Chapter 5 - Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters - Jason A. Ramos

Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters - Jason A. Ramos (2015)

Chapter 5

THE MANN GULCH FIRE started on August 5, 1949, when lightning sparked a wildfire along the Missouri River near Helena, Montana. A planeload of fifteen smokejumpers led by foreman Wagner Dodge was dispatched from Missoula. Thirteen of the jumpers were between seventeen and twenty-three years old.

They found a relatively small blaze burning on the south side of the canyon mouth. At 3:10 P.M. the crew landed about half a mile up canyon from the fire. (First-generation jumper Earl Cooley was the spotter.) They were joined by James Harrison, a fire guard from a nearby campground.

Dodge didn’t like the look of the fire and directed the crew down the canyon toward the river, away from the visible flames.

They thought the route would put them in a position to attack the fire with the river at their backs. But as they hiked, their view below was obscured by ridges. When they got about halfway down they were shocked to suddenly discover the fire burning below them on both sides of the canyon. Somehow—and it is still debated today how the fire got there—a combination of high winds and embers had spread flames across the canyon’s mouth, cutting off the route to the river.

Dodge knew instantly what to do: he ordered the men to turn around and hike back up the gulch as fast as possible. They stumbled up the rocky hillside to what they hoped was safety on the bare rocks on the ridge top. The slope grew steeper, slowing their progress but speeding up the fire. Twenty-foot flames tore up the hillside at almost eight miles an hour behind them.

The crew dropped their tools when the fire was about a hundred yards back. In desperation, Dodge stopped and pulled a pack of matches from his pocket. The men thought the boss had gone crazy as he knelt and lit the grass at his feet on fire.

The flames were now fifty yards behind them, less than a minute away.

Dodge’s fire swept ahead through the dry grass, clearing a patch the size of a small room. He told his men to get inside the burned area, that it was their only hope. But the roar of the fire drowned out his voice, the idea of an escape fire was counterintuitive, and they were too frightened to think straight.

“To hell with that, I’m getting out of here!” someone shouted. Dodge lay in the burned grass just as the flames arrived.

Dodge’s quick thinking saved his life. The other men continued sprinting up the slope, where they met a twelve-foot-high band of rock guarding the top of the ridge.

Walter Rumsey and Robert Sallee scrambled through a crevice in the rimrock and found shelter in a rock slide on the far side. They and Dodge were the only ones out of the sixteen on-site who lived.

Two more jumpers also made it to safety, but were so badly burned they died of their wounds.

The blaze raged for another five days and took 450 men to put out. It cost thirteen lives, including James Harrison, the fire guard who had quit smokejumping the year before because it was too dangerous. One body was so badly charred that rescuers at first mistook it for a tree stump.

The story of the twelve jumpers, the first to ever die on a fire, made national news. A feature in Life magazine portrayed them as young, brave, and doomed, like so many men in the war that had just ended. Hollywood had Red Skies of Montana, still the only decent movie about smokejumpers, in theaters by 1952.

Two years later, President Eisenhower personally opened the new aerial fire depot in Missoula. Even though it took a tragedy, the government was now committed to smokejumping for the long term. The Forest Service improved jumper training in weather, safety, and communications. It also poured money into the scientific study of fire behavior, leading to the creation of the Interagency Fire Science Laboratory in Missoula.

Francis Lufkin had become base manager at NCSB, a position he held for three decades. He made fifty-seven jumps and saw two of his sons go on to become jumpers before he died in 1998. He received a Presidential Award from Lyndon B. Johnson—not for fire fighting, but for the economy. As his son tells it, he saved the United States of America something like a million dollars in firefighting costs. It’s safe to say there wouldn’t be an American smokejumper program without him.

The Bureau of Land Management started its own smokejumping program in Alaska in 1959. As always, the BLM had a lot of land to cover; initially seventeen jumpers were responsible for an area the size of Texas. California was the next state to get a Forest Service jump base. Today there are seven Forest Service bases in California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, and two BLM bases in Boise and Fairbanks.

By the 1960s, the smokejumper program counted four hundred jumpers. This was a decade of change, including in the world of fighting wildfire.

In 1963, the deployment bag (“D-bag”; and, yes, you read that right) chute system was officially adopted. Before, the sudden shock of the parachute opening could pop your helmet off or even knock you unconscious, especially if you were in the wrong position.

With the D-bag, the chute comes out of the backpack still packed inside a small bag. This leaves time for the parachute lines and risers—the nylon straps that attach the lines to the harness—to straighten out before the chute inflates. It’s a much softer opening, and less prone to malfunctions.

