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As seasonal wildfires rage in Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Southern California, firefighters in those states have already mobilized. But not all fires can be reached by road. Some require a little more finesse. That's where smokejumpers come in.
Smokejumpers spend their careers going to the wrong place at the wrong time. They parachute to the edge of wildfires deep in roadless wilderness, then fight the massive blazes with little more than hand tools.
The job can be just as dangerous as it sounds and no one knows that better than Frankie Romero, who leads the training of rookie jumpers at the McCall Smokejumper Base in central Idaho.
While fighting a fire once, the upbeat and non-swearing base manager was struck by a falling snag, smokejumper parlance for the burning limb of a dried-out tree. It missed his jugular by a few inches, but left a gash that required quick medical attention.
That wasn’t an option until the surrounding fire died down enough for rescuers to get to him. The badly wounded Romero had to spend a night under the care of fellow firefighters with only a first aid kit and a few T-shirts for a pillow.
Incidents like this are what constitute a rough day at work for smokejumpers. And a normal day at the office is hardly mellow. When deployed to a fireline, a smokejumper’s e-calendar might look something like this: Jump out of a plane flying at 15,000 feet, land a parachute near a hundred-acre forest fire, fell a few trees with a chainsaw and hack hundreds of feet of trench using hand tools.
Rookie smokejumpers must learn how to clench a double helix of adrenaline and toil without losing their grip on a dozen life-and-death decisions. They must also master the art of sewing –- smokejumpers tailor their own outerwear.
Their training is designed to minimize the risks inherent in the job, but of course, all the training in the world can’t erase the risks of dropping out of airplanes and landing next to wildfires.
“It’s really easy for folks to say ‘Look if you just follow these rules you won’t ever get hurt,’” says Romero. “That’s how media and non-firefighters view them.”
At the McCall base, experienced smokejumpers are called “Ollies,” short for old-timers. Trainees are “Neds,” a play on “newcomer,” until the end of their first fire season. If you only jump for a single season, you’re a “Ned for life.”
Every Ned must have at least 90 days of previous wildland-firefighting experience. Once they land at a fire site, smokejumpers use the same firefighting techniques they learned while working with ground-based crews.
McCall’s instructors expect rookie smokejumpers to know how to handle chainsaws and other standard firefighting equipment. Training foremen focus on teaching parachuting skills and ensuring that Neds are fit enough to hike out of the roadless wilderness where they land.
The 50-foot high parachute-landing simulator lifts practice jumpers about 35 feet off the ground using a motorized pulley system.
Before hopping off the tower, jumpers review exit procedures, including the voice commands and hand signals. There is also a lot of backslapping involved, because smokejumpers are never supposed to take the plunge based solely on verbal instructions.
They also practice getting into the right body position for entering free fall, tightening into a ball with their chins to their chests, knees locked, elbows pressed to the body, and hands on the reserve chute.
Last year, about 5,600 people visited the McCall Smokejumper Base, which offers several guided tours a week. As you might expect, visitors are wowed by the sight of trainees trapezing though McCall’s high-stakes ropes course.
Though the general pubic holds smokejumpers in high esteem, some members of the other branches of wildland firefighting are less impressed. According to a recent sociological study of wildland firefighting, members of ground-based fire crews often refer to smokejumpers as “lawn darts,” who despite their allure are not much use on the fire line.
There are plenty more interservice rivalries in firefighting, giving rise to such choice terms as “water whores,” the fire crews that use hoses and engines rather than digging trenches, and “heli-slackers,” chopper-based crews who airlift supplies and personnel in fire zones.
Members of the McCall Smokejumpers downplay the importance of the trash talk, pointing out the inter-agency cooperation has increased over time, building partnerships between the different branches of wildland firefighting.
The U.S. Forest Service lays out very demanding physical fitness requirements for its smokejumpers. Each must be able to perform seven pull-ups, 45 sit-ups, 25 push-ups, run for 1˝ miles in 11 minutes or less, plus be able to cover 3 miles in 90 minutes while shouldering a 110-pound load.
