The view from under a parachute canopy

Hastings fire in Alaska, May 31, 2011. Two smokejumpers approach landing zone. Photo: Mike McMillan

Jon Marshall, a smokejumper at Missoula, has written an article about the current state of the smokejumper program. He looks at career development in the program, staffing levels, what it’s like to be a jumper, and the square vs. round canopy issue. You can red the entire article at his blog, but below is an excerpt:


I’ve loved living the life of a smokejumper. The people, the places, the experiences, the opportunities, the adventure; the skills, the training, the challenges, the obstacles, the fears and the insight that I’ve gained while employed as a smokejumper have given me an acute appreciation of what one is truly capable of if one puts their mind to it. I typically spend less than 20 minutes a year under canopy, but spend close to 6 months of my life away from home, dedicated to fire and the travel and the lifestyle associated with it. During that 6-month period I spend close to 100 days on active fire assignments and work nearly 800 hours of overtime, filling a variety of roles while making significant sacrifices to other aspects of my personal and professional life.

I enjoy the small initial attack fires with close friends, but I also grow from the challenges, personal tests and complexities found in incident command and on large project fires. I want to see this program move healthily forward into the future while providing it’s employees with the career opportunities and support that they deserve. The Smokejumper program is, at its core, the strongest Professional Development Program in the Forest Service, and in my opinion, one of the strongest in the country outside of the military. Individuals that leave the Smokejumper program go on to become extremely strong leaders, mentors and role models throughout this country. They pursue a wide range of careers from national incident managers and fire leaders to politicians to scientists to private business owners and entrepreneurs. I think it’s critical that we don’t lose sight of what this program really means to most of us; while truly recognizing how fragile it may really be.

Learning Review released for smokejumper fatality

A report called a “Learning Review” has been released for the Luke Sheehy fatality, the smokejumper who was killed by a falling limb while suppressing a wildfire on the Modoc National Forest in northeast California on June 10. In addition to the primary report an additional document with supporting information, including some mind-numbing charts, was released.

The objective as stated in the document was to “understand the rationale for the actions/decisions involved in the incident and then, if possible, to learn from them”.

Frequently at Wildfire Today we will write a summary and then our analysis of serious accident reports, but this particular document is very different from the traditional report. It adopts the new paradigm of leaving out conclusions and recommendations, a process that began to be etched into stone in August when the Serious Accident Investigation Guide was revised. This Learning Review claims that “conclusions can sometimes close the door on learning”. I would say on the other hand that they can more frequently open the door to an enhanced safety environment for firefighters. People can sometimes be hit by meteorites, but not often.

And like virtually every research paper, most of the recommendations are for additional studies, ensuring continued employment for academics and researchers.

Call me old school, but this document appears to be more useful for human behavior researchers than firefighters. How did we get to the point where language such as this is used repeatedly in a U.S. Forest Service funded official report about a wildland fire?

  • “Typical mission flow”
  • “Synthesis, analysis and sensemaking”
  • “Margin of maneuver”
  • “Sensemaking team”
  • “Single Loop vs. Double Loop Learning”
  • “Hoberman Sphere”
  • “Pressures and filters”
  • “Mind maps”
  • “Auditory signal”
  • “Signal detection”

The Learning Review does suggest that two additional products be prepared, one for “the field” and another for “the organization”. Maybe the field document, if produced, will be more useful for firefighters. And presumably the organization version will have conclusions and recommendations that will remain secret if the guidelines revised in August are followed.

I am not sure why the U.S. Forest Service paid the 22 people, plus multiple focus groups, to produce this study if they did not receive for their investment products usable by the field or the organization.

But I am old school when it comes to opportunities for learning lessons.

Hitler, Smokejumpers, and Hotshots

This video featuring Adolf Hitler as a Planning Section Chief has been out for almost two years, but maybe some of the Plans folks out there have not seen it.

You can view it HERE on YouTube.

The video below peeks in at a conversation between a smokejumper and a hotshot. The jumper is on the left.

It can also be seen at YouTube.


Thanks go out to Tony

Smokejumper killed in training accident

A Boise Bureau of Land Management smokejumper died Friday afternoon in a training accident near Prairie, Idaho.

Originally published at 8:46 p.m. MDT, September 27; updated at 8:30 a.m. MDT, September 28.

