Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Jump On In

There is a small airport across the street from the campground. We can't see the airport, as we are down a steep embankment, but we can hear it. The early morning flight to wherever-it-goes is sometimes not a welcome wake-up 'call'! However, if we choose to go up the hill, watching small planes take off and land is entertaining, and we can often see the planes on their approach from our camp site. One week there were six of these planes... all in a row, and later, all taking off, landing, taking off and landing again. Believe it or not, these are tankers for fighting forest fires! There was a small forest fire in the next valley, and the tankers were making numerous trips to dump water on it. Within about 5 minutes of pulling up to the fill tank, the plane is on its way again. Amazing!

This plane is the same tanker, retrofitted with pontoons. An $800,000 add-on (with additional equipment, larger engine, etc.) This tanker can land on a lake, scoop water into the tank on the run, and take off again in one fluid motion. Filling the tank in the water takes a whopping 15 seconds! Also amazing!

The planes are contract planes and move from one area to another depending on forest fire activity. Usually at least two are based at the McCall, ID airport. Later in the week only the pontoon tanker and one other tanker remained stationed in McCall. This large helicopter, an air crane, is also part of the fire-fighting fleet. It can fill its tank with the snorkel in 45 seconds.

All of this activity complements that of the smokejumper base. This is one of several smokejumper bases in Idaho, and it is a training facility as well. The training is rigorous. Only highly qualified, experienced wildfire fighters need apply!

We took a tour of the facility. Michael, a Texas Hotshot firefighter, now a veteran smokejumper, showed us around. First he showed us his suit. The kevlar suits are heavy and even in just the few minutes he had it on, Michael was beginning to sweat. Imagine wearing it on a hot day in the heat of a fire. Yuck! The suit has several large pockets. Michael carries his tent in one, as well as a radio. The heavy, padded collar protects the smokejumper's necks. Michael will also wear a helmet. In the 'ready room' all of the jackets, overalls, parachutes, back packs, and helmets are draped on special racks, in layers, ready for the smokejumpers to put their arms in and go. 

The smokejumpers are usually the 'first responders' to wildfires. They parachute into the area with the hopes that they can contain the fire and eliminate the need for more firefighters and equipment. Many of the areas where they are dropped are in the middle of huge forests, far from roads. Therefore, they must bring food, water and equipment with them.

The display above shows what would be packaged in one of the cartons. The contents would support two firefighters. The carton would be parachuted into the area.  Notice that straps are attached to the carton so the smokejumpers can carry it like a backpack. Below,  Michael points to another set of cartons containing chainsaws and fuel. Other cartons containing water for drinking and putting out spot fires, as well as other materials are also parachuted into the area.

Michael seemed to think that the worst part of smokejumper duty is lugging all of the boxes and equipment, parachutes and what-have-you, to the pickup point after the fire is extinguished. Remember, there are often no roads and many of the areas the smokejumpers parachute into are in mountainous areas.

This is the plane that transports the smokejumpers to the fire. It sits, at the ready, just outside the facility.

The smokejumpers sit on the right. The cartons of equipment are on the left. 

When the smokejumpers return to the base the parachutes are hung inside the tower to be inspected and to dry. The blue and yellow parachutes are used by the smokejumpers. The different colors are used to assist the firemen in seeing what direction other smokejumpers are moving. The red parachute is one that was used for equipment. 

Next to the tower is the sewing room. This is where small holes or tears in the parachutes are repaired. There are a number of heavy-duty sewing machines that are used for repairs, as well as for making packs and other bags.

This is the parachute packing area. Each smokejumper must successfully pack 20 parachutes before any are put on the line. After passing this test, the smokejumpers have the option of packing their own parachute, or taking one off the shelf. The parachute packing of each smokejumper is inspected periodically.

As our tour ended, a group of smokejumpers from another base were preparing to return home. They have stripped the racks of all of their gear. The packs on the right are extra parachutes, organized by size. There are three sizes meant for three weight categories. Michael is near the top of the weight range for a medium parachute, so he chooses to use a large, commenting that it makes for a lighter landing.

The smokejumpers donned their gear. Even though they were not anticipating jumping into a fire, they must be prepared just in case their plane is diverted to an emerging wildfire.

Each smokejumper's equipment is inspected by another smokejumper. They begin at the ankles and inspect every zipper, strap and buckle. This smokejumper had a twisted strap that was straightened. The final step is to move the rip cord of the main parachute to the carabiner on the smokejumper's shoulder strap, so it is easy to attach to the line in the plane. 

The smokejumpers head to their plane for the trip back to their base. If they are anything like our tour guide, Michael, they are secretly hoping there will be a fire and they can jump!


  1. Wow, how cool to have an inside look! Great photos as well.

  2. That's just amazing! I never knew how it all worked...

  3. Hurray for those brave firefighters! What an interesting tour.

  4. What an interesting place to visit! Amazing fellows..I admire them all:)


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