Smokejumpers: The firefighters you don’t hear about

By
November 12, 2010

Andrew Harris looks out over a fire in Idaho from the window of an airplane. (Courtesy of Andrew Harris)

Andrew Harris has seen things that you and I will probably never be lucky enough, or take the time, to see. While we are sitting in our cars in bumper-to-bumper traffic with snarls of horns and squealing breaks, while we’re starting long days in cramped offices under the greenish glow of fluorescent light bulbs, 27-year-old Harris is in a DC-3 or Twin Otter aircraft, about to jump out over wild terrain surrounded by fire.

“Yeah, I mean, I am fairly brave,” Harris said. “There’s definitely risk, of course. That’s what makes it exciting; it’s about managing that risk.”

Harris, a wildland firefighter for the United States Forestry Service, has just completed his rookie year as one of only 400 elite smokejumpers. Smokejumpers are highly trained and specialized wildland firefighters who jump from low-flying airplanes into remote areas to suppress fires that larger crews and equipment can’t easily reach. Today, there are nine smokejumper bases in the U.S., and there are 70 jumpers – including Harris – stationed and on-call during the five-month fire season in the summer in McCall, Idaho.

According to the McCall base’s website, the application and selection process is highly competitive. Jumpers must be in peak physical condition and posses a high degree of emotional and mental stability, and, once accepted into the program, must go through training that gives the phrase “hell week” a whole new meaning.

“It was hard. I thought, ‘Why am I doing this? It sucks bad right now.’ But I just took it one hour at a time,” Harris said. “I had huge blisters on my feet the size of silver dollars; I could barely walk; I would just slowly limp back to my truck every night.”

Yet training is nothing in comparison to being out on the job, when jumpers are at Mother Nature’s mercy.

During missions, the jumpers sit elbow to elbow along bench seats during take off, but once the plane levels, they sprawl out and claim spots among the cargo and supplies. Most sleep but a few yell conversations at each other over the nagging engines. When the spotter yells “10 minutes out,” conversations cut short, jumpers wake up and all eyes turn to the windows. Once smoke is visible, the spotter decides how many jumpers to throw and looks for a good jump spot – one relatively free of hazards, like fire. The spotter then yells “hook up” and the first two jumpers hook their static line clips onto the cable hooked to the inside of the plane. The static line stays clipped as they fall away from the plane, which pulls their parachutes out.

Andrew Harris, a McCall smokejumper, practices safely parachuting out of an aircraft. (Courtesy of Andrew Harris)

“Every jump is a rush,” Harris said. “My heart still pounds out of my chest every time I hear the spotter say, ‘Get ready!’”

When signaled, the first jumper jumps as far out and as high as they can and tucks into a cannonball position. About two seconds later, the second jumper replaces the first in the door and cannonballs out the plane behind them.

“Right as you jump and get into a good cannonball, you start your jump count. Jump thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, look thousand. This is when you are falling and your chute is opening,” Harris said. “On look thousand, you look up at your chute and make sure it is open and the canopy is intact. You are now under the canopy, and it gets
eerily quiet.”

Using the steering lines, the jumper navigates towards the narrow jump spot: a steep oval clearing of dirt surrounded by a thick mess of trees.

“You can make little corrections as you (steer), but any major toggle movement will make the chute oscillate and cause you to come crashing down – not good,” Harris said. “Sometimes you get good up air and just float in and barely feel the ground; sometimes you get down air and pile up like a bag of shit. There’s some luck involved, sadly.”

All of this happens in mere minutes and over a roaring fire.

“The actual flight is usually about a minute, depending on the air you have. The longer the flight the softer the landing in general,” Harris said.

Harris remembers one death-defying flight in particular.

“It was a jump out in Redman, near the coast. It was a small jump spot,” Harris said. “I maneuvered the parachute and turned in for the final approach and a gust of wind pushed me off the spot. I was headed either towards rocks and shit or the tree. I picked the tree. It was pretty scary when I knew I was going to tap the tree. I thought, ‘Here we go. We’re gonna do it. Don’t grab branches. Stay in a ball. You let the tree do what it wants.’ You feel helpless.”

Harris’ parachute came right over the top of the tree as he crashed down and got pummeled by branches and debris. When Harris finally came to a stop, he was dangling, suspended by his parachute, almost thirty feet in the air.

“I reached into my leg pocket and got the let-down tape to tie off and then release from my parachute – that’s really the scary part. One guy last year thought he was hung securely and tied off and released from the parachute and went to use the parachute as a rope, and he crashed down to the ground. That’s a bad, bad feeling,” Harris said. “Only thing you can do to check the parachute is pull on it. In training, you have to be able to do a let-down procedure from start to finish in two minutes. So I tugged on the chute to make sure it was secure. Then I repelled out of the tree. A day later, I climbed back up the tree and got my parachute.”

What does Harris say he loves most about his job?

“The best part is the end of the day, lying back in my sleeping bag, looking up at stars at night,” Harris said. “It’s usually quiet, except maybe for the wind or crickets. That’s when I like my job the most, when it’s just like you and 12 other dudes just somewhere, just out there.”

Harris thinks he’s lucky to have seen so much of nature on the job.

“I’ve gotten to go to beautiful places normal civilians could, but probably most will never see,” Harris said. “It makes you feel lucky – doing what I do. I get to have a perspective on things that a lot of people just don’t get to have.”

For more information, visit the Smokejumpers’ website.


Smokejumpers: The firefighters you don’t hear about was published on November 12, 2010 in Features

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  • Matthew Carroll

    Awesome!  Stirring jump stories, colorfully told.