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West Yellowstone Smokejumpers Fighting Forest Fires Before They Get Out Of Control
A previously unpublished article from our archives
Above: Smokejumpers from the West Yellowstone, Montana, headquarters board their aircraft for an assignment.
Story & photos by John Christopher Fine
“Smokejumpers, Charlie…” The telephone on Charlie Wetzel’s desk kept ringing. He answered each caller alike. The Interagency Fire Control Center headquarters is located at the West Yellowstone airport, two miles north of the National Park gateway town of West Yellowstone, 90 miles south of Bozeman, Montana.
“The airport is owned by the State, governed by the Montana Department of Transportation, Aeronautics Division,” Anthony Bean, the airport manager said. “We have an 8,399’ x 150’ asphalt paved airstrip facing 10 and 190 degrees. We are equipped as an Index A airport for aircraft fire and rescue. Our responders are EMS trained. We have an International pumper that carries 600 gallons of water and 90 gallons of foam and a 5,000 gallon water tender,” Bean said.
The modern, well equipped West Yellowstone airport, with its fire-rescue capability, makes it an ideal base for the U.S. Forest Service air tanker and smokejumper headquarters. Private jets, Sky West Airlines, and general aviation also use the West Yellowstone airport.
A duty board above Charlie Wetzel’s desk lists the tally of 206 fire jumps by the West Yellowstone base in the first eight months of 2006, when I visited the headquarters. There were 39 fires that the smokejumpers responded to. Smokejumpers can respond to wildfires anywhere in the U.S. but the jumpers and the tanker plane at the West Yellowstone base are attached to the Gallatin National Forest district which includes Yellowstone and Teton National Parks, the Gallatin, Shoshone, Beaverhead/Deerlodge, Targhee, Bridger/Teton and Custer National Forests.
Charlie Wetzel lived in Arizona when he joined the U.S. Forest Service. He met someone who worked on the local district fire engine. The firefighter asked Charlie if he wanted a job for the summer. He ended up working on the engine and got onto a Hot Shot crew. “The twenty person crew went out to big fires. I applied for the crew and got on it the next year. I heard about jumping and it sounded like more fun,” Charlie said.
“I applied for three years before I got accepted. I trained at the Forest Service base in Missoula, Montana. I came to West Yellowstone immediately after training in 1992,” Charlie said. He is now the smokejumpers operations foreman at the West Yellowstone base.
There are nine smokejumper bases in the U.S. Seven are operated by the National Forest Service and two by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
“There is a four week training program,” Charlie said. “Five of the bases are training bases. We equip a fuselage on a tower that simulates jumping out of aircraft. The first week is in the woods where we test the rookies’ camping and firefighting ability. Basically digging ditches with the Pulaski digging tool. It tests their physical ability to do the job. At least one year of wildland firefighting experience is required before applying. Since there are a hundred applicants for one opening, a year won’t do it to get in,” Charlie said.
“After the initial week in the woods the trainees go through parachuting units of training... They exit a tower. A pulley system takes you up and slams you into the ground. They practice rolls. Then there are units where the trainees actually jump out of aircraft,” Charlie explained.
“When I trained seven jumps were required. Now there are fifteen practice jumps before they can jump into a fire,” the operations foreman said.
The Smokejumpers program started in 1939, when firefighters realized that it could take a day to hike into the back country to get to a fire. By the time the firefighters arrived the fires spread and often burned out of control. “They realized that parachuting was quick. Firefighters could put it out before it took hold,” Charlie said.
“In World War II the Army got the idea to jump in behind enemy lines from the Smokejumpers. They went to Missoula to train the first paratroops,” he explained.
There are currently about 400 Smokejumpers nationally. “That figure has been pretty steady over the last twenty years. In the mid-70s there were five- to six hundred. Our biggest base is in Missoula. It has 70 Smokejumpers. Our base has about 32 this year, we had 24 last year but have been increasing our numbers,” Charlie said.
Right: Geared-up and in flight, these smokejumpers prepare for their moment to jump out and fight fire.
The goal of the Smokejumpers is to get to a fire quickly, “Get there fast and put them out small,” the operations foreman said.
The aircraft is all fixed wing that include Twin Otters, Casas, Sherpas, DC-3s and Dorniers. The West Yellowstone base uses a contract aircraft and pilot with a Dornier 228-202 aircraft that can jump eight and carry the support equipment and tools.
Each of the aircraft has different load capacities. The Sherpa can carry twelve jumpers, the Casa eight to ten, and the Twin Otter can take eight as can the Dornier. Load capability depends on the amount of equipment carried. The Forest Service DC 3s are turbine aircraft and can carry sixteen jumpers. A Lockheed Orion P-3 tanker is based in West Yellowstone to support firefighting operations with a 2,550 gallon load of fire suppressing retardant. The retardant contains clay, fertilizer, and red dyed water.
A spotter always sits in the copilot’s seat of the jump plane. “The spotter talks on the radio with the dispatcher,” Charlie explained. “The spotter is an experienced jumper who is able to use judgment to pick a good spot to jump and give advice on fire tactics.”