A Boise Bureau of Land Management smokejumper died Friday afternoon, September 27, in a parachuting accident. Mark T. Urban, 40, was killed after his canopy failed to properly deploy. The accident occurred about 45 miles east of Boise, near Smith’s Prairie at about 12:30 p.m. MDT.

Preliminary information from the BLM indicated that he was conducting a research and development jump using a new device to designed to assist in deploying the canopy.

He had been a jumper for 10 years.

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Urban’s family and co-workers.

Mann Gulch Fire, 64 years ago today

A wildfire entrapped 15 smokejumpers and a fire guard in Mann Gulch on August 5, 1949 on the Helena National Forest in Montana. The fire took the lives of 13 men and burned nearly 5,000 acres.

The fatalities:

  • Robert J. Bennett
  • Eldon E. Diettert
  • James O. Harrison
  • William J. Hellman
  • Philip R. McVey
  • David R. Navon
  • Leonard L. Piper
  • Stanley J. Reba
  • Marvin L. Sherman
  • Joseph B. Sylvia
  • Henry J. Thol, Jr.
  • Newton R. Thompson
  • Silas R. Thompson
The 13 men who were killed in the Mann Gulch fire. U. S. Forest Service photo.

The story of this fire was told by Norman Maclean in his book “Young Men and Fire“.

The sketch below is from the official report.

In light of the June 30 deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots on the Yarnell Hill Fire and their attempted use of an escape fire to create a refuge zone, you may be interested in a paper that analyzed Smokejumper Foreman Wag Dodge’s escape fire that probably saved his life on the Mann Gulch Fire. In the 27-page document written by Martin E. Alexander, Mark Y. Ackerman, and Gregory J. Baxter, they concluded that the size of Mr. Dodge’s escape fire was about 120 feet by 86 feet when it was overrun by flames from the main fire. Mr. Dodge later told investigators that he explained to the firefighters nearby that after the escape fire spread and cooled in the interior, they should take refuge in the new burned area with him. Unfortunately, none of them did.

The paper includes a statement made by Mr. Dodge that was included in Earl Cooley’s 1984 book, Trimotor and Trail.

When the main fire reached my area, I lay down on the ground on my side and poured water from my canteen on my handkerchief over my mouth and nose and held my face as close to the ground as I could while the flames flashed over me. There were three extreme gusts of hot air that almost lifted me from the ground as the fire passed over me. It was running in the grass and also flashing through the tree tops. By 6:10 p.m. the fire had passed by and I stood up. My clothing had not been scorched and I had no burns.

The Six Minutes for Safety overview of the fire is HERE.

Here is a photo of Mann Gulch taken in 2008, from The Travels of John and Breya.

Big Meadows Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park

(UPDATE at 10:15 a.m. PT, June 16, 2013)

Big Meadow Fire
Firefighters conducted a burnout adjacent to an avalanche chute Friday, June 14, on the Big Meadows Fire. NPS photo

The Big Meadows Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park has grown to either 496 or 603 acres; both numbers are listed on the fire’s main InciWeb page. Some of the acreage is a result of burn outs conducted by firefighters to take advantage of natural barriers such as an avalanche chute. The Incident Commander lists the fire at  60 percent contained. Uploaded maps can be found on InciWeb.


(UPDATE at 9:40 a.m. MT, June 14, 2013)

Fire activity Thursday was largely limited to an area on the eastern flank of the fire on south facing slopes. Hand crews constructed and strengthened fire lines along the northwest flank of the fire. Crews working along Tonahutu Creek continued efforts to install hose lays to strengthen containment along the southern flank of the fire.

Today firefighting resources will include an initial attack module of seven fire-fighters, two 20-person Type 1 hotshot crews, two 20-person Type 2 hand crews, and five fire engines.

After an infrared mapping flight, the size of the fire was determined to be 333 acres, a reduction due to more accurate information. The fire is listed at 30 percent containment.

Big Meadow Fire June 11, 2013
Big Meadows Fire June 11, 2013

(UPDATE at 6 p.m. MT, June 13, 2013)

Map of Big Meadow Fire
Map of Big Meadows Fire, 3:28 a.m. MT, 6-13-2013


(UPDATE at 8:46 a.m. MT, June 13, 2013)

A shortage of wildland firefighters is impacting the suppression of the Big Meadows fire. Fire managers said there are not enough Type 1 hand crews available for them to obtain the resources they need. The 19 percent reduction in the number of federal wildland firefighters over the last two years may have contributed to this situation that makes it more difficult to put out fires.