Last but not least, they are subjected to the standard “pack test” that is required of all wildland firefighters: a 3-mile fast walk with a 45-pound backpack, to be completed in 90 minutes or less. The pack test is officially rated “arduous” by the Forest Service’s misery index. These challenges are known to rookies far in advance of their arrival at McCall, but the veteran jumpers have a few other tricks up their sleeves.
Buried in the six-page booklet that details the formal fitness requirements is a single bullet point suggesting that trainees shall expect to run an “obstacle course.” No information about that particular gauntlet are provided, but these photos speak for themselves.
“It’s part of the tradition,” says Brett Bittenbender, a veteran jumper, while discussing the pain they put the new recruits up against. “It’s good-natured and these guys only deal with it for one year. It bonds us together. We’ve all been through it before.”
Much like physical training for the military, newcomers are pushed to their limits and forced to perform tough physical challenges under emotional duress.
Besides razzing the new recruits, the purpose of shouting and taunting the Neds is to ensure that they can handle the stress of the job. “It’s something that throughout the entire training is being evaluated,” says Romero. “We create stress and get them used to performing in that kind of environment.”
“Run Ned, Run!” shouts veteran jumper Matt Carroll, egging on appropriately named recruit Nick Hasty.
Though Hasty is surprised to see the saw in this context, it is actually one of only a handful of tools that smokejumpers routinely bring to the fire line. Due to the difficulty of airlifting heavy equipment in and out of remote areas, smokejumpers are limited primarily to hand-held tools that can be dropped in by parachute and carried out in a backpack.
One of the most common methods of containing a wildfire is to dig a trench in front of the advancing flames, a backbreaking task referred to by professionals as “punching line.”
To do this, smokejumpers often use a Pulaski, a two-headed furrowing implement. One side of the Pulaski’s metal head is a hook-billed hybrid of pickax and garden hoe (adze) that firefighters use to break up topsoil and scrape it away. The other edge is a standard axe blade used for chopping through roots and brush, which would otherwise hold topsoil together and provide fuel for an advancing blaze.
The tool’s inventor and namesake, Ed Pulaski, was a forest ranger who saved the lives of his 45-man crew during the largest wildfire in American history, the Big Burn of 1910, which scorched more than 3 million acres of Idaho, Montana and eastern Washington.
The heroic ranger tried to patent his innovation to pay the cost of treating injuries he sustained during the Big Burn, but sadly was unsuccessful. Even so, his invention has secured his place in the pantheon of wildland firefighting and is universal in the profession.
Once they have hacked their way down to softer dirt, smokejumpers deepen the trench with a combination shovel and stubby pickax often called a “combi.” Jumpers use the chainsaw, the only motorized tool in their standard arsenal, to chop down trees that could provide a path for flames to jump across the trench.
Though there is a romantic aura that surrounds smokejumping, the reality involves grueling 24-hour shifts and a lot of ditch digging. “Sometimes I think of ourselves as nothing more than really intensive landscapers,” jokes McCall smokejumper Lane Lamoreaux.
Every wildland firefighter, smokejumper or otherwise, is required to carry a personal fire shelter — a “foil and fiberglass cocoon,” as base manager Romero describes.
The shelter is designed to reflect radiant heat and protect a firefighter for a short period of time. It is most effective shielding a firefighter from a fast-moving blaze in low brush, which can quickly burn itself out.
Romero considers the shelter to be effective for that particular application, though he is well aware that it is of little value for a jumper stuck in a long-lasting burn. Some in the wildland fire community don’t share Romero’s rosy view, and refer the shelter by the mordant nickname “shake 'n' bake.”
