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Jumping Into Helispots

by Ray Farinetti (Cave Junction '64) |

Reprinted with permission from “Book of Gobi II.”

In the mid-60s all western forests were directed to initiate Pre-Attack Planning. This planning, when approved, designated logical places for development of such permanent features as helispots, pump chances, fire camp sites, etc. In 1966 the Siskiyou National Forest proposed that the Smokejumpers based at Cave Junction would be used to construct 24 helispots strategically placed throughout the Coast Range of Southern Oregon. Our boss, Delos Dutton (MSO-51), agreed, as it would give early and late season work to his jumpers and promote good will with the Forest. The helispots would be 150’ in diameter on ridge tops with good access and egress points. They would be used for fire suppression delivery and pick-up points.

The plan was as follows: Two-three jumpers would jump onto a ridge on Monday morning, cut a 150’ circle, leave our jump gear at the first spot and pack provisions, tools, and equipment the 2-4 miles down into the bottom of the drainage and up to the next ridge to cut another spot. This same procedure was to occur each day with a helicopter or cargo drop to re-supply us mid-week with additional food, water, and saw gas/oil. So the bottom line was to cut five helispots in five days. We were to be extracted by helicopter on Friday after we completed the fifth spot. At that time we would direct the helicopter to Spot #1, retrieve our chutes and jump gear, and return to the Aerial Project.

Well…the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes turn to rat #$%& !

When John Robison (CJ-65) and I jumped onto a ridge, it seemed like a perfect plan as we cut the first 150’ circle and, by mid-afternoon, proceeded to pack to the next spot. If you have ever tried to pack cross-country in the southern Oregon Coast Range, you know how difficult a feat this can be. There were no trails to follow; just an impenetrable wall of madrone, manzanita, and tan oak. Our packs were soaked with the spotty, fall rains and the constant drip from the vegetation we attempted to penetrate. There were times when the fastest and easiest way to proceed was to climb on top of the canopy of brush and crawl over it as best we could. At any rate, there was no easy way to get to the next spot.

We approached the second spot in near darkness and proceeded to eat and bed down. The next day we cut out the helispot and got an earlier start toward the next spot, but with no better results. We were still crawling through the brush at dark and reached the third ridge in total darkness and in near total exhaustion. We ate the last of our provisions in the dark and bedded down.

The third day was no better, with the highlight being that the weather had socked us in, and we could not be re-supplied with food, water or saw gas/oil. We had enough gas and oil to cut out the third spot. We accomplished that task and, without food or water, proceeded toward the fourth ridge, figuring that the fog would lift and we could be re-supplied by late that afternoon. No such luck…

By this time we were getting pretty hungry. So hungry, in fact, that I shot a small bird and was almost ready to eat it raw when John convinced me otherwise. At that point, it was apparent that we were not going to get any food or water that day or, most likely, the next day either. I called the closest lookout on the radio and was told that our best way out was to proceed 3-4 miles down the ridge to a jeep trail approximately 1,000-2,000 feet below.

It was approaching dark and I looked at John and said, “Pull out your headlamp!” He looked at me like a deer in the headlights. I told him once again, “Pull out your headlamp!” Finally, he did as I requested. I then told him, “Smash it on a rock!” John was quick-minded…he knew! I said again, “Smash it on a rock!” He did. Then I pulled out my headlamp and proceeded to smash it in the same fashion.

I called the person again in the lookout tower, and I said we had 122 lbs. of gear to pack and no headlamps and it was getting dark. We would be proceeding in the morning.

At dawn, we proceeded to pack (scratch and crawl our way) to the jeep trail, only to discover that it had been washed out, forcing us to walk another eight miles to a place where we were retrieved.

In the end, our clothes were in tatters; we were cut, scratched, sore, and aching, but had the satisfaction that we made it. It was only tarnished by the fact we later heard through the grapevine that the local District Ranger thought that we had been screwing off.

In the spring of 1967, the project came to a disastrous end when Tommy Smith (CJ-61), a squadleader, attempting to get from one ridge to the next, drowned as he crossed the swollen Illinois River. To my knowledge, he is the only Siskiyou Smokejumper to die in the line of duty.

We had the privilege to visit and work with Ray at the Redding Reunion and the Siskiyou Smokejumper Museum project the following week. Then came the email from Tommy Albert on July 6, 2010. (Ed.)

Tommy Albert (CJ-64): “Ray died of a heart attack today. They found him in his back yard where he was headed to water his trees. Ray had recently returned home from Oregon where he attended the NSA Reunion and then the workweek on the Gobi. He was also able to visit his daughter and grandchildren and be with his fellow jumpers, so in that respect, a good parting.”

Terry Egan (CJ-65): “I am truly sorry that we have lost such a good friend and jump partner. I feel blessed that we got to see him one last time at the Gobi.”

Larry Welch (CJ-61): “That is hard to believe. I thought he looked and seemed to be getting along pretty well. Just goes to show one never knows what will happen next. Alex Theios (CJ-65) and I worked with him most of the day (Gobi work project). I will miss him, but I know y'all (Tommy Albert) were the closest for the longest and know you will miss him more than anyone. Whenever I see the movie, ‘The Wedding Crashers,’ I think of the two of you for some reason. Makes me think we all, including me, need to make our final wishes known.”

John Robison (CJ-65): “I was fortunate to know Ray as both a jumper and a friend. We had some interesting times together at the Gobi. There were aborted salmon fishing trips out of Brookings and volleyball games in which Ray was still slightly inebriated from the night before and me hitting the volleyball off Ray's forehead, which precipitated a chase around the compound with Ray having every intention of pounding the ever-loving crap out of me.

“But the time I will remember the most is the time following Ray's most recent visit to the Gobi. I am fortunate to live within a short drive to Tommy Albert's home on the river. Tommy, probably Ray's best friend, hosted Ray for a week prior to and a week following the Gobi "gathering." Following the "gathering," I went up to assist Tommy, Kathy (Albert), and Ray in constructing a gazebo. Kathy informed me that Ray had never been to Sahalie Falls. Well, that was enough for Ray and me to escape any further "building anxieties." I took Ray to the falls and then we went up to Clear Lake, the headwaters of the McKenzie River and had lunch. Ray was truly impressed with the day, and I am thankful that I had that opportunity to spend that day with Ray. Adios, brother.”

Tom Boatner (FBX-80):” I'm glad we all got to spend time with Ray at Cave recently. He was an FMO in Alaska when I was a young firefighter, and his younger brother, Chris Farinetti (FBX-79), rookied the year before me.”

David Atkin (CJ-70): “Jeez, that’s sad to hear, and really hard to believe. He looked so good and was so vibrantly alive and was being his usually funny self just a couple weeks ago at our Gobi reunion. He was a good man, and I feel blessed that I got to see him there at the Gobi one more time before he died.”