Below is an excerpt from an update issued by fire managers:

There are 107 firefighters currently on the Big Meadows Fire plus the Type 2 team who will be taking over command of the fire from the Boise Smokejumper Type 3 team tomorrow. Air resources include one Type 1 helicopter, one Type 2 helicopter and two Type 3 helicopters. Many firefighters will be camping out near the fire tonight to get an early morning start to continue with fire suppression tactics.

A challenge continues to be filling additional Type 1 crews. Due to other fires in Colorado, as well as in other states that are impacting communities and homes, resources are being spread across the nation.

The fire managers are calling the fire 600 acres with zero containment.

The area is under a Red Flag Warning until 9 p.m. today for 10-20 mph winds gusting up to 30 mph, relative humidity as low as 14 percent, and thunderstorms with little if any rain, possibly producing more fires.

The Rocky Mountain Type 2 Incident Management Team A was scheduled to assume command of the fire at 6 a.m. today. Their Incident Command Post is the Granby High School.


(UPDATE at 6:12 p.m. MT, June 12, 2013)

The Rocky Mountain Geographic Area reports the Big Meadow Fire has now burned 600 acres. It is making upslope runs and is spotting out ahead of the main fire.


(UPDATE at 2:52 p.m. MT, June 12, 2013)

Map of Big Meadow Fire, 1:43 p.m. MT,  6-12-2013
Map of Big Meadows Fire, 1:43 p.m. MT, 6-12-2013 (click to enlarge)

The above map contains new data on the location of the Big Meadow Fire. It shows the approximate location of heat detected by a satellite which was collected at 1:43 p.m. MT today. The locations of the squares can be as much as a mile in error. The data indicates that the fire moved a bit toward the southeast.


(UPDATE at 2:14 p.m. MT, June 12, 2013)

As we reported yesterday, the two Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) C-130 air tankers at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs have been activated for this surge in wildfire occurrence and were seen in the air near the Black Forest Fire an hour or two ago. More information about the MAFFS activation and how they were used in Colorado in 2012 is at Fire Aviation.


(Originally published at 7:52 a.m. MT, June 12, 2013; updated at 12:13 p.m. MT, June 12, 2013)

The Big Meadows Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park started from a lightning strike on Monday. Tuesday it grew from two acres to 400 by the end of the day. Wednesday around noon the Park updated the number of acres burned to 500.

The fire is about 4 miles from the Green Mountain Trailhead in a relatively remote section of Rocky Mountain National Park west of the Continental Divide. Around 1:00 p.m. Tuesday firefighters experienced extremely gusty winds that both deterred deploying smokejumpers and increased the fire’s growth. No structures or communities are threatened.

Map of Big Meadow Fire, 2:40 p.m. MT, June 11, 2013
Map of Big Meadows Fire, 2:40 p.m. MT, June 11, 2013

The map of the Big Meadows Fire above shows the fire to be west of the Continental Divide and 13 miles from Estes Park. The Park posted a zoomed-in topographic map of the fire perimeter Wednesday morning.

The fire is burning in heavy timber and moving to the northeast toward Nakai Peak. No structures or communities are threatened.

A Boise Smokejumper Type 3 Incident Management Team has taken over management of the fire, with Incident Commander Matt Bowers. The Park apparently likes having smokejumpers from Boise manage their fires, as evidenced by this fire and the Fern Lake fire of 2012.

The Rocky Mountain Type 2 Incident Management Team A has been dispatched and is expected to inbrief Wednesday morning and transition Thursday morning.

Fire managers have ordered additional air and ground resources including three additional helicopters and five additional Type 1 crews. The weather forecast is for more warm, dry and windy conditions Wednesday and the fire is expected to be active.

The Park’s Tuesday morning press release said the National Park Service reluctantly decided to suppress the fire, rather than let it burn, citing extended drought conditions and reduced interagency resources, which influenced the decision, they said. Then a few hours later, it was off to the races — and it could be a long race unless there is a major change in the weather very soon.

The map below shows the location of the three large fires burning in Colorado.
Continue reading “Big Meadows Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park”