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Smokejumpers Fight Flames-Boredom

by Spencer Cole-Porterville Recorder |

As large swaths of California burn to a crisp and the rest swelters in the state’s unrelenting drought, smokejumpers stationed at the Porterville Air Attack Base pass the time.

Some barbecue, newbies brush up on the basics, others stay glued to their phones, ever vigilant of new fires sparking to life.
Luis Gomez, a smokejumper of 17 years and Operations Manager at the base since 2013, said the latter group should lay their phones aside.

“The reality is you only get ordered where they [send] you,” he said. “You’re (going to) drive yourself nuts [with anticipation].”
Despite being in the middle of an abnormally busy fire season, most smokejumpers find that the hardest part of the job is waiting around.

“Everyone here wants to work. We’re all excited to get on the airplane and go to the fire and get after it,” said Patrick Johnson a squad leader and master rigger, who is in his sixth year of being a smokejumper.

So far, the smokejumpers have responded to about 100 fires this year. In July, they responded to 38 different fires with 158 jumpers. In June, the crews stopped 17 fires with 117 jumpers in a mere seven days.

“That was a very busy week,” Gomez said.
In a typical season, crews average 312 jumps. This year, the smokejumpers at the air attack base have responded to well over 400.
Part of the reason those numbers are so high is due to the dryness of the landscape and the range of the planes that transport the crews from the base to the incident’s location.

One of the two types of planes the smokejumpers use — the Dornier 228 — has a top speed of 269 mph and can reach the southern outskirts of San Diego in just about an hour and a half. It’s why, despite being stationed in Porterville, the jumpers are able to respond to fires across the state.

“Within the past four years we’ve jumped just about every national forest in the state of California, except Cleveland,” Gomez said.
Most of the fires smokejumpers respond to are miniscule compared to big blazes like the Rough Fire east of Fresno. Still, they can quickly grow out of control.

“A lot of the stuff we go to is pretty small and pretty remote, but that’s our bread and butter — catching fires small,” Johnson said.
A rapid response time is essential to the job.
“It can take an engine two hours to get there sometimes and we can make it there in 15 to 20 minutes,” Gomez said.

Terrain is always an issue, he said, but most accidents — like getting caught in a tree or injuring yourself on landing — can be avoided with proper training.

Getting to a fire can still be a challenge, however. “Sometimes (a good landing point) is very easy to spot,” Gomez said. “Sometimes [it’s] much longer. There are times we have to jump at least a mile away from the fire.”

And that means lots of hiking, sometimes with as much as 110 pounds of gear.
Dileep Bobba is in his first year as a smokejumper. A five year veteran of the state’s hotshot crews, Bobba has done his fair share of fighting fires and lugging 50 pound packs up and down all kinds of mountainous terrain. Despite his experience, he still admits that his new job is not without its difficulties.

“Walking gear out of the mountains is harder [than it was as a hotshot],” he said. “It’s a lot more weight.”

In terms of what’s easier, Bobba said the size of the fires was a surprise. “They’re a little smaller, so our shifts [on scene] are a little less drawn out than I had as a Hotshot.”
Bobba has already jumped into nine separate fires this year and said he is eager to do his part in the months ahead.
It’s a mentality his crew members clearly share.

“On this job, you’re working with a lot of motivated people,” said Johnson. “Everyone here is excited to get out and work.”