In his book On the Fireline, social scientist Matthew Desmond, who spent four summers on an engine crew fighting wildfires, gives a particularly grim assessment: “The shelter affords trapped firefighters only two advantages: It serves as a makeshift temple where they can pray for a salvation that does not resemble the hell consuming them, and it makes it easier to identify their bodies. In the words of Rex Thurman, head supervisor of the Elk River Firecrew, ‘The only thing your shake and bake will do is allow you to have an open-casket funeral.’”
At McCall, each year roughly 100 to 150 experienced firefighters apply for between six and 10 positions. Romero estimates that the washout rate from the McCall Smokejumper Training is about 10 percent. The reasons range from injuries during the program to a rookie discovering that he suffers from vertigo.
Though jumpers get two days off per week, Lane Lamoreaux, a former machine-gunner in the Marine Corps and a second-year jumper, describes the training as the toughest thing he has ever done.
“It was the worst and best thing I’ve ever done, all at once.,” says Lamoreaux, recalling his first summer at McCall. The worst because the rigors of rookie training amounted to “day-to-day hell,” and best because once it was over, he felt like he had earned the respect of even the saltiest of the veteran jumpers. “Last year was the best year of my life,” he says of his first year.
A smokejumper’s helmet is designed to protect the jumper from impact, not fire. Its face cage keeps out brush and branches while still permitting enough visibility to navigate the jump.
Like much of the smokejumper’s gear, the helmet hasn’t changed much since the earliest days of smokejumping around World War II. For decades, smokejumpers used modified football helmets, starting with leather in the early days and keeping pace with the evolving composite materials used in the NFL.
Smokejumpers still make their own helmets, now based on models used in skiing and snowboarding.
Much of the equipment that smokejumpers use, such as the distinctive high-collared jumpsuit, is designed specifically for smokejumping and has no other application. The roughly 500 full-time smokejumpers in the United States don’t generate enough demand to warrant commercial smokejumper gear.
As a result, these paragons of toughness sew and mend their own jumpsuits, backpacks, parachute harnesses and other equipment unique to their profession. Though smokejumpers do not fabricate their own parachutes, they do all the repairs themselves.
Fortunately for the less dexterous members of the McCall base, they have a very long off-season to hone their stitching skills: According to the Forest Service’s statistics for 2008, the average smokejumper spent 30 days fighting fires. The average for the jumpers at McCall was 20.
Inside the pilot’s shack at McCall Smoke Jumper Base, recruits and veterans are required to train on the FS-14 parachute-flight simulator, a virtual reality program that is designed specifically for different smokejumping scenarios.
“It’s a three-dimensional virtual flight simulator that has the same performance characteristics as an actual parachute,” says Romero, looking at Brett Bittenbender’s flight score. “We can change the environmental wind speed and direction, as well as the topographical location for the virtual jumps.”
The crew started using the virtual jump simulator during the mid-1990s, but only started using the 3-D glasses in the past 10 years, when new advances in the technology have become available.
“It’s like going from that old Atari game Pong right into the future,” Bittenbender says.
The McCall Smoke Jumper crew uses “STEX,” or Sand Table Exercises, to map out potential scenarios and re-enact instructive episodes from the past. In this picture, each red car represents an individual smokejumper, and the yarn delineates the bottom of a canyon.
If a landing goes badly wrong, a smokejumper can end up snared in a tree. McCall’s training program includes a thorough course in “let down” procedures for getting loose from the branches and descending to the ground. Jumpers keep a hook knife on their reserve parachutes, as well as on the exit door of each airplane, to cut themselves loose if they find themselves entangled in the lines of their parachutes.
The blade of a hook knife looks like an inverted V, designed so that jumpers can grab it with one hand and reach out to snag the rope they need to cut. McCall jumpers prefer a bright yellow model called “Jack the Ripper.”
Each jumper also carries 150 feet of rope — enough to rappel down a 13-story building. The standard smokejumper suit is fitted with metal friction rings and a carabiner at the waist. Jumpers have to hope that whatever limbs they are stuck in can hold their weight long enough to get tied up to something sturdy. Until then, the training manual is very clear about how a jumper should proceed: “Be smooth!”
