A smokejumper — alone and forgotten on a wilderness fire in 1969

He spent days by himself without a radio

smokejumper McCall
File photo by the McCall Smokejumper Base of a modern-day smokejumper leaving a Twin Otter.

Dan Green sent us this description of one of the fires he worked on as a smokejumper in McCall, Idaho in 1969. He said it is a true story.


Four smokejumpers were working at the airport when we got the fire call. Jepson, a tall southern Idaho school teacher, Doc, a medical school student during the school year and a favorite companion in bars and a good hand with the ladies, myself, and the Ned, who will remain unnamed to protect the innocent (or guilty depending on your point of view). A small crew of four McCall jumpers getting a break from action in what had been a busy fire year.

I was on the top of the jump list and it was just a matter of time before I went out again on a fire. I told my wife not to expect me home for dinner.

Dry lighting had been forecast, so our crew was working at the airport where fast mobilization was assured. We were cutting grass around the airport lights — hard work with one of those scythes that remind you of the grim reaper. It was 1969, before the invention of weed eaters. Hand scythes were a good way to exercise the muscles that were used in digging fire line and we used them on a regular basis. We were all ready for something more exciting than cutting grass.

Multiple fire smokes had been reported that morning by fire tower lookouts scattered throughout the Payette National Forest, so we loaded a Doug (Douglas DC-3) with sixteen men and all their gear. It was a familiar drill; getting into jump suits, grabbing fire packs, picking out a lucky chute and reserve chute, loading a few other useful items like radios, water cubes, extra food rations (c-rations), chains saws and fire tools, and PGs (personal gear bags). Within fifteen minutes the Doug was rolling down the long runway of the McCall airport. Normally we took a smaller plane on patrol, but it was good to get airborne again and do what we were paid to do.

As the Doug banked into the sun we got our first good view of the towering thunderheads developing around Jug Handle Peak and extending all the way into the Secesh River (named for Civil War rebs that settled that part of Idaho). We could see occasional flashes of lightning cloud-to-cloud but no down strikes. The plane slowly straightened out and headed for the nearest cloud.

You never knew how long these patrols would last so I found a pile of fire packs to camp out on and made myself a makeshift bed. Sleep whenever the opportunity presented itself was something I had learned in a job where twenty hour days was not uncommon.

As I drifted off to sleep I heard “Torg” (Gene Torgenroot), our self-appointed smokejumper comedian, singing his ribald version of “You oughta’ go to North Dakota….” A couple of other buddies, Doc and Freeman started moving around gear for a better spot to rest. I caught a little of their conversation about a girl they had met at the Brass Lamp, our favorite watering hole in McCall. Jumpers were not very sensitive to feminist issues in the sixties, and the conversation was similar to a marine corps barracks.

The nap was short-lived as the Doug banked to avoid a thunderhead, it hit some strong turbulence and gear started sliding around. I grabbed the webbing on the inside of the fuselage to avoid sliding myself. Still no smokes, so some of the boys lit up their own smokes. The Forest Service, sometimes referred to by jumpers as the four-assed Service, provided free smokes on big fires and those who didn’t smoke (like myself) ratholed a good inventory for trading with smokers when they needed a hit of nicotine. A pack or two in my PG bag was always appreciated on a long hike out after a wilderness fire when other jumpers had run out of cigarettes.

Monotony set in as the drone of the twin engine plane made conversation difficult. No sign of fires and it looked like a long patrol. It was early in the fire season and sometimes smoke reports from green fire tower lookouts were unreliable. Right after a storm, steam rising from the ground can form wispy clouds that look like smokes. It took experience to sort these “water dogs” out from the real thing.

The DC-3 eased over the divide between the Payette River and the South Fork of the Salmon and turned up the Secesh River (tributary of the South Fork of the Salmon). I enjoyed a first-hand view of several mountain lakes that I had hiked into the previous summer. They were fantastic fishing for sixteen to eighteen inch cutthroat trout. A long trail-less hike with almost 3,000 foot vertical rise on way in, but definitely worth a return trip. Crossing over the Secesh we spotted a small smoke on a ridge top. The Doug dropped down for a closer look. It was a small spot fire burning in white bark pine and lodgepole at 8,400 feet. The fire was less than a quarter acre so it was a two-man fire. Our spotter, Smalljohn, gave me the heads up and I moved towards the door. The DC3 was easy to get out of, so we typically did two man sticks. First, the plane did a fly over to look at the spot and drop streamers to test the wind.


