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Former smokejumper leaps into retirement

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The weather is getting warmer, burning season is underway and around the Bitterroot National Forest, officials are planning spring work and contemplating hiring fire crews for this summer.

But for the first time in 10 years, it's happening on the West Fork Ranger District without Curt McChesney. He's busy tying a new salmon fly pattern and dreaming about lunker Bitterroot River trout.

McChesney retired in January from a 35-year career battling fires for the Forest Service - a career that took him all over North America and gave him thousands of memories.

From his home east of Corvallis, McChesney and his wife, Peggy, have a spectacular view of the Bitterroot Mountain front - the hardest place there is to fight fire, he said.

He's fought fire in the palmetto grasses of Florida, the sage and cactus of Arizona, the tundra in Alaska and the pitch pine forests of New York.

"I personally feel the westside canyons on the Bitterroot National Forest are the toughest places to fight fire period," said McChesney.

They're steep, rocky and the timber stands are overgrown, plus there are homes built right up to the forest boundary down the entire front.

McChesney has plenty of experience fighting fires. He grew up in Missoula at a time when fire fighting seemed to be a rite of passage for many of his friends.

During the summer there were always tanker planes flying in and out of the tanker base in Missoula, and the air was always smoky, he said.

"Firefighting was always in the forefront," he said.

His first firefighting job started on his 18th birthday in the Lolo National Forest.

McChesney spent the first four fire seasons on a Seeley Lake Ranger District fire crew doing much more than firefighting. District crews were also responsible for many duties on the forest, including trail maintenance and thinning projects, much like they are today, he said.

During that span of time he filled in with the Lolo Hotshots on a few fires and got to know several smokejumpers from Missoula.

McChesney starting smokejumping his fifth fire season, and spent the next 15 years parachuting into fires every summer.

"It was exciting," said McChesney. "I got to travel, I got to test myself on a daily basis. I often say I didn't fall out of an airplane for 15 years because of the money. I did it because it was exciting."

But life isn't all about firefighting. McChesney is an avid flyfisherman, outdoorsman and snow skier.

In fact, he met his wife at Montana Snowbowl Ski Area north of Missoula in the 1970s when she was a student at the University of Montana.

They both loved to ski and loved adventure, said Peggy, who besides being good competition for her husband on the ski hill, also has done some skydiving.

Good support from home was essential to his success with the Forest Service, said McChesney. That support has kept their marriage strong even though firefighting took him away from home nearly every summer.

When he was smokejumping, Peggy and other smokejumper's wives would spend a lot of time together - kind of a ladies' support group, she said.

"I'd be having fun and he'd be out working," laughed Peggy.

When they had children, they decided Peggy would stay home and be a mom, and she's thankful she was able to do that.

But it meant that McChesney had to work hard and firefighting means working a lot of overtime during the summers.

And being apart was sometime pretty hard.

"Curt got called to Alaska for six weeks right after Katie was born," she said.

The McChesneys have two children - Chase is 16 and Katie is 18.

"The thing that made our marriage work is that Peg respected what I did and she knew that's what made me really, really happy and content," he said.

Since McChesney was gone most of the summer, they became a winter sport family. Both Chase and Katie are accomplished and avid skiers and Curt still teaches ski lessons at Montana Snowbowl and Lost Trail Powder Mountain Ski Area. And each weekend you can find Peggy carving up the slopes at one ski hill or the other.

The friends the McChesneys made during the years smokejumping are still close, said Peggy.

Many of them are still involved with the Forest Service.

Jack Kirkendall, fire management officer on the Bitterroot National Forest jumped four years with McChesney.

His experience from 35 years of fighting fire is difficult to lose, said Kirkendall.

"All the experiences that pile up between your first fire and the time that he walks out the door, it's terribly significant," said Kirkendall. "You don't get that by just kind of walking through 30 years worth of work. You get that by testing yourself and continuing to test your own abilities."

Over the years, firefighting has gotten to be a complex task, he said.

"Thirty years ago, a fire manager might have the opportunity to experience one or two large campaign type fires in his career," said Kirkendall.

Back then several-thousand-acre wildfires were rare. The overcrowded forests and more people living in the interface have added to the size and complexity of fires, he said.

The West Fork Ranger District has all those complexities and more, said Kirkendall.

"I consider, and I think a lot of people in this part of the world consider, the West Fork Ranger District one of the premiere fire districts in the nation because of the complexity of the job at hand up there," he said.

Not only does the West Fork have a significant number of fires, the Forest Service is responsible for fire protection in much of the wildland urban interface on the district and also wilderness fire management, said Kirkendall.

"It's a really complex, real challenging piece of ground to manage a fire program on," he said.

But McChesney was exceptional at the job, said David Campbell, district ranger on the West Fork.

The ranger district has the oldest wildland fire use program, which provided significant management challenges, he said.

The wildland fire use program allows fires to burn in approved wilderness areas, but they have to be managed even if they aren't fought, said Campbell.

The decision which wilderness fires to let burn and which to put out was often complex and Campbell often depended on McChesney's experience and intuition.

"I did appreciate the fact that Curt had a long background of smokejumping and had been on many suppression events that gave him a lot of experience and he shared that with me," he said.

But when it came down to making decisions, it was often done on intuition after weighing out all the information about the fire, said Campbell.

"It came down to what do you think it's going to do," he said. "Forget about the weather or about the fancy forecasts, just give me your gut feeling and I relied on that a lot."

Being a district fire management officer was the most stressful job he ever did for the Forest Service, said McChesney. He always had to be ahead of planning and staffing for fires, he said.

He is quick to point to his co-workers.

"I've always been really blessed with having excellent assistants," he said.

But McChesney has always had strong people skills, said George Jackson, assistant to the Washington Office of the Forest Service in the Fire and Aviation program at Missoula Technology and Development Center.

Jackson, like Kirkendall, was a smokejumper with McChesney in Missoula.

"He's got outrageously good social skills," said Jackson. "He mentored a lot of good people."

McChesney never had a big ego, he said. That allowed him to be a good teacher and mentor. And his experience is something that will be missed by the Forest Service.

Kirkendall agrees.

"I think the legacy that people like Curt leave is a legacy of steadfastness, of dedication to the outfit, dedication to the mission of the outfit and a legacy of compassion for his fellow firefighters," said Kirkendall.

It wasn't that McChesney did everything right - nobody does, but he was willing to be a student.

"He never made the big mistakes," he said. "He never made the mistakes he couldn't recover from or correct and he learned a lot from his mistakes. In order to do that and still push on in this kind of business ... that says a lot for somebody."

And retirement won't find McChesney idle. He's planning on working for the Forest Service during the fire season when they need him. He's also looking forward to continuing to give ski lessons and start guiding flyfishing trips.

"It isn't a case of totally retiring," McChesney says with a grin.