Smokejumper trainees learn to ‘chute into fire zones
By Laurelle Walsh
“It’s a perfect day for a first jump,” remarked North Cascades Smokejumper Base loft foreman Michael Noe, who gazed skyward as four rookie candidates steered their parachutes toward safe landings in a cow pasture next to the Intercity Airport on Monday morning (June 15).
Strong winds postponed the scheduled first jump on Friday, a disappointing but necessary delay in a training program that puts safety first.
The handful of veteran smokejumpers who observed the rookies’ first jumps on Monday groaned as each trainee thudded to the ground — nobody injured, but all four making novice errors that, if not corrected, would disqualify them from the six-week program, said Noe.
“You can land like that once or twice, but you’re eventually going to get injured,” he said. The trainees would be returning to the jump tower to practice safe parachute landing falls and nip bad habits in the bud, Noe predicted.
Once on their feet, the rookie candidates quickly repacked their ‘chutes, and watched the descents and landings of five veterans doing refresher jumps — part of the ongoing training for all smokejumpers.
Training supervisor Inaki Baraibar gathered the trainees on the grass and debriefed them, asking each about aircraft procedures, how the aircraft exits went, and critiquing their body positions during landing. Baraibar demonstrated the jumpers’ errors, and suggested how they might correct them.
Their second solo jump that day would emphasize accuracy, with each jumper attempting to land in the 60-foot-wide, gravel “accuracy pit” next to the airport runway. After that, the trainees would jump with a partner for the first time, requiring a greater degree of parachute control and constant communication with their fellow jumper on the descent.
None of the four trainees had ever parachuted before — a good thing for training purposes, according to squad leader Fidel Verduzco. Prior knowledge gets in the way of learning proper procedures, “because when something goes wrong, people tend to revert back to their previous experiences,” which aren’t always useful, Verduzco said.
The rigorous training program began with six rookie candidates on June 1. At the beginning of week three, Ben Faust, Scott McClanahan, Sam Thompson and Jarrod Hattervig were still in the program, and had made it through their initial training jumps.
Faust, 23, is from Cloudcroft, New Mexico, where he fought fires for three seasons with the Cloudcroft Hotshots. McClanahan, 28, from San Diego, California, is in his 10th year as a fire fighter, having worked on engines and as a hotshot in Southern and Northern California. Thompson, 29, is from Pocatello, Idaho. This is Thompson’s eighth season fighting fires, having worked previously on hotshot, fuels and helitack crews in Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska. Hattervig, 26, is from Rapid City, South Dakota. Hattervig has been a firefighter for five years, including three with the Cedar City Utah Hotshots.
Before the first jump, trainees must pass proficiency tests which involve suiting up, aircraft procedures, aircraft exit procedures, parachute landing rolls, and timber let-down procedures — how to get down if they get hung up in a tree during landing.
Trainees watch videos of what a malfunctioning parachute looks like from the jumper’s perspective. They talk through and practice how to respond in each of eight parachute malfunction scenarios, such as a hole in the chute, partial inflation of the chute or twisted lines. They practice deploying a reserve ‘chute.
It is not uncommon for smokejumpers to construct fireline for 14-16 hours per day in extreme heat and challenging terrain; therefore physical fitness expectations are high. On the first day of rookie training, candidates must be able to perform a 45-pound work capacity test, running three miles in 45 minutes, and a “pack out,” which requires them to carry a 110-pound pack three miles in 90 minutes.
If all four trainees complete rookie training, they will help fill out the crew of 30 smokejumpers who respond to fire calls from the base near Winthrop. Ten smokejumpers started the 2015 season early when they were called to the Thunder Creek Fire in North Cascades National Park on June 5. The last four came off that fire on Monday (June 15).
Tours of the historic North Cascades Smokejumper Base, located about five miles south of Winthrop on Twisp-Winthrop East County Road, are available daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tours are free and reservations are not required. For more information, call 997-9750.
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