I talked the jump over with Smalljohn. The ridge was rocky and fairly open with no ideal landing spot, but lots of small openings and dwarf timber shorter than the thirty foot length of our chutes. Smalljohn instructed me to just find the best spot somewhere on the top of the ridge. Wind conditions were a little squirrely, so it might be difficult to hit a particular spot. I asked Smalljohn to drop us on the south slope of the ridge which was gentle. The north slope was steep and rocky and led down to a small meadow that was the remnant of a cirque lake that had mostly filled in over the years.

The plane turned for its final pass and I peeked out the door and felt the familiar rush of wind in my face. Smalljohn checked my gear and made sure I was snapped in with my static line and gave me a strong slap on the rear leg. I jumped clear of the plane and experienced the rush of a brief free fall before the static line triggered the chute. I felt the welcome relief of a gentle opening shock. I looked up at my chute to check for malfunctions and everything was A-OK. I surveyed my surroundings and noted that my jump partner (the Ned) was also floating down towards the ridge. The top of the ridge looked rocky, but just down a ways on the south slope it looked open and inviting, so I turned slowly in my World War II Army surplus parachute and banked in for a landing. Hang time was about a minute with the low drop (1,000 feet from the ground) that was SOP AFU (standard operating procedure, you figure out the AFU).

smokejumper fire firefighter
A smokejumper arrives at a fire in the 1960s. U.S. Forest Service photo.

My landing was hard due to the high elevation, but any landing without mishap at 8,000 feet is a relief. I looked around for my partner and he had landed near me in some low reproduction timber.

The plane had circled for cargo drops and was headed back towards us. They kicked out a water cube, fire packs, a chain saw, and no radio. Radios were in short supply and reserved for larger fires (eight man fires). The saw and water cube landed in a tree well down the ridge. Sometimes when they try to push too many loads out the door on one pass, the cargo get strung out and is hard to find.

I quickly exited my jump suit and located a fire pack and got a Pulaski (a fire tool with an axe on one end and a hoe on the other). I headed up the ridge to the fire and joined up with the Ned. I was the senior man on the fire so I was default fire boss. We looked over the fire and it wasn’t going anywhere, but there was a good deal of work needed to line it and fell the snag. I started lining it and sent the Ned down to retrieve the chainsaw and the water cube. I had a quart canteen and could make it last all day, but finding the water was worth a little effort. We really needed a saw to fell the brittle twenty four inch diameter snag.

In short order I dug a “smokejumper line” (three feet wide) around the fire, and started to worry about the Ned. He should have been back by now. I knew that the drop was south of us, but also knew that going to look for him meant leaving the fire unmanned as the day warmed up. I decided to continue working on the fire and wait him out. Three hours later he showed up with a full canteen and reported that there was a good spring down the slope. He had not found the saw or water cube and reported that he looked for them for four hours. This meant felling the snag and then building a heliport with a Pulaski by hand.

The snag was a tough old white bark pine that I probably should have left standing as they are now an endangered species. It was probably well over a thousand years old. SOP was to fell the snag so I started chopping an undercut with the Pulaski. As I tired I let the Ned have a go at it. It was immediately evident that he was not skilled with an axe. It’s going to be a long day without the chainsaw.

As the day progressed I felled the snag and left the Ned to buck it up and get the unburned fuel removed from inside the fire line. I headed out to the end of the ridge where there was a good spot for a helispot (helicopter landing site). I found an ideal location on the end of the ridge, nice and flat and rocky with a steep drop off to the north for the dive. I began felling trees with the Pulaski making pretty quick work of the small diameter lodgepole pine trees. The trees were tightly spaced and only about thirty to forty feet tall and maybe six inches in diameter. I felled at least fifty of them to get a big enough spot for the helicopter to land and started working on the dive. Helicopters need a clear space downhill to dive off and gain ground speed when they are lifting off. The Ned showed up and we started dragging all the down trees into the woods leaving a clear space for the dive. I continue working on the dive as the Ned went back to the fire to start collecting all the gear to cache near the helispot.

