earlier date by commercial truck freight and delivered on time.
The base for our operation was set up at the Lonesome Pine Airport, near Wise, Va. The airport facilities were rented at $30 per week and consisted of an office and one break room that doubled as a gear-storage area. Parachutes were packed in the hangar on portable tables provided by Flatwoods CCC. The crew was quartered at the Western Hills Motel in Corburn, which was adequate and inexpensive.
An implementation meeting was held March 24. The Daniel Boone and Jefferson NF Ranger district units were represented. We let them know that we were there to help and that we wanted our crew to team up with their fire fighters to suppress fires.
I arranged a fire training session for our crew to familiarize them with fire fighting in R-8. This did not sit well with my men because, after all, they already knew all there was to know about firefighting. The fuel that carries the fire in R-8 consists of leaves that are very dry, they are in deep piles, and the strong spring winds cause the fires to spread rapidly. When the trees leaf out, the ground becomes shaded and the fire season is over.
Most of the fires in R-8 are man-caused by careless acts such as burning trash in a barrel, clearing fields, unattended camp fires, smokers and a few incendiary sets. One set was caused by a lady who was frightened by a large snake that crawled away in the leaves. She set a fire to kill the snake but she lacked the knowledge and the tools to put the fire out.
Fire rakes were used to rake away the leaves down to mineral soil to rob the fire of fuel. When the fire is too hot for close attack, the jumpers would back away for a few yards or whatever distance was required to get away from the heat. They would burn out fuel that was between their fire line and the main fire.
On some fires they would back off a considerable distance and make a backfire from the fireline, which would be sucked into the main fire. Leaf blowers were used on some occasions with good success because they were able to blow the leaves, and the burn out fire,towards the main fire.
Region 8 has more than its share of wind, and it was a problem on all of the fires on which we took action. One of the fires was near a long, narrow meadow which was selected for the jump spot. However, there was a low-level ground wind which caused this to be a timber jump, and one of the cargo packages drifted into the trees. Our pilot, Hal Ewing, was disturbed by this and I wasn’t “happy about putting four men into the trees,” so we took our truck and retrieved all of the parachutes and jump gear.
How many fires have you jumped on where the pilot and the boss retrieved your gear and parachute when you landed in a tree?
The jumpers manned two fires during the first 10 days, but fire conditions indicated that the
base was undermanned, so reinforcements were ordered April 12. Two men were sent from each R-6 base and arrived the next day by commercial air flight. The crew became involved in a lot of action during that week, so a reinforcement order was made again April 19 for six more jumpers and a Twin Beech aircraft.
Bad weather delayed the crew and they arrived April 24; only three men on this crew would make fire jumps. The trees were getting their leaves now and the fire season was about over.
The 1971 fire season ended May 1 with a five-man jump on the Yellow Cliff Fire, in the Daniel Boone NF. This completed 82 fire jumps on 23 fires in a 32-day period. The original crew had made 12 fire jumps apiece and the first reinforcement crew had made five per jumper. The R-8 people were favorably impressed and they agreed to continue the trial use of smokejumpers.
In the R-8 fire season of 1972, the crew was stationed at Tri-City in Tennessee because of work on runways at Lonesome Pine. The original crew was sent again with the late Mick Swift (Cave Junction ’56)as project leader. The R-8 Beech 99 aircraft piloted by Duane Myler was used for the trip but Chris Hanes would be the pilot for the fire season. The aircraft was fast, and flight times to fires were reduced by at least 25 percent.
The crew was reinforced March 20 by Hal Ewing with a Twin Beech 166Z. He picked up three Redmond and three North Cascades jumpers at Redmond. The first fire jump was made on the Ground Hog fire in the Red Bird District of Daniel Boone NF. The fire season was slow because of wet weather and the crew only made 28 fire jumps on seven fires.
For the 1973 fire season the crew was back at the Lonesome Pine Airport near Wise, Va. Swift, Mills and Farinetti made the trip with Wes Brown (Cave Junction ’66) , Troop Emonds (Cave Junction ’66), and Lonnie Oswalt (Cave Junction ’65) added to the crew. This was another slow season with 41 fire jumps on 11 fires.
The three-year trial use of smokejumpers was completed. Fire jumps had been made from Wise, Va , Tri-City, Tenn. and Fort Smith, Ark. A total of 151 fire jumps had been made on 41 fires. There were no jump injuries and the jumpers claimed that the most dangerous part of their job was the ride back from the fires and avoiding small power lines in the forest.
During the three seasons, 35 different jumpers would make fire jumps in R-8. Ewing, Russell and Hanes piloted the aircraft. The jumpers made initial attack on 75 percent of the fires and on the leading edge of all fires.
In the final report for the three-year test project the Smokejumpers were praised and complemented for their suppression work, leadership and team work with R-8 fire fighters. Commendation letters were written by the Forest Supervisor of the Jefferson NF and the Daniel Boone NF. Letters were also written by six different forest rangers, two fire-staff officers, the national RA administrator, park superintendent and a State of Virginia fire warden.
