Photos by Laurelle Walsh: Trainees parachute into a field adjacent to the smokejumper base.
BY LAURELLE WALSH
The flag at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base was at half-staff last week to honor a 28-year-old smokejumper who was killed by a falling branch while fighting a fire in northern California. “It has been hard on everybody,” said NCSB training supervisor Inaki Baraibar, especially since the victim was working with first-year rookies.
The death has served to remind everyone at the base of the job’s dangers.
“The jumping part is not the dangerous part,” Baraibar said. “The dangers come on the ground when you are actually fighting fires. Many things can get you.”
On a calm, sunny, smoke-free day in June, a sign on the wall of the Lufkin Parachute Loft reminds visitors of NCSB’s purpose: In its record year of 1970, smokejumpers responded to 213 fires and performed 1,066 jumps. In an average year, NCSB smokejumpers respond to 45 fires and make 190 jumps.
The NCSB season started on May 20 this year, with seasonal smokejumpers returning to the Methow Valley to start refresher training alongside year-round staff.
Over the course of several weeks each spring, veteran and rookie smokejumpers alike demonstrate they can perform the basics of their craft, such as aircraft exiting procedures, parachute maneuvering and emergency procedures, parachute landing rolls, timber let-down procedures, parachute and cargo retrieval, and tree climbing.
This spring the base is also running a training course with the intention of hiring three rookie smokejumpers to fill out its “optimal” number of 30, Baraibar said. Initial job offers were made at the end of February to four trainees who started the program on June 3.
It’s a much smaller class than the last time training was offered in 2010, according to trainer Guy McLean. That year, NCSB had 16 candidates with 12 making it through the training.
Upon successful completion of the one-month course, intended to determine a candidate’s physical and mental wherewithal to handle the job, trainees will be considered rookies. “It’s intense training with a lot of repetition,” said McLean.
Monday (June 17) was Day 11 of the month-long regimen, with two of the original four candidates remaining in the program: 27-year-old Luke Barrett of Missoula, Mont., and 30-year-old Justen Johansen of Maple Valley, Wash. Both are experienced firefighters. They were 80 hours into the program before they did their first parachute jump last Friday.
Before Friday’s jump, Barrett and Johansen had practiced tree climbing and let-downs, and parachute landing falls – falling to the ground from a 4-foot-high platform in order to learn how to preserve the body during landing.
The candidates also practiced around 100 aircraft exiting procedures, jumping from the 35-foot jump tower attached by a harness and cable. Tower jumps are an aerobic exercise, requiring trainees to jump off, land, run back to the tower, and quickly climb two long flights of stairs in full jump gear – around 20 times in a day, Johansen said.
The two-piece Kevlar jump suits are all fabricated on site with three-quarter-inch memory foam slid into pockets in the knees, rear, spine and elbows for protection when landing.
When suited up in full gear, including helmet, personal-gear bag and parachute, a smokejumper wears 85 pounds of apparatus on his or her body. Carrying that kind of weight, combined with the extremes of heat in the fire environment, requires one to be “in tune with your body” and keep ahead of dehydration, according to Baraibar. “One of the biggest things is being adaptable,” he said.
Barrett got interested in smokejumping after working with smokejumpers on fires in Montana. “It seemed like the kind of lifestyle I was looking for,” he said. “The training has been tougher than I was expecting. We spent about 15 minutes watching a video and all the rest has been physical.”
Johansen said he has been interested in smokejumping since he started fighting fires in 2002. He has worked with the Wenatchee Valley Rappellers for the last five years. “For myself I’ve learned that the best recipe for success is staying in the moment and taking one challenge at a time,” he said.
Baraibar, in his fifth year as training supervisor, acknowledged that “part of the training is to give them surprising situations to test their self-sufficiency and adaptability. … All we can do is teach the basics; in the end it’s basically on-the-job training.”
Out of the plane
The trainees observed refresher jumps by veteran smokejumpers last Wednesday. Part of NCSB’s training program is regular refresher training for its experienced jumpers, at least once every two weeks, according to Baraibar. On that day, nine jumpers tested the accuracy of their landings, aiming for a bright orange triangle in the center of the 60-foot-wide circular “accuracy pit.”
On its first pass the twin turboprop CASA C-212 Aviocar, piloted by Captain Kevin McBride, circled overhead and dropped three weighted, bright-yellow streamers over the target in order to judge where the wind would carry them. The plane proceeded to make five more passes over the target area with two jumpers at a time exiting the aircraft.
The trainees and their supervisor watched the jumpers’ techniques as they maneuvered their parachutes toward the target, their voices audible as they descended. Baraibar explained that the jumpers normally jump in pairs, “unless it’s a really tight landing spot,” and shout information about where they are in relation to each other and the landing area as they come down.
Base manager Daren Belsby debriefed the men on the field after they had stowed their gear, critiquing their descents, communication with fellow parachutists, and landing techniques.
The trainees performed their first solo jumps on Friday morning, with their supervisor giving radio instructions as they descended. The first two jumps are done alone rather than in pairs “to give them one less thing to worry about,” said Baraibar.
The training program slowly ramps up the difficulty, with the trainees eventually jumping in pairs and onto increasingly smaller landing spots. By their second jump on Monday, Barrett and Johansen were ready to negotiate jumping alongside another parachutist.
Both Johansen and Barrett had done one tandem recreational jump previously, but this was the first time either had stepped alone out of an airplane.
“When you’re standing in the doorway and first see the ground below you it’s a strange feeling,” said Johansen.
“You kind of have second thoughts when you look out the door,” Barrett admitted, “but as soon as you feel that tap on the shoulder, muscle memory kicks in and you just go.”
Students from the University of Oregon recently won an award for a five-minute film they produced that features smokejumpers out of Redmond, Ore., practicing the same refresher skills NCSB jumpers are reviewing this week. Smokejumpers collected a Hearst Award for Multimedia Team Storytelling. The film may be viewed at http://wildfiretoday.com/2013/06/11/smokejumper-video-wins-award/.