No sooner had he left I heard the flop flop flop flop of a helicopter engine. I had not finished the dive and the landing spot was not safe for take-off. There was no way of communicate with the chopper, and I was reluctant to wave him off, as it could be several days before we would see another pick up. He came in headed south over the slope where I was building the dive, and made a good landing. I yelled at the Ned to start bringing the gear to the landing site. I ran out and grabbed a fire pack and loaded it on the side basket of the chopper. We did a fire drill running back and forth to the fire site, getting all the tools and fire packs.

I recognized that it is standard procedure to stay on a fire overnight and declare it out at ten the next morning, but wanted to get back to base and get on the jump list again. I had felt all the fire area with my bare hands, and it was cold so I was pretty sure that it was out cold. It was a small fire in one tree that had not had a chance to build up much heat, except in the snag.

We finished securing the load on the side baskets. This was a helicopter from California and I didn’t recognize the pilot. Apparently we had over one hundred small fires and the McCall base had called for backup and he showed up. His ship was a small Bell Helicopter that was older and much less powerful than the Jet Ranger helicopters that provided support for the jumpers. At 8,400 feet the air is pretty thin and helicopter’s operating lift is poor. Well, any ride will do when you are way the heck out in the wilderness.

He cranked up the engine and we lifted off for home. As he got above the trees he had to rotate the helicopter 180 degrees to use the half-assed dive that I was still working on. He started his turn and the chopper started to lose its air cushion over the trees and began slipping sideways into the pines below. I noted that the engine was above redline and screaming, so there is no hope of powering out of the slide. In desperation the pilot told me to get out on the skid and empty the baskets to lighten the load. I moved frantically and cut the bungie ties and emptied the weight on the side skid in less than ten seconds. The Ned passed out what gear we had stored in the back of the ship with him. There was no easy way to get across the pilot to the other side of the chopper to empty the other basket. The chopper kept side slipping. I was out on the skid getting pretty damn close to the trees and the pilot told me we were going down.

He yelled jump! So about forty feet off the ground I jumped into the closest tree, making sure to grab branches as I fell. It is an old drill for an experienced jumper who has already “treed up” thirteen times. My nick name was “Tree Green”.

The chopper gained altitude — damn I didn’t think I weighed that much — and headed down the dive and away. By this time I was safe and a little scratched up and about thirty feet up in a pine. I worked down the branches and shinnied down the last ten feet of the tree. After a brief adrenaline rush I was happy to be alive. For a minute it looked like the chopper was going in. I have had a few bad dreams about helicopter crashes and expect to have more vivid dreams now.

While I was contemplating my future in the slip sliding chopper I noted two parachutes hung up in trees fairly close to the helispot, not far down the ridge. I headed down the ridge and sure enough the chainsaw and water cube were “hung up” up in two small trees. I climbed the first one with the water cube and lowered it to the ground. Next I climbed the more difficult pine and finally got the saw and lowered it to the ground. SOP is to climb both trees and carefully retrieve the two cargo chutes. I fired up the chainsaw and “carefully cut down” the two trees. To hell with the cargo chutes. There are thousands more of them in US Army surplus depots ready to replace these two. It had been a long day and I was not in the mood for any more tree climbing. I sawed-off limbs and packaged up the torn chutes and carried all the gear to the helispot. I was pissed at the Ned for not retrieving the saw and cube. He must have been sleeping off a hang-over those four hours that I was lining the fire. He should have been “straight up” with me and we could have both found the saw and saved a lot of Pulaski work.

Next I went out to the fire to recheck it. The fire was cold and I felt better about the decision to go back to base early. My assumption is that the Ned and chopper pilot will both let the McCall foreman know that I was still out in the woods and ready to be retrieved by a little bigger helicopter. I waited all day (not too patiently) and no helicopter showed. A mountain lake beckons over the ridge and it may have fish, but I needed to stay on the helispot and wait for a ride. Besides all my fishing gear went out with the chopper, along with all the food. Time passed slowly and finally the sun dropped down over the high peaks to the west. Nothing to read; nothing to do; so I just enjoyed the sunset. I already had a large stack of firewood from building the helispot and was ready for a night without a coat or sleeping bag.

My thoughts wander to lost hunters that didn’t make it out of the Idaho Primitive Area (the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 states and later named the Frank Church Wilderness Area). I am a little hungry now, but my stomach had probably shrunk some by now. Had lots of water, a good fire, had rigged up a half assed tent and sleeping covers with two torn up cargo chutes,  and figured I would be just fine if I kept calm, cool and collected.