“Most every Ned will have found themselves in a tree during their first season,” says Romero. “Our multiyear veteran jumpers will rarely end up dealing with that.”
In addition to the dangers of getting stuck, jumpers who make it to the ground safely are expected to climb right back up the tree to retrieve their parachutes. In some cases, they may have to saw off the top of the tree trunk, or cut it down entirely, in order to recover their gear.
When dropping into a fire zone, each smoke jumper carries two days worth of food, selected from a variety of gourmet options.
“Sometimes we will use the Good Deal Can [pictured center], mix everything up and heat it into a stew,” says Brett Bittenbender, who is entering his 23rd season as a smoke jumper.
Spam is a favorite of the McCall crew, who have developed many different recipes based on the popular canned meat. “Gatorade makes a great spam sauce, especially the red or blue ones,” says Bittenbender.
Besides giving new meaning to the term “cargo pockets,” the suits worn by smokejumpers have a variety of distinctive features. The built-in friction rings allow rappelling down trees, and high collars keep brush and tree limbs from lodging under the jumper’s helmet.
The suits are padded to cushion a hard landing and are constructed from puncture-resistant material in case a descending jumper is greeted with sharp rocks, pointy branches, or a cactus. Once on the ground, smokejumpers ditch their cumbersome protective outer layer and head to the action wearing fire-retardant pants and workshirts.
Forest Service smokejumpers throughout the United States have jumped with circular parachute canopies since 1939, although square canopies were developed in the 1960s and '70s and are currently used by smokejumpers who work for the Bureau of Land Management.
Square-shaped canopies behave more like a wing, requiring forward speed in order to stay aloft. Circular canopies rely primarily on drag, making it easier for a jumper to drop straight down.
There are pros and cons to both designs: While circular canopies can descend at a nearly vertical trajectory, they become difficult to control when the wind blows faster than 10 mph. The BLM’s square models, sometimes called “ram-air” chutes because they behave like airfoils, remain maneuverable at twice that speed.
“It’s partly a tradition,” says long-time smokejumper Brett Bittenbender, “We haven’t rushed into the squares because circulars have always been dependable for us.”
A memorial at the McCall Smokejumper Base honors pilots and smokejumpers who lost their lives fighting fire. Whitey Hachmeister and John Slingerland were the pilots of a smokejumper aircraft that crashed because of engine trouble, claiming a total of 10 lives.
Smokejumping began in the 1930s, and early on, smokejumpers had a reputation for acting as if they were invincible. Up until 1949, none had been killed on the fireline. It was in August of that year that smokejumpers suffered their first casualties. The Mann Gulch Fire claimed the lives of 13 firefighters, 12 of them smokejumpers.
Even today, the smokejumpers seem to be trying to make amends for the hubris of those early years. The fire at Mann Gulch was a turning point. It spurred the Forest Service to adopt new safety rules that have become mantras for wildland firefighters.
Thorough preparation and diligent adherence to proper procedure have gone a long way towards preventing tragedies like Mann Gulch. However, Matthew Desmond, a social scientist who worked as a wildland firefighter in Arizona, has criticized the way the Forest Service, and wildland firefighters themselves, place blame for accidents and fatalities on the victims.
Though it is usually not spoken aloud, he says, wildland firefighters believe that colleagues killed on the fire line would never have been hurt if they stuck to the safety rules they were trained to follow.
Romero knows the risks of his profession firsthand, and makes it plain that the best training in the world can’t keep firefighters safe in every situation.
“The environment is a lot more complex than that,” he says. “It’s hard for folks to come to grips with that, ourselves included.” His own close call has made him even more serious about giving his charges the best preparation he can, and the base’s prominent memorial to fallen comrades serves as both a monument to their sacrifice and a reminder of the stakes.