Smokejumpers used on the Holy Fire in southern California

smokejumpers Holy Fire

Above: Smokejumpers descend over the Holy Fire August 31, 2016. USFS photo.

(Originally published at 11:08 a.m. PDT September 1, 2016. Updated at 1:44 p.m. PDT September 1, 2016)

Until yesterday smokejumpers had never parachuted into a fire on the Cleveland National Forest. This was the only National Forest in California that had not yet inserted jumpers in this manner. Occasionally jumpers are assigned to a fire but arrive in a conventional manner, on the ground.

They were ordered for the Holy Fire just off of Trabuco Creek Road 2.2 miles east of the city of Robinson Ranch in Orange County, California. The fire burned 155 acres between the road and the Bell View Trail at the top of the ridge above Trabuco Canyon. The fire ran to the top of the north-facing slope and stopped thanks to the efforts of firefighters on the ground, the change in topography and fuels, and the heavy use of helicopters and air tankers, including a DC-10.

Thursday morning there were 273 personnel assigned to the Holy Fire, which got its name from the nearby Holy Jim Canyon.

Map Holy Fire
Map of the Holy Fire at 8 p.m. PDT August 31, 2016. Click to enlarge.

The Cleveland National Forest stretches between the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area and the outskirts of San Diego.

map Holy fire 3-d
3-D map of the Holy Fire at 8 p.m. PDT August 31, 2016. Click to enlarge.

Jason Foreman with the Redding Smokejumpers said the 16 jumpers were dispatched from Redding and Porterville using a U.S. Forest Service Sherpa and a contract Dornier aircraft, each with 8 firefighters. The arrival of the Dornier out of Porterville was delayed due to the very busy air space in southern California. The jumpers from Porterville landed on the ground at approximately 6:30 p.m. PDT, while the Redding squad all completed their jumps by 7:50 p.m Wednesday, Mr. Foreman said.

“A critical piece of line needed to be secured in an expeditious manner. The terrain to get to the ridgeline was steep and had limited access” Olivia Walker, spokesperson for the Cleveland National Forest said when asked why local firefighters were not used instead of the smokejumpers. “There were no personnel available to staff the section of line that was used to insert the Smokejumpers on”, she explained.

Four firefighters suffered heat-related injuries and were extracted by helicopters. The fire was managed in a unified command with the U.S. Forest Service and the Orange County Fire Authority.

Access to the base of the fire was via Trabuco Creek Road. A 3-mile hike from Robinson Ranch on the Bell Ridge Trail would take you to the top of the fire. The terrain at the fire is very steep. Hikers on the trail would have a 1,500-foot elevation change — up.

Parachute canopies Holy Fire
Parachute canopies are visible near the Bell View Trail at the Holy Fire. USFS photo.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

12 thoughts on “Smokejumpers used on the Holy Fire in southern California”

  1. The question looming is why are they taking this risk? There appear to be no resources in danger. Haven’t we moved past this attitude?

    1. Resources at risk at risk in any fire are not limited to homes. Watershed, endangered species, wildlife habitat, infrastructure, air quality, et al also must be considered. And also considered is not only what is at risk immediately. What will be the resources at risk in the future if the fire is allowed to continue and spread? Winter mudslides destroy homes miles downcanyon and months later.

    2. The risk of jumping into a fire isn’t all that different than any other IA firefighter’s ingress into a fire in my opinion, and for covering a large area of geography, fixed wing aircraft and a load of smokejumpers can be cost effective IA. I’m impressed that the Forest and the Overhead Team on the fire ordered the smokejumpers for this task and section of fire; I expect that these 16 jumpers will do an exceptional job.

      My limited stint of 3 seasons with the BLM near 30 years ago was demonstrative that the fire, fuels and terrain were much more of the risk than the actual jump, albeit that I had more the a few tense seconds under canopy.

    1. No rapellers in Southern California and the area did not have a good helispot location within a reasonable distance. Jumpers where the best option since they where about 45min-1 hour flight time away in Porterville.

      1. Cutting helispots required for crew and supply delivery, and extraction later, is an expected task of smokejumpers and rapellers, and I’d speculate that this was accomplished by the jumpers as early as possible. That way, the crew could be pulled out on short notice back into an IA role once a line was established and/or a relief crew(s) was in place.

  2. As always, nice job Bill! Really like the maps showing the terrain people are working in and the fire overlay. Thanks for all your efforts to keep this site going daily.

  3. Historical and interesting. At one time in the Forest Service there was the other means of “transportation” to remote usually inaccessible fires. In the 1960’s the heli-jumper was used probably more in South Zone (Ops) R-5 than in other parts of the country. Using hand-me-down smokejumper suits. I thought it was a valuable way to access fires similar to the Cleveland incident.
    For us who participated in this program sometimes we referred to yourselves as fire leapers (slang). I was station at Fence Meadow (later Trimmer) on the Sierra N.F. Just ran across a friend who was on the Angeles N.F. as a heli-jumper in the ’60’s. Maybe Wildfire Today can dig up some old info (pictures) of exactly what this would look like. Exiting a helicopter at about ten feet and a few miles per hour forward air speed.

    1. Johnny – we must be “Brothers of the Brush”? I did the heli-jumper thing at Upper Lake RD on the Mendocino in the mid-60s too.
      Interesting times, standing on the struts of a flying Bell 3B1 waiting to bail off.
      I’ll have to look thru old photos and see if I’ve got any shots.
      Seems like the program died because of an unacceptable injury rate to ankles and knees?

  4. CalFire does a modified heli-jump they call it Hoover Step, The Blm in Utah is currently testing Hoover Step on the fed side. I think there is definitely a use for it especially in SoCal, Hopefully Helitack will be given the same latitude as the jumper program one day and be able to be used more efficiently. Its just another tool in the toolbox!

    1. I believe its hover step. Hoover, hover, your correct Cal Fire has been doing this since the beginning of time. Many years ago the Feds directed helitack personnel not to perform this mission as a broken ankle had occurred, somewhere. A modified version of the heli-step is a “toe in” into the slope. The copter places both of the front skids into the slope. On command the fire fighters move along the skids to the cockpit section of the helicopter and steps down onto the (terrain) slope The last two fire fighters lower the tool bundles utilizing ropes. Copter backs away and the evolution is complete.

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