The next morning brought renewed hopes of a chopper showing up. After the previous day’s snafu with the Bell Helicopter, I had a strong compulsion to enlarge the helispot. So I fired up the chainsaw and started to work. Work makes the time pass. Before I knew it I had a helipad big enough to land several Huey’s in and the dive was cut out about one hundred yards down the slope. In later years I wondered what hikers and fishermen thought, when they found these mysterious clearings deep in the wilderness area. We considered every fire an “emergency situation” that warranted use of power tools even in the wilderness areas.

I saw lots of small planes that morning, headed to who knows where, but no helicopter. The afternoon went very slowly as I waited for a pick up. I walked well down the ridge and managed to kill a lone fool hen (Franklin Grouse). At this point a porcupine or skunk would have been welcome fare. I cooked the grouse for dinner and decided that I would start walking the next day.

I knew generally what direction to go and the canyons are so big and bold that it would be impossible to get lost. The trouble is I was at least twenty miles from the nearest road, without a map or food. I figured I would be fine at night with a fire and parachutes, so freezing my ass was not a concern.

The next day I waited until about ten, still hoping still for a helicopter to arrive. Then I began sorting through my gear in order to decide what to take out. SOP is to carry out everything but that is not practical given my location and all the two hundred pounds of gear I have. The solution was to sort out the more valuable stuff along with the only useful things (water and parachutes). I erred towards taking too much stuff; filling two elephant bags with gear. Each bag weighed about all one man can carry. I have packed a lot of elk out on my back so I had confidence as I headed over the side of the ridge towards the drainage below.

I tied one of the two jump ropes to one of the elephant bags and was sort of rolling and dragging it down the slope. An old timer showed me how you could get the round elephant bag rolling till it swung directly below you and stopped. Then you go down to the one side of it about the rope’s distance and start it rolling again. It beats the hell out of anything in the bag so I carried jump gear on my back and padded the sacrificial elephant bag with parachutes on the outside of the bag.

I worked my way down the slope following the elephant bag over rock slides and small cliffs with a heavy pack on my back. It went pretty fast; a lot easier than packing an elk. Eventually I got nearer to the bottom of the drainage and I ran out of steep slope. I was tempted to leave one of the bags, but decided to cache it while I carried the other bag to the bottom which was still about a mile away.

At the bottom of the drainage, I found a good sized stream with a trail on the other side of the stream. I waded the stream and cached the pack on my back. I was tired and it was getting late, but I made my way back up to the first elephant bag and carried it down to the stream. It was dark so I built a fire and started setting up my parachute sleeping area.

Wading the stream I had noticed lots of trout in the riffles. They were tempting, but I had no way of catching them. The previous year I had built a fish trap in a small stream to catch trout that had been trapped below a mountain lake (and returned most of them to the lake). This stream was too large for a trap, so I would have to sleep on it and come up with a plan B. I had caught fish by hand, but that takes a lot of patience.

By morning I was tired but not too hungry now. So instead of fishing, I focused on sorting through the gear and caching most of it for a packer to come and get at a later date. I built a good cache and flagged it. I kept one chute and one canteen (I was on a stream and water didn’t seem to be an issue). My plan was to follow the trail down the stream and eventually reach civilization.

It was good to get on a trail and I made good time. It was all downhill as I followed the stream out to where I would hopefully find a road. From the one mile an hour pace I had made bushwhacking down the hill, I stepped it up to about three miles an hour and started really covering ground. After a couple of hours, I was tired, but encouraged by the progress I was making. I took a brief rest, knowing that a longer rest just lets your muscles loose their snap.

I had no longer started up again when to my surprise I encountered two fishermen making their way up the trail with heavy packs on their backs. They were headed into some mountain lakes and were planning to leave the trail in about another mile to bushwhack their way up a side drainage.

I explained my situation; asked about a nearest road and borrowed their map. Knowing that they needed it, I committed it to memory. It looked like I was still about ten miles from a road, but it was all downhill. They had hiked up the stream and spent the night and still had a hard day into the lakes that were their destination. I didn’t want to ask them for food, given the fact that they had carried everything in ten miles.

They offered food and I took a little and some fishing line and a few flies. I quickly made an alder pole and tied the line onto the end and had a makeshift fly line. Before I knew it I had breakfast on the bank and with a small cooking fire and with alder sticks to roast the fish on.

