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.

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Rollover of a trailer loaded with a dozer on Cougar Creek Fire

Above: A trailer loaded with a D-5 dozer rolled over on the Cougar Creek Fire in Idaho August 10, 2018. Incident Management Team photo.

(Updated at 8:55 a.m. PDT September 6, 2018)

A trailer loaded with a Caterpillar D-5H dozer rolled over while it was being relocated on the Cougar Creek Fire about 26 miles west of Chelan, Washington. A Peterbilt dump truck was pulling the triple-axle transport trailer as it travelled downhill on USFS Road 5700 near Pine Flats Campground.

About halfway down the grade the driver said the brakes failed on both the truck and the trailer. As the speed increased on the curvy one-lane road the driver attempted to slow down by driving off the edge of the road in soft dirt. After negotiating several curves the trailer climbed up a bank causing it to tip over onto its side. The truck and the trailer came to a stop on the road.

The report we saw did not indicate that the truck rolled over, but it had damage to the front end, bumper, headlights, and the rear trailer hitch. On the trailer the hitch was damaged and three tires were punctured. There was some damage to the dozer but the driver was not injured.

The preliminary report suggested to prevent similar accidents drivers should use lower gears and slower speeds when driving downhill to reduce overheating the brakes.

The accident occurred at 4:10 p.m. on August 10. We have an unconfirmed report that approximately 200 contractors and agency personnel were trapped due to the blocked road and had to remain without logistical support overnight at a drop point which did not qualify as a safety zone.  When the Rapid Lesson Sharing team arrived the next day at least some of the personnel refused to speak to them about the incident.

(This article was revised to clarify that the incident occurred on the Cougar Creek Fire, rather than the Cougar Fire.)

Two fire engines burned on the North Eden Fire in Utah

Two fire vehicles fighting the North Eden Wildfire were destroyed August 17 by wind-driven flames. A heavy engine from Woodruff Fire Department and a light engine from the State Division of Forestry Fire & State Lands responded to the fire’s west flank.

One engine experienced a mechanical problem and as both crews tried to make the vehicle mobile again flames quickly moved toward the scene cutting off their escape route. The group of three firefighters was forced to leave the vehicles and escape into the black. No injuries were reported.

The 13,753-acre fire is burning in Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming.– a rare three-state fire.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.
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Interview with Kari Greer about her photography exhibit in Missoula

Above: Kari Greer, wildfire photographer, at a reception for the opening of her exhibit at the University of Montana May 21, 2018.

Tuesday we had an opportunity to interview Kari Greer about her “Facing the Inferno” exhibit of wildfire photography. It is on display for three days, May 21-23, during the Fire Continuum Conference at the University of Montana in Missoula in the University Center, room 227.

The photos in the exhibit are borrowed from the main venue showing her photography which was at the Prichard Art Gallery on the campus of the University of Idaho until April 14, 2018.

Kari is a very well respected and skilled wildland fire photographer who has specialized in the field for years.

BLM: fuel breaks stopped spread of Centennial Fire

The BLM fuel breaks are initially created by using herbicides

Above: screenshot from the BLM video showing a fuel break.

(Originally published at 10 a.m. MST December 2, 2017)

The Bureau of Land Management produced this video that explains their philosophy of creating fuel breaks in Idaho by using herbicides followed by planting fire resistant vegetation such as “Stabilizer” Siberian wheatgrass. The 2017 Centennial Fire west of Twin Falls would have grown much larger, they claim, had it not stopped at a fuel break 275 feet wide.

fuel break herbicide aerial application
An aircraft sprays herbicide on a BLM fuelbreak. Screenshot from the BLM video.

Wildfires persist in the Cascades and Northern Rockies

Today there are 71 large uncontained wildfires in the United States.

Above: the red and orange dots on the map represent heat on wildfires detected by a satellite in the 24 hours before 7:30 a.m. MDT September 11, 2017. Heat found before that is not shown.

(Originally published at 7:45 a.m. MDT September 11, 2017)

In spite of the hurricanes impacting the southeast United States, the wildfires in the Cascade Range and the Northern Rockies persevere in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Northern California.

Off and on over the last week they have slowed as clouds and even some scattered very light showers passed over the areas, but the National Interagency Fire Center reported today there are 71 active large fires, 32 that are being suppressed and 39 that are being suppressed only where needed to protect property.

So far this year 8.2 million acres have burned in the United States, which is 46 percent higher than the 5.6 million average to this date.

Red Flag Warning Northwest Montana
Red Flag Warning for Northwest Montana, September 11, 2017. There is a Fire Weather Watch due to “abundant lightning on dry fuels” predicted Tuesday afternoon for areas in northern California and south-central Oregon.

The weather for Monday and Tuesday could be conducive to fire growth, especially in Northwest Montana where a Red Flag Warning is in effect Monday. But Wednesday through Saturday will bring a chance of rain to Idaho and Western Montana, while the forecast for Northern California, Oregon, and Washington looks dry this week.

Weather forecast Wednesday September 13
Weather forecast for Wednesday September 13, 2017. Weather.com