As Wildlands Fires Ravage Western U.S. – Is This The New Normal?

Over 100 wildlands fires are burning in the U.S., with most of them being in the western U.S. The California fires are exceedingly destructive, with Cal Fire officials calling this the new normal for the now extended and catastrophic fire seasons that we are experiencing. In the midst of all this, there’s a particularly good Ted talk on megafires done by Paul Hessburg at the TEDx event in Bend, Oregon, 2017. The video is well worth viewing:

Wildlands Wildfire – Getting Ready for the Fire Season at the McCall, Idaho Smokejumper Base

The entrance to the smokejumper ready room at the McCall, ID, smokejumper base.
The entrance to the smokejumper ready room at the McCall, ID, smokejumper base. The tower for hanging parachutes is the tall structure attached to the ready room.

The McCall Smokejumper Base, in west-central Idaho, has 70 wildland firefighters on staff. McCall’s Smokejumper program was established in 1943, and since then has continually provided fire management personnel to wildland fires throughout the nation. As noted on the McCall Smokejumper website:

“Today, the McCall Smokejumper Unit is an interagency resource providing highly trained, experienced firefighters and leadership for quick, wide-ranging, self-sufficient initial attack, extended attack, Incident Command System (ICS) fire teams, and prescribed fire operations throughout the country. Three Twin Otters comprise the fixed-wing aircraft fleet which enables this unit to provide firefighters, paracargo, and supplies to literally anywhere in the country.”  

McCall smokejumpers doing a refresher jump from a Sherpa aircraft.
McCall smokejumpers doing a refresher jump from a Sherpa aircraft.
Almost down and ready for the ground roll. Note the yellow and pink crepe streamers in the trees in the background. Typically 2 sets of streamers are dropped prior to the jumps so that the pilot and spotter can determine wind speed and direction.
Almost down and ready for the ground roll. Note the yellow and pink crepe streamers in the trees in the background. Typically 2 sets of streamers are dropped prior to the jumps so that the pilot and spotter can determine wind speed and direction.

I visited the McCall Smokejumper Base a few days ago and was lucky enough to not only have a detailed base tour, but to watch some of the refresher jump training for the experienced smokejumpers. The jumps that I saw were made both from a Shorts Sherpa C-23 (which flew down from the Missoula, Montana smokejumper base for the refresher training) and from a Twin Otter, which is an aircraft in the McCall base fleet. The ground crew for the jumps gave me a detailed explanation of the drop procedures as they monitored the jumps via radio and video. The refresher jumps are critiqued for each person. The exit door on each plane has a video device to capture aircraft exiting procedures and the ground crew video parachute maneuvering, parachute landing rolls and talk with each stick of two jumpers to make sure jump communications were good. I even was able to watch a couple cargo drops and a drill of emergency medical procedures.

The parachute tower where chutes are dried and inspected for damage.
The parachute tower where chutes are dried and inspected for damage.

The base tour included being able to see the parachute loft tower (where parachutes are hoisted up in order to dry them and inspect them), the sewing repair room, the parachute folding room, and the ready room. Because this is the start of the season and the refresher jump training time, it was a very busy place.

The parachute folding room. It takes experienced folders from 45 minutes to an hour to fold a chute.
The parachute folding room. It takes experienced folders from 45 minutes to an hour to fold a chute.
Smokejumpers hang their jumpsuit gear on speed racks in the ready room so they can quickly suit up for fire deployment.
Smokejumpers hang their jumpsuit gear on speed racks in the ready room so they can quickly suit up for fire deployment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To get a better idea of what it’s like to be a smokejumper at the McCall Base, watch the following Youtube video that was done by a group of McCall smokejumpers:

Wildlands Fire in the American West – The New Fire Realities

The fireline.It comes as no surprise to anyone living in the American West that wildlands fire is a major issue. Sally Mauk, of Montana Public Radio, recently interviewed wildlands fire expert Tom Zimmerman about the new realities of wildlands firefighting. As Ms. Mauk noted in her introduction to Mr. Zimmerman:

In over three decades of fighting fire, studying fire and crafting fire management policy, Tom Zimmerman has seen a lot of changes in fire behavior and control. Zimmerman has worked with fire for the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S Forest Service – and most recently, at the  National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

Listen to the interview podcast at this link: Wildlands Firefighting