Smokejumpers: Airborne firefighters parachute to help contain backcountry blazes
As a lightning-ignited fire raged deep in the Sierra backcountry north of Truckee, Derek Kramer threw himself from a turbo-prop airplane at 1,500 feet and hurtled toward the ground.
Four seconds into his freefall, Kramer’s parachute deployed, yanking him and his 100-pound pack into a slow descent.
Kramer, a Truckee resident, described the landing as soft. A well-practiced roll broke his fall in a soft meadow near Mount Lola. Soon Kramer, second-year smokejumper Mark Urbany and five-year veteran Shane Ralston were busy attacking two smoldering trees and some burning brush.
Kramer is in his rookie season of perhaps the most adrenaline-fueled Forest Service job in the country.
One part skydiver and one part firefighter – with a little bit of orienteering and backcountry survivalist thrown in for good measure – Smokejumpers are a hardy and adventurous bunch.
Stationed in Redding, Kramer and his Redding Smokejumper colleagues are prepared to respond anywhere in the West when powerful thunderheads rear up along remote sections of mountains.
“I could have very well ended up in Utah last night,” Ralston said Wednesday as he rested between assignments.
Instead, the Smokejumpers headed to the Sierra north of Truckee on Tuesday, dropping into a string of lightning-sparked blazes in rugged wilderness.
Lightning fires, unlike those caused by campfires or cigarettes, often smolder atop inaccessible mountains or in roadless canyons. Against these fires, Smokejumpers are the first line of defense, the Forest Service’s best chance at dousing the flames before they roar into full-fledged infernos.
“This is a pretty typical Smokejumper fire,” said Urbany, his face smeared with soot from the blaze. “This is what we’re best at. We can get them while they’re pretty small.”
Crews can stay out as long as three weeks, said Ralston, subsisting on a load of food and water dropped after them in parachute-equipped boxes.
If uncertainty is the principal ingredient of adventure, then Smokejumpers practically live with adventure. Although stationed in Redding, the firefighters spend their summer vagabonding across wildernesses as far north as Washington and as far south as Southern California.
Crews never know their next destination until an air siren blares at their base, sending them scrambling to their aircraft. The aircraft ascends as high as 12,000 feet, before plunging to the 1,500-foot level required for a drop.
Often the plane jolts through the very thunderstorm cells that ignited the fires. But the jumpers wait for a calm spot before leaping from the plane, which powers down to 110 mph for the drop.
“You really don’t notice it at all,” said Urbany of the stiff winds they encounter.
After the flames are extinguished, the Smokejumpers begin the often long hike out to the nearest road, carrying hundreds of pounds of gear.
Despite the rugged nature of their work, the Smokejumpers view themselves no differently than their co-workers in the Forest Service, Ralston said.
“We’re just firefighters,” Ralston said. “We just get there a lot faster.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the weary and dirty trio of Smokejumpers loaded into a truck waiting for them alongside Sierra County’s Perazzo Meadows, and headed for their Redding base. There, they’ll await the next round of anvil-headed thunderclouds with the potential to ignite fires along the remote ridges of Western mountains.
Smokejumpers wear and carry a significant amount of gear for protection during the jump, firefighting and subsistence. Here is a list of some of the major items carried in their packs, or dropped by parachute in a separate box:
— Grated helmet to protect from tree branches
— Kevlar and Nomex jumpsuit to protect from tree branches and fire
— Chainsaws, shovels and other firefighting tools
— Kevlar rope for lowering from a tree if parachute becomes entangled in branches
— Tree-climbing spikes used to retrieve a parachute
— Handmade backpacks
Lightning Fires: When to let them burn
Although some national forests will let lightning fires burn, the Tahoe National Forest works to extinguish every fire.
“There is so much private land, so many homes and so many resorts,” said Ann Westling, spokeswoman for the Tahoe National Forest. “We simply can’t afford to do it.”
Jay Kirchner, a spokesman for the Forest Service in California, said the decision on what to do with lightning-sparked wildfires is left up to the supervisor of each national forest.
“When one of these fires start they are going to look at how it is burning,” said Kirchner. “Is it a threat to a community or a threat to a watershed?”
Kirchner said the Forest Service policy on fire has evolved over the last 20 years as the agency learns the importance of natural fire to maintain forest health.
“It’s a policy that is gaining wider and wider acceptance,” he said.