During the past three seasons we had a lot of people asking how men could make parachute jumps over a dormant hardwood forest. One answer was that once you step out of the door of an aircraft in flight you were well on your way. The next question was if it would be safe. The response: “Since when has that ever had any thing to do with smokejumping?”
New jumpers to the area would ask, “Does the wind blow this hard all the time?” The answer was, “No, it will blow a lot harder in the afternoon when you jump on a fire.”
Smokejumping continued in 1974 and six smokejumpers, with Gary Mills as project leader and Mick Swift as sssistant Jefferson Forest dispatcher (a fox in a chicken coop). Gregg Schmidt, Gar Leyva and Hal Ewing were the pilots. A North Cascades jumper, Mike Marcuson (North Cascades ’64), infiltrated the crew. How did he do that? This was a slow fire season, but fire jumps were made out of Ft. Smith on the Ouachita NF, and the crew at Wise, Va. would also break ground by jumping on the George Washington NF. A total of 38 fire jumps were made on eight fires.
Region 8 also had a late fall fire season which ran during the first two weeks of November, in very cold weather. The crew was made up of five Siskiyou and four LaGrande jumpers. The crew traveled by commercial airlines and the only problem was how to get the jumpers to give up the knives that are always attached to their belts. The crew was reinforced by eight Redding jumpers with Dick Tracy (Missoula ’53) in charge. The crew was infiltrated by the North Cascades Project Leader. Twenty-seven fire jumps were made on four fires.
In Region 8 the smokejumper operation expanded in 1975. The crew started out at Tri-City and also had jumpers at Fort Smith. The season was short there and they were returned to Tri-City where there was more action. The crew was reinforced and a detail of North Cascades jumpers were set up at Wise. This was a good season and 75 fire jumps were made on 13 fires.
The reinforcement crew had traveled by commercial air and in Chicago they were booked on first-class accommodations to Tri-City. The airline stewardess, observing their staged off-black jeans and high-top boots, asked one of the jumpers if their band was going to Tennessee to participate in a rock concert.
The crew jumped on one fire that was set by a group of local people. It was on a Saturday and these people just wanted to watch an air show where smokejumpers and retardant aircraft would be used. On another occasion while jumping they noted a man was going down the road starting more fires. They caught him and held him for authorities.
The smokejumpers’ projects were poorly financed and equipped, but the men were very good at adapting to the situation. Two old double-wide house trailers were obtained and cleaned out and made into rooms that were used for rigging parachutes. “Trooper Tom” Emonds was there. Being a good carpenter, he converted a dump truck into a open-air bus for transporting the jumpers.
On one fire a jumper injured his arm, and two jumpers walked him down to the road where the ground crew had transportation. It was getting dark as the men started to return to the fire line. A nearby farmer remarked to them, “You’re not going back to that fire, are you? There are a lot of large snakes up that ridge.” Needless to say the men were very nervous that night as they worked the fire line.
On another fire, jumpers learned a new trick on how to make friends and impress the local people. A gust of wind carried one stick of jumpers beyond the intended jump spot to a home in the woods. The family was surprised to find that one jumper had landed on the roof of their house, another in the corn patch in their small garden and third in a shade tree in the front yard.
The 1976 R-8 fire season was very severe and the jumpers had a lot of action. The crew was reinforced several times with more jumpers and aircraft. In the end they had two DC-3 and three Beech 99 air crafts. Sixty-three jumpers made 484 fire jumps on 59 fires. In less than a month’s time, 13 jumpers made 14 or more fire jumps. The smokejumpers and the pilots were all professionals and they accomplished an outstanding job of preventing a lot of escaped wildland fires.
The crew operated out of Ft. Smith, Tri-City, and Andrews Murphy, N.C. The pilots were Basset, Larkins, Mey, Mertens, the late Hachmeister, and Schmidt. It was a great job, well-done.
As usual there were a few interesting stories to come out of this season. In the Cadet Fire in the Jefferson Forest, two planeloads of jumpers were dropped and they had a difficult time. On one occasion a jumper was sent back to the cargo-drop spot to get a power saw, and when he got there, he found the drop area had been burned over and the power saw was erupting smoke that appeared like Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park.
There was considerable fire damage that season and the forest was not the only thing that got burned. The R-8 Smokejumper project was discontinued after the 1976 fire season. It was sad because they had performed very well and in very tough situations. Over the six years of operations they had made 775 fire jumps on 126 fires. Over the years of operation 92 different men jumped on fires with only two injuries.
The jumpers would say that the only dangerous parts of the job were riding with district people from fires, jumping in strong wind conditions, snakes on the fire line, watching out for small power and telephone lines in the woods, and being spotted by those Cave Junction spotters.
Budget cuts were made nationwide in fire management, and R-8 informed the Siskiyou Base on Dec. 7, 1976, that it could not finance a presuppression smokejumper force. Since that time there have been no smokejumper jumps in R-8.
I want to thank the people who supplied data for this story:
Mark Corbet (LaGrande ’74), John Button (North Cascades ’75), Doug Houston (Redmond ’73), Larry Nelsen (Missoula ’56) and Wayne Williams (Missoula ’77).
The statements in this article are mine and do not necessarily represent the views of NSA, the Forest Service or the Smokejumpers. --Delos Dutton