Tuesday, August 27, 2019
The Winthrop/North Cascades National Park KOA Guest Services Guide lists Smoke Jumper Base under the “Some Fun Things To Do and See” category. The brief description said this was the “birthplace of smoke jumping.” In the fifties and sixties, the days of Smokey The Bear, children were aware of heroes saving forests. Heroes like smoke jumpers who protected the forests from destruction.
Linda, not being raised in a forested western state was not impressed. She had no interest in standing around listening to another person blah-blah-blahing about an uninteresting topic. She declined to go.
Looking up North Cascades Smoke Jumper Base on the Internet provided the hours of operation – 10:00 to 5:00 daily. The sign on the highway in Winthrop seen the day before provided the directions.
The drive from town turned out to be longer than expected. The paved road wasn’t the kind of road to drive fast on. Forty-five seemed about the fastest the Jeep wanted to go. Any faster and the base’s sign in front of the lumber company would have disappeared in visual clutter.
The first thing to see on the base road is the jump training platform. The platform is etched into my memory from the sixties. I must have seen a movie in school about smoke jumpers. The smoke jumpers have to jump off the tower to get the feel for how the parachute jerks them up when deployed. It also helps train them to land with knees bent, body crouched so they don’t break their legs or damage their ankles.
Next on the road were barracks where smoke jumpers bunked. Finally the visitor parking lot. The signage wasn’t exactly clear where to go for a tour. Always start with the important looking building. The one in the middle with the antennas sticking up.
On closer inspection, the guess was correct. Administration Building – Tours and Information. Inside, after scratching my name and home city into the logbook, looked around. Found the handout, Fire Shaped Landscape. Found a pamphlet. Welcome To The North Cascades Smoke Jumper Base.
There wasn’t a single person inside the Administration Building. Crickets. Quiet. There was a desk for some missing person to work at, greet the visitors and set them up with a tour guide. No one home. Some wonder that their gear hadn’t walked off.
Command decision – roll your own tour. Clearly nothing interesting in the Administration Building. Time to move on. Outside, one building, doors wide open beckoned.
Walking inside the parachute loft, the eyes go immediately to the whitewashed wall on the right. At the top, the smoke jumpers’ emblem. Bottom left are the jumps into fire zones that jumpers have made over the years. One outlier stands out. He started at 18 and retired at 57. He has jumped into fires over 1,000 times. No one else comes close. On the bottom right are the current smoke jumpers working out of this facility. Each smoke jumper is represented by what looks like a baseball card.
The wings on the smoke jumpers’ emblem are made from used gloves. You would never know unless you got close to it. Cool effect steeped in symbolism.
Down the center of the loft are tables. The right hand wall has lockers with a row jumper suits in front. While moving from the old school smoke jumper tools to more modern tools, including a chainsaw, a smoke jumper challenged me. “Is there a problem with me being here?” I said. “No” he replied. “Are there tours?” I asked. “Yes. Come with me over to the office.”
Back in the administration building, it was still crickets. Not a sole to be found anywhere. The smoke jumper used the public address system. His voice echoed throughout the complex. “Tour guide needed at the office.” No response. Ten minutes later, he tried the PA system again. No response. He excused himself to go to the bathroom. Minutes later, a toilet flushed and he reappeared. Again the PA. Again, no response.
Finally, he decided he was the tour guide. Normally at this point, one would think that this would end up being the world’s worst disaster tour. Quite the opposite. Best tour ever. The reluctant tour guide must have been at least a team leader based on how he answered questions. He was an active smoke jumper. Always on call. Always ready.
He talked at length about the parachutes and the technological advances that had made jumping safer. Some of the advances came from the US military. Others had come from Soviet smoke jumpers (yes, Russia has forest fires too). The Forest Service was in the multiyear process of migrating from round to square parachutes. The round parachutes require two weeks of training to master. The tour guide said he could train a high school football team in two hours to safely jump using a round parachute. The square parachutes take six weeks of training. When asked if an unconscious jumper could survive a jump with the square parachute, he hedged. In a round parachute, survival odds were pretty good. Not so good with the square ones.
“Why use square parachutes then?” Square parachutes have some important advantages. Round parachute jumps are from 1,500 feet above target. Only two jumpers can jump at a time to hit the target before the plane has to come around another go. Square parachute jumps are at 3,000 feet above target. Four jumpers can jump together before the plane has to come around for the next four to jump. The square parachutes are more maneuverable. Their glide to drop ratio lets jumpers jump and land on the target with pinpoint accuracy.
The conversation turned to jump suits. The jump suits are the fire resistant outer garment worn by smoke jumpers during the jump. Jump suits are made on site and come in three sizes: small, medium and large. They also repair clothing and parachutes.
The Kevlar fabric keeps the jumper safe from punctures when they crash into trees, brush and other obstacles. Once the jumper lands, they strip off the jump suit and bundle it up for later retrieval.
Sometimes smoke jumpers miss the landing spot and end up in a tree. They carry rappelling straps in their jump suit pant leg pockets that they use to rappel down from the tree like mountain climbers might rappel down the side of a mountain cliff.
In addition to people jumping out of planes, equipment is also dropped out of planes. Generally, the equipment is packed into 80 pound or less cardboard boxes and wrapped in strapping that connects to a smaller parachute than the jumpers use. Parachutes are automatically opened as the boxes exit the aircraft.
Each jumper carries two to three days of food with them when they make a jump into a fire zone. The guide said Spam was their favorite food while fighting fires. No telling if he was joking or not.
Outside, we walked over to the smoke jumper airplane. The forest service has a number of different types of aircraft for smoke jumper use. This aircraft is one of the smaller ones and only carries up to ten smoke jumpers.
The white plastic seats are where the smoke jumpers sit. Additional storage can be found under the seats. The pile of boxes on the right hand side of the aircraft are equipment that will be parachuted out of the plane after the smoke jumpers parachute out. Ahead of (above) the cargo boxes are two airline looking seats (hard to see) where the spotters sit. The spotters coordinate the jumping and cargo dropping and relay information to the pilots and jumpers during flights. When flying, the airplane is noisy, especially with the back door open. However, smoke jumpers and spotters can shout loud enough to be heard.
Wind currents around fires and rugged terrain can be tricky. Spotters drop crepe paper rolls around jump sites so that they can judge where smoke jumpers (and cargo) should exit the plane in order to land on target.
Airplanes have way too many controls. Glad I never had to learn all this stuff. I’m also glad there are people willing and able to take on this much complexity.
The current smoke jumper team was short by three to five members. It wasn’t budget shortage. The last Federal Government shutdown stalled the hiring process. The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly. Positions will be filled eventually.
To apply for a smoke jumper position, candidates must have at least two years of fire fighting experience. Most new hires come onto their teams with ten years. Physical training is demanding. The teams meet everyday and do two hours or more of vigorous strength and stamina building exercises. There are weight restrictions. A candidate’s weight must be below 240 pounds.
When it is time for smoke jumping fire fighters to leave the site they have been working in, they typically must hike out with over 100 pounds of equipment each. The hikes can be 10 miles or more. Clearly, to be able to hump 100 pounds of gear through rugged terrain requires excellent physical conditioning.
Smoke jumpers have an important job to do and they do it well. The job is demanding and dangerous. Still they do it to protect forests, wildlife and people. They are heroes.
Hope to see you on the road ahead!