Smokejumpers prepare for fire season by parachuting into Ninemile

Smokejumpers prepare for fire season by parachuting into Ninemile

10 April 2013

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USA — The steady drone of a C-23 Sherpa sounded through the woods. It was soft at first, but the rumble slowly built until the boxy little plane and its blazing orange paint was bright against the drab Montana sky.

Smokejumpers stepped from the plane in pairs and drifted toward the forest floor, their billowing canopies circles in the sky. Before they reached the ground, the Sherpa moved away, the roar of its engines replaced with silence.

It was a good day for refresher training, smokejumper style.

“We’ll be doing quite a few practice jumps over the next few days at different locations around Missoula,” said veteran jumper Colby Jackson. “The fire season is ready to start in other regions. The jumping is one way we get to an assignment.”

While fire season in the Northern Rockies is still months away, it’s about to break loose in the Southwest. Firefighters training this week at the Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumper Training Center outside Missoula will soon be called into service in the dry country of Arizona and New Mexico.

Chances are good they’ll return north come August and September. It’s a long haul from now till then, and training in Montana’s soggy, snow-patched backcountry is a good way to work off the rust before another grueling season.

An hour before the jumpers’ canopies unfurled over the Ninemile drainage, Dolan McDonald prepped his blazing orange C-23 Sherpa. The plane sat sparkling clean on the tarmac while the action buzzed in the smokejumper center.

A pilot with a scruffy red beard, McDonald came to flying via air tankers and bush planes. For the past decade, he has delivered smokejumpers over fires across the West, weathering the perils of mountain flying, and dirtying his plane with soot and ash.

“You’re flying in the afternoon when it’s hot and bumpy, the fire’s creating its own weather, and you’ve got the mountainous terrain,” he said. “You think about how to get in, but also, how to get out.”

Standing at the door of his sporty C-23, the team of smokejumpers gearing up for the morning’s first jump into the Ninemile, McDonald scratched his beard and considered the risks that come with the trade.

Pilots plan for the worst but hope for the best. He called it controlled paranoia. While the jumpers will encounter their own risks – stepping from a plane to battle a growing forest fire – it’s McDonald’s job to deliver them safely.

“You’ve always got the mindset that you’re going to lose an engine or have some kind of problem,” he said. “You always plan your escape. If you don’t think you can get out of there with one engine out or jumpers on board, you don’t go in.”

Pilots contracted by the U.S. Forest Service aren’t flying blind. Yet fires are unpredictable and the West is geographically large, meaning every flight could be a pilot’s first foray into challenging and unknown terrain.

In his own years flying jump planes, McDonald has crossed the region, dropping firefighters into difficult terrain best reached by air. The Snake River Valley in Idaho, The Dalles in Oregon and Glacier National Park in Montana, with its “deep, dark canyons,” may be the toughest flights of all.

“You’ve got to think 20 miles ahead,” McDonald said. “All of our flying is serious and hard flying. It’s not airline work. It’s not cruise work. We work our planes pretty hard, and we work ourselves pretty hard.”


Back in the ready room, smokejumpers ran through their safety checks, speaking in jumper lingo. Right pocket, left pocket; metal on metal; no twist; pins seated; belly band good; eyes flat; lucky hat?

One room over in the “loft,” crews assembled and packed the parachutes dangling from numbered hooks seated high overhead. Outside the operations center, the fire weather sat on display. Nearby, a big yellow sign reminded jumpers that “stupid hurts.”

“If it’s a fire call, you’re more focused on what the fire is going to be,” said Jackson, a veteran with 150 jumps to his name. “Once you get over the spot where you’re going to do your insertion, then you switch over and focus on that piece.”

Getting the jumpers out the door at 100 knots – and over the target – is up to the spotters. Most of them, including Ralph Sweeney, are former jumpers with their own stories to tell.

Now in his 13th year, Sweeney came up as a rookie jumper around 2000. It was one of the biggest wildfire seasons in decades. More than 4,000 fires burned 1.1 million acres in the Northern Rockies. By the end of that season, nearly 600,000 acres would burn across Montana, and Sweeney would emerge as a veteran firefighter.

“The camaraderie of the jumpers is my favorite thing,” he said. “Just this morning, I ran into a guy I jumped on a fire with 10 years ago. You catch up and then go to work, and everyone is expected to know how we operate.”

Once off the ground, it’s Sweeney’s job to observe the fire’s behavior. Standing at the jump door of the C-23, he’ll also scout a jump zone. When the time is right, he’ll work to get the jumpers off the plane in an orderly and efficient manner.

But first, he needs to test the wind. Even from the ground, the streamers he released 1,500 feet above trailed brilliant colors against the greening forest. Whatever the wind does to the streamers, the odds are good it will have the same effect on the jumpers.

“They drop at the same rate as a jumper under canopy would drop,” Sweeney said. “That’s how we get our wind drift. If the streamers drift 100 yards past the landing spot, the pilots will carry the plane 100 yards to compensate.”

Throughout the woods, patches of snow still cling to the ground. Grass that will cure in July, adding fuel to August fires, is now pushing up through soggy soil.

For the pilots, jumpers and spotters, it’s fire that plays in the back of their thoughts, even in the off season. It’s there like a dream, never far away.

“The safest way to put them on the ground is at the heel of the fire,” Sweeney said. “A lot of times in a fire scenario, you don’t always know where the jump spot will be. This is a good refresher for us. It gets our minds thinking toward the season.”

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