That same year, a jumper made it to the top of the world. On May 22, Willi Unsoeld, an alumnus of the base at Cave Junction, Oregon, climbed Mount Everest’s West Ridge with Tom Hornbein. They weren’t the first Americans on the summit—Jim Whittaker had made it by the standard South Col route three weeks earlier—but they did pioneer a much more difficult route. By descending via the South Col, Unsoeld and Hornbein also made the first traverse of the mountain. In the process they had to spend the night at twenty-eight thousand feet without sleeping bags or tents, which cost Unsoeld nine toes.

Another Cave Junction jumper eventually upped the ante even further. In 1971, Stuart Roosa, the command module pilot for Apollo 14, became one of only twenty-four people ever to travel to the moon.

By now the Forest Service had been operating under a policy of total fire suppression for more than half a century. The public mostly agreed, thanks to characters like Smokey Bear and Bambi, whose nightmare-inducing forest fire scene traumatized a generation.

By the 1960s and 1970s, however, scientists and forest managers were starting to rethink the practice. Total fire suppression wasn’t healthy for forest ecosystems, it turned out, and it didn’t always make economic sense, either. Prescribed fires started to be used more often, and some natural fires were allowed to burn, provided lives and property weren’t at risk.

The era of the career smokejumper had begun. Early jumpers were often recent vets or college students working for a summer or two. Now they were sticking around longer and moving on to permanent jobs in the Forest Service. Some eventually took on positions of authority, which was good because no one knows how to use a specialized resource like smokejumpers better than a former jumper.

The program was still small, selective, and highly effective, so maybe it was inevitable that it acquired a reputation that was part real, part folklore. At the same time, a pervasive anti-jumper attitude was hard to shake. Local forest managers didn’t always appreciate how smokejumpers literally dropped in, worked circles around local crews, and then disappeared.

During the Vietnam War, there was one group who was grateful for the smokejumpers’ unusual roster of talents. Vietnam was the first war that saw the widespread use of helicopters for tactical and rescue missions. Paratroopers—many of whom were former jumpers—only made one official combat jump during the entire conflict, in 1967.

But over the border in Laos, the CIA had been busily (and secretly) helping Hmong tribes fight communist forces for years. That meant dropping thousands of tons of supplies from planes flown by Air America, the agency’s clandestine airline. They needed people who knew how to drop cargo from low-flying planes, accurately, in rough terrain, under urgent and less-than-ideal conditions.

Who else would you call? Jumpers were physically fit, didn’t get airsick, and were trained to work without much supervision and improvise when necessary. Plus they were civilians, so nothing they did could be considered an official act of war.

More than fifty smokejumpers eventually ended up doing covert paramilitary missions for the CIA or Air America in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. The work paid well, and it wasn’t exactly a secret in jumper circles. There was a lot of wink-wink-nudge-nudge in the spring, when guys would come back from a season in “Alaska” or “Maine” with sunburns and jungle rot between their toes.

The CIA work turned out to be even more dangerous than fighting wildfire: nine jumpers died on duty with the agency.

Another former NCSB jumper, George (Ken) Sisler, went to Southeast Asia as a twenty-nine-year-old lieutenant with the Studies and Observations Group (SOG), a top-secret special ops unit. (A few years earlier, Sisler had won the won the National Collegiate Skydiving Championship with one leg in a cast.)

In February 1967, Sisler was in Laos on an intelligence mission when over one hundred North Vietnamese soldiers attacked his platoon on three sides. Sisler ran through enemy fire to rescue two wounded men. In the process he shot and killed three enemy soldiers and destroyed a machine gun with a grenade.

As more of his companions fell wounded, he counterattacked alone, firing and throwing grenades, forcing the enemy back. He was directing air strikes when he was shot and killed. Sisler was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor, the first given to a military intelligence officer. In addition, a U.S. Navy supply ship, the USNS Sisler (T-AKR-311), was named after him in 1997.

Back home, a more public event drew official attention to smokejumpers, at least briefly. On Thanksgiving Eve, 1971, a man who identified himself as Dan Cooper (later misnamed “D. B. Cooper” by the press) bought a plane ticket from Portland to Seattle.

This was a time when airline security was notoriously lax. So when Cooper told a flight attendant he had a bomb in his briefcase, nobody was that surprised—this kind of thing happened surprisingly often back then.

Cooper politely demanded $200,000 cash and four parachutes. He paid for two bourbons and insisted the stewardess keep the change. He let most of the crew disembark in Seattle and had the Boeing 727 take off again heading south. Somewhere over southwest Washington, Cooper cranked down the rear stairs and leaped into the stormy darkness carrying twenty-one pounds of cash.