I was in business. They say that you will eventually starve to death on a diet of fish, but to someone who hadn’t eaten in a couple of days, it was quite a meal.
I felt like a nap, but I knew I had a long walk ahead so I hit the trail. I had a belly full of fish and two granola bars in my pocket so I was better provisioned than I had been in some time.

The hike out was uneventful and filled with thoughts of how good it would be to get back to base and my wife. I eventually worked though the calories in the fish; ate the granola bars; and started burning fat reserves. I regretted not asking for some salt as a headache and a few cramps started warning me of salt deficiency.

Finally I reached the road. The fishermen’s car was parked there, but no other signs of civilization. From my recollection of the map the road climbed up out of the drainage over a high pass then on into the next drainage. It was still a long drive or several days walk from base, so I hunkered down and hoped for a car to come along. It was a dirt road, what Forest Service maps called an “unimproved road”.

Traffic would be light but the fishermen had not locked their car and had given me the OK to take what food I could find in the car. I found chips and beer. The chips would replace lost electrolytes and the beer would be bad news for someone with an empty stomach. I ate lots of chips and washed it down with one beer.

For the next several hours I sat right in the middle of the road napping and waiting for a ride. Central Idaho had few residents, so I was more likely to encounter tourists than locals.

Finally as evening approached a pickup rounded the bend and approached. The fellow driving it looked like a local and later our conversation confirmed his Idaho roots. I explained my predicament and he offered to take me all the way into the base, even though it was well beyond his intended destination. I planned on visiting with him on the drive out, but I was close to the end of my rope at that point, and more or less passed out in the passenger seat and slept the whole way. I had him drop me off in the jumper trailer court where my wife and I were staying and gave him my thanks.

It was dark and I didn’t want to spook my wife. A month earlier I had returned from the Silver City New Mexico base, in the middle of the night and scared both my wife and me. I kept a loaded shotgun near the bed and when I opened the front door I hear the sound of a round being chambered. Wanting to avoid repeating that situation, I knocked first.

My wife was overjoyed to see me. She had been informed that I was in Alaska. It turned out that there had been a big fire bust and McCall had sent all of the jumpers at the base to Fairbanks. I was so tired I could barely think straight and she convinced me to wait until morning to sort things out.

The next day I went to the office to find Del Catlin, our foreman. Del was apologetic for losing track of me. He explained that there had apparently been a miscommunication and I had been on the list of jumpers sent to Alaska. The Ned who should have known better, never reported my absence and apparently the helicopter pilot just headed back to California. I always assumed that he didn’t want to try his luck with a second landing at the poor helispot.


Epilogue

I worked as a school teacher with summers off, then went back to school and got a masters in landscape architecture.  I worked in resource planning for ten years, becoming CEO of a regional council of governments. Then, in mid-career, I went back and got a PhD in Forestry (fisheries and economics).  I worked at Washington State University as Campus Planner and as an economist.  Since then I have worked for consulting firms as an economic modeling specialist.
I really enjoyed my years in fire — the most exciting years of my life.  As I have aged many of the old injuries have troubled me and I have had to have three major operations to replace/repair joints injured as a smokejumper, but I’d do it again in a flash.

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+

6 thoughts on “A smokejumper — alone and forgotten on a wilderness fire in 1969”

  1. Good story.

    “He said it is a true story.” lol. I believe it. But I was always told the difference between a fire story and a fairy tale is that a fire story begins with “This is no bulls***…”

  2. I thought there were only four working at the base that day, how did they get sixteen in the plane? Sounds like an exaggerated tale…surprised it didn’t start with “I remember that time when…” 🙂

    1. Mr. Green wrote,

      Four smokejumpers were working at the airport when we got the fire call.

      The other 12 smokejumpers could have been near the airport; or, at the airport but not working. Or, it’s a typo. Consider the alternatives before you accuse someone of “an exaggerated tale”.

  3. Just pulling some legs, Bill. I’ve been known to exaggerate a tale or two also. I remember that time when it was just me and another FF when we put out a 100 acre fire by our selves! (OK, 1 acre) 🙂

  4. Why in hell did he not simply start a warning fire and up green bows on it to create lots of smoke to attract aerial recon the next day or two. certainly they were flying the area for sleepers and would have responded to any smoke on the horizon. Some parts of this just don’t make sense to me and I wonder if the Ned is still alive!!!! Bob

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