When the aircraft arrives at the site of the fire the pilot and spotter pick out an area for the jump. “The spotter is an experienced jumper so looks for a spot where there are no rocks. We don’t want to be on the lee side of a ridge. There has to be good wind conditions. The spotter throws out a streamer with a twenty pound weight attached,” Charlie explained.
“More streamers are thrown out to get the correct point so when they kick the jumpers out at that same spot they’ll land in a good position. Most of the time it works!” he laughed.
The paracargo is the pilot’s responsibility. While the jumpers go in at 1,500 feet above ground level, the cargo is dropped at 150 to 200 feet above ground level. “All the cargo has smaller chutes on it. It is packaged up to hit hard,” the operations foreman explained.
“Exit strategy is important. When we jump into a fire twenty miles from nowhere it is best to know the way out. The jumpers have hand-held Bendix King radios. The radios use fifteen groups of sixteen channels. We preprogram the radios and they can be programmed in the field,” the operations foreman said.
“Most forests have repeaters set up. You may have to hike up to the top of a mountain at times to get line of sight reception. The Gallatin Forest stretches sixty miles. When we jump there we use their dispatch. We’ll jump anywhere, we respond to anyone that calls us. Dispatch is from whatever forest you’re on. Yellowstone National Park headquarters is at Mammoth. Gallatin National Forest dispatch is in Bozeman. The Targhee Forest Service dispatch is in Idaho Falls. Each forest district has a dispatch center,” he added.
“We establish radio communications when we are flying in. We assure that the jumpers on the ground have radio communications with that dispatch center,” Charlie explained using the base radio to contact local dispatch.
Smokejumpers leave the aircraft with 2 ½ to 3 days of food and water. They wear Nomex pants and shirt, at least eight inch high leather boots with lugs or knobbies on the soles for good traction. They wear a motorcycle helmet with face and eye protecting wire mesh, and leather gloves. Over the Nomex, Smokejumpers put on a Kevlar jump suit. The jumpsuit is padded at the elbows, hips and knees in the event that a jumper rolls into rocks or trees.
“A stirrup or crotch strap is fitted outside the leg and inside the harness to cushion the opening shock. A high collar on the suit keeps tree branches from going under the helmet if the jumper hits a tree. The Kevlar prevents branches from penetrating,” Charlie said describing standard Smokejumper gear as a team of eight jumpers suited up to respond to a fire. A fire shelter is now required equipment.
Average weight of the jump gear is 75 pounds. Fully geared up with tools and sleeping bag the Smokejumper has a 110 pound load to pack out of the forest. It is not uncommon for a jumper to have to hike ten miles or more with the gear to get to a road to be picked up.
Forest Service jumpers use round parachutes. “They are not unlike those used in World War II. They have steering capability. Toggles can shut slots to make them turn. The BLM uses square chutes. BLM operate in places like Nevada where the terrain is different. Round chutes can operate with a ten mile per hour forward speed. Square chutes operate with a twenty to twenty-five mile per hour forward speed. The BLM square chutes have a semi-rigid wing and good glide ratios when there is air in front. When there is no air in front it is essentially like stalling in an airplane. In a tight spot the round chute is better, especially when there are tall trees,” Charlie Wetzel said.
The parachutes use rip stop nylon for the envelopes. Jumpers have a main and reserve chute. “The higher you drop the greater the chances that you will be blown off. Fifteen hundred feet is high enough so the reserve chute can be opened in the event of main chute failure. We use static lines on our Forest Service round chutes. BLM drops at 3,000 feet, free fall,” he added.
Left: Smokejumper David Smerker, a two year veteran, suiting up to respond to a fire.
Smoke jumpers pack their own parachutes. Packing and rigging is part of the standard training. Jumpers usually get a FAA rigger’s license after two years. The canopy is purchased but all harness making and repairs are done by the jumpers themselves on special sewing machines. “Part of being a rigger is learning how to sew,” Charlie said, working on a harness.
Smokejumpers are all U.S. Forest Service employees. Pay starts for rookies at the GS 5 level which is about $12 per hour. GS 6 is the standard base level. Supervisors’ pay goes up from there; the highest paid Smokejumper falls into the GS 12 government pay scale.
It is hard work in dangerous conditions offering wildland firefighters many challenges.
“Jumping is like any other kind of wildland firefighting except for the minute-and-a-half you are in the air. You don’t have to hike in; you only hike out,” Charlie Wetzel said with a smile. Then the phone rang and he was back on the radio fielding a call about another forest fire.
Visit the National Smokejumper Association website at www.smokejumpers.com.
John Christopher Fine served as Senior Assistant District Attorney in New York County. He was the Assistant Attorney General In Charge, Organized Crime Task Force and served various state and federal law enforcement and investigative agencies. He is the author of 24 books and remains a consultant to law enforcement on national security issues and organized crime, and a frequent contributor to 9-1-1 Magazine.