One of the biggest manhunts in Northwest history followed. FBI agents visited the North Cascades base twice, looking for anyone who had the nerve and know-how to pull off a stunt like Cooper’s. Base manager Francis Lufkin didn’t think the guy was a jumper. Cooper had chosen an older parachute over a professional sport chute and had picked a reserve chute that was clearly marked as nonfunctional, for demonstrations only.

And not even a smokejumper was crazy enough to jump at night, in the rain, into rugged timber country, wearing loafers and a trench coat. The general consensus was, whoever Cooper was, he probably killed himself jumping out of that plane.

The only clue anyone ever found was a $5,800 bundle of the ransom money that washed out of a sandbar in the Columbia River in 1980. Despite numerous alleged sightings, Cooper’s true fate remained a mystery. His crime is still the only unsolved skyjacking in U.S. history.

At the height of the Cold War, smokejumping briefly opened a door between the United States and the Soviet Union. Russia has more forests than any other country, a fifth of the world’s total, and the Soviets had started their own jump program back in 1936.

In 1976, jumpers Bill Moody and Doug Bird traveled to the USSR for a month on a technical exchange program to test the Soviet parachute system. The Forest Service’s FS-10 canopy was due for an upgrade. The Russian system used a small drogue chute to deploy the canopy instead of a static line, and it was more maneuverable and descended more slowly.

Moody had become the base manager of NCSB four years earlier, fifteen years into his thirty-three year jump career. The Russians were very friendly, he told me, genuinely interested in the Americans and their training and equipment. Nightly vodka toasts helped break down the cultural barriers.

During their monthlong visit, Moody made two jumps over eastern Siberia, both with a Russian jump partner. The first was with all American gear and the second was with the Russian system. Doug Bird watched from the plane, a historic (by our standards) Antonov An-2 biplane.

The jumps went well, and the next year Nikolai Andreev, chief of aerial fire operations for the USSR, visited NCSB to make a formal presentation of a Soviet chute system and jumpsuit and to make a jump of his own. After the visit they gave us their parachute system. The main round parachute, the “Lesnik” Forester, was adapted by the MTDC (at that time called MEDC) into the FS-12 chute that the Forest Service used through the 1990s. Bill Moody sent the drogue portion of their system up to Alaska, where the BLM adopted the Forester drogue for their ram-air systems.

Budget cuts and an objective of centralization in the late 1970s and early 1980s led the Forest Service to close the jump base in Cave Junction, Oregon, one of the four original jump bases. The bases in Boise, Idaho, and LaGrande, Oregon, were also shuttered. Boise was later reopened as a BLM base. The Forest Service came near to closing the NCSB, even to the point of carting away the sewing machines used to make harnesses and other gear. Nevertheless, the birthplace of American smokejumping stayed open. In the end, jumper numbers were reduced by close to one hundred.

Other changes were happening too. In 1981, Deanne Shulman, a former hotshot, finished rookie training at McCall and became the country’s first female smokejumper.

Like any major change, opening the ranks to women caused some debate. Some people felt some bases compromised their standards to get women through training—things like relaxing the minimum height requirement and, eventually by the early 90s, adding two more sizes of canopies and changing how the PT test was administered.

If you’re a jumper, it doesn’t matter to me who you are, what your gender is, what race you are, what you look like. If you can pass the rookie training, get your shit on and let’s go.

The same year Shulman made her first fire jump, Charlotte Larson became the first female smokejumper pilot.

SINCE MANN GULCH, SMOKEJUMPING had changed. In the early days, each base was fairly independent, free to test different strategies and develop their own gear. But in the 1960s, base managers and the Missoula Equipment Development Center (now known as the Missoula Technology Development Center, or MTDC) began having annual workshops which resulted in a more national approach to equipment development, smokejumper-related policy and standardization of training and jump procedures. Some bases continued to operate “independently” when they were not satisfied with the slow pace or course that MEDC and the national office were taking—especially true in regards to main parachute development.

Jumpers had proved they could do things no one else could, and fire managers had learned how to use their unique skills to the best advantage. Jumper training was standardized, safety systems were refined, and for half a century there were no burnover fatalities.

That changed in 1994 when the Storm King fire killed fourteen firefighters, including three smokejumpers.

Everyone in the wildland firefighting world remembers where they were when they heard the news. At the time I was with the Kernville crew and didn’t know any jumpers personally, but I would in the years to come. Five years after Storm King, I was more determined than ever to become a smokejumper—cracked leg or not.