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Smoke jumper thrives on diving in

by Webmaster |

WINTHROP, Okanogan County For smoke jumper Dale Longanecker, the rough work hasn't changed much in three decades.

The jumpers pack their chutes, don old motorcycle helmets outfitted with metal grilles for facemasks, and leap from planes to fight fires. On the ground, they trench the hillsides with shovel and pick while helicopters hover, occasionally drenching the ground with scoops of water.

When the flames are finally snuffed, there is the gear about 100 pounds of it to pack out to the nearest road.

It's a tough, dirty and dangerous way to make a living, and Longanecker loves it.

"My main goal in life was to become a smoke jumper, and once I became one, I had no desire to do anything else," says Longanecker, a lean man whose face has been chiseled by a life outdoors.

Longanecker, 49, has been jumping from airplanes to fight remote forest fires since 1974. With more than 300 jumps into fire zones and more than 700 jumps in total, he holds the national record for the most jumps and expects to tally at least eight more this season.

A parachute bears the logo of the North Cascades team, one of nine across the West.

He is one of 22 smoke jumpers stationed at the North Cascades Smoke Jumper Base, the core of which consists of an office, a warehouse and a large red Quonset hut next to an airstrip on the outskirts of Winthrop.

The smoke jumpers have already been called to more than 30 fires this year, and they'll likely be in even more demand over the next few months.

This summer, fires have scorched the Central Washington hills near Chelan, Cle Elum and Leavenworth, and the arid weather is creating conditions ripe for a big fire.

Smoke jumpers are the first line of defense. The jumpers based in Winthrop one of nine bases throughout the West and Alaska fight fires in Washington state and frequently beyond.

"Nobody can respond as fast as they can, with as many people. They can hit four fires in a half-hour's time," says Pete Soderquist, fire-management officer for the Methow Valley Ranger District, an area covering 1.6 million acres. "We have 50-plus fires a year, and they jump about 50 percent of them. They're an invaluable resource."

Clear-cut career choice

Here at the Winthrop base, the peaks of the North Cascades beckon beyond the foothills spotted with ponderosa pine and bitterbrush.

With the afternoon heat creeping toward 100 degrees, Longanecker sits shirtless in the loft of the Quonset hut a relic from 1949 used to store equipment and stitches up a yellow jumpsuit with an industrial sewing machine. Outside, a twin-prop plane stands on the runway with its hatches open, ready for another run.
Longanecker supervises rookie Cameron Chambers. Some 250 people applied for four smoke-jumper jobs at Winthrop this year.

As he sews, Longanecker explains why he seemed destined to make a living parachuting into fires.

He grew up in Winthrop next door to Francis Lufkin, a local fire guard who made the first smoke jump in 1940, soon after the Forest Service began experimenting with parachuting as a way of battling remote fires. Lufkin managed the Winthrop base until he retired in 1972.

Two of Longanecker's older brothers became smoke jumpers and made more than 100 jumps each before going on to "real jobs." Longanecker says he never doubted what he wanted to do.

"I couldn't wait to be old enough to smoke jump," he says.

Smoke jumpers in old photographs look almost identical to those of today: Men wear jumpsuits with reserve parachutes strapped to their chests, gear bags around their waists and let-down ropes in their leg pockets in case they get hung up in a tree. Together with the white motorcycle helmets, the bulky outfits give the smoke jumpers the look of low-budget astronauts.

Smoke jumpers can respond quickly to blazes in remote areas, which makes them invaluable in efforts to control wildfires.

Not much about the actual physical work has changed, except the amount the higher-ups allow jumpers to do at one time.

"My first year, I worked 60 straight days in a row," Longanecker says. "It was no big deal. There was no day off. Now, if we work more than 16 hours in a day, we have to have written justification for why we did it."

Longanecker has taken a few bumps over the years. His most-serious injury came 25 years ago, when he broke both ankles on a jump.

The only deaths involving Winthrop-based smoke jumpers occurred when four people died in a 1958 plane crash.

Acting base manager John Button who started smoke jumping in 1975, a year after Longanecker says the average age of smoke jumpers at Winthrop has crept up to around 35. This year, roughly 250 people applied for four available jobs, with starting pay at about $13 an hour.

Longanecker is one of four year-round employees. Most smoke jumpers are seasonal employees who go on to work other jobs, ski or travel in the winter.

"These are people who like being outdoors, like being outside, like working physically," Button says. "It's more manual labor. There is less of that type of work now."

New philosophy on fires

Inside the base's small office, Button stands before a map of the Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests. He points to a 120-acre area near the Canadian border highlighted with red marker pen, where a fire that began in June is being left to burn.

"We're monitoring it and making contingency plans," Button says. "The trend now is that letting some isolated fires burn keeps forests healthy."

Historical reasons for quickly extinguishing forest fires have ranged from protecting timber stocks to addressing environmental concerns. Now, many experts believe that putting out all fires as soon as they start not only disrupts natural cycles but also makes subsequent fires hotter and more dangerous.

Longanecker, who suspects global warming has played a role in drying out forests, says blazes are becoming worse.

"The last few years have been more and more intense," he says. "The fuels are just more dry."

Which fires are monitored and allowed to burn and which get snuffed out depends on many factors. Fires close to homes always receive attention. But firefighters might also get called if a fire is putting out a lot of smoke and affecting the air quality of a nearby town.

Most of the 400 or so smoke jumpers in the country work under the National Forest Service. Decisions about where firefighters get deployed and what actions they should take can be the result of discussions among many government entities.

The Storm King fire in Colorado 10 years ago revealed problems in the system when 14 firefighters including three smoke jumpers died. Investigators later concluded that the firefighting strategy was poorly coordinated and managed.

Longanecker was fighting that fire and managed to escape the inferno, finding refuge from the quickly moving flames. He regrets not doing more to help his crewmates. "I went to the safest place I saw. That's why I wasn't worried about getting out," he says. "My mistake was in not watching out for the other firefighters."

Since then, firefighting supervision has become better, Longanecker says, but putting out fires will always be dangerous.

"Fire is still hazardous," he observes. "Fatalities are going to happen."

A reminder of that came three years ago, when four firefighters died at the Thirty Mile fire in the Okanogan National Forest.

Longanecker, who is married with a 15-year-old daughter and manages local cross-country ski trails in the winter, says he plans to keep jumping until mandatory retirement comes at age 57.

At the same time, he says his own thinking about fire has evolved over the years.

"You can tell where there were fires from a long time ago. You see the mosaic of a burn from 100 years ago. More recently I've been paying attention," he says. "What would it be like if there were no humans to influence the fire?

"I'm starting to think that's what nature intended it to do."