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Archive for June, 2009

First fire of ’09

Perfect timing!  Within an hour of being on the list and available to jump fires we were loading up for a “pre-position” in Palmer, a few hundred miles south of Fairbanks- near Anchorage.  Talk about a sweet flight… the Alaska Range is one rugged place.  Denali (the tallest mountain in North America) is amazing from the air!

Alaska Range

Alaska Range

Palmer was beautiful but we were only there long enough to eat lunch.  The trendy little coffee cafe sold the last turkey and swiss to the customer directly in front of me so I had to have tuna.  Bummer.  They did mess up an order somewhere in the lunch rush though, so I cashed in on some free soup which was delicious.  It’s not the first time that questioning in a judgmental tone “you’re just going to throw that away?!” has gotten me some good loot.

Alaskan scenery

Alaskan scenery

We got the fire call in the early afternoon.  There were several fires found during a detection flight that had just flown.  We were to fly four fires and determine which one we would take action on.  The first fire was only about 30 acres and was flanked on one side by a river so we flew on to find something that posed a little more of a challenge.  Well, as it turned out, the next several were what we call “gobblers”- as in they are gobbling up everything in their path at a rapid rate.  In most cases they are catchable with enough resources but we had to consider what we could effectively do with eight smokejumpers and a few loads of retardant.  Each of those fires were beyond unstoppable with the few guys that we had; we would have been just as effective flying over it and peeing out the door on them as we would have been jumping.

Two headed monster!

Two headed monster!

going big

gobble gobble

nasty

nasty

So, back to the first fire.  In the time that it took us to fly to the other fires, get fuel, and come back, our little fire had grown to about 150 acres.  Although it was much larger than we hoped, we were optimistic that we could do something to at least slow it down.  We had try anyway- there was a village a few miles down the river.  The jump itself was utterly amazing, maybe the best of my career.  I was the fourth person in my four person stick (meaning four people jump just a few seconds apart from each other).  As fourth man my job is to simply hang as high and as long as possible as the others try to reach the ground in an orderly fashion.  It was during that few minutes that I decided that the single best way to experience the breathtaking beauty of the Alaska backcountry is while the sun is low in the sky and the calm wind makes it completely silent under the canopy, sailing two thousand feet above the ground.  I found myself yelling at the top of my lungs “THIS IS AMAZING!  I LOVE MY JOB!!!”

Our fire

Our fire

the jump

the jump

cargo

cargo

view from camp

view from camp

the standby shack in McGrath- spent a week there

the standby shack in McGrath- spent a week there

they had parking for me!

they had parking for me!

We beat flames until 3 am before the two squads, taking opposite sides of the fire, tied into each other in triumph- we stopped it at 230 acres.  We decided that it would be ok to leave for the night and get some much needed rest.  The next three days were spent mopping up hotspots and making sure that the perimiter was secure.  We got a helicopter ride to Red Devil (seriously the name of the village) where a plane met up with us and flew us the rest of the way to McGrath.  We spent a week in the 200 person, two bar, one store village waiting for another fire to jump but the weather was cool and didn’t really produce any more starts.  We eventually flew back to Fairbanks where I’ve been for three days mending parachutes, rigging parachutes, and when I have time, weeding in the garden.

Flying home to Fairbanks

Flying home to Fairbanks

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“HELMETS, GLOVES AND SEATBELTS YOU SON’S OF BITCHES!!!”  Marty the spotter boomed as we were taxiing down the runway, just about to take off for our last jump.  I was still thinking about what just happened before getting on the plane…

About 40 of the Alaska jumpers found out that we were about to have our last jump and so they gathered around to “cheer” us on during our suit-up competition which preceded the jump.  After the alarm went off (simulating a fire call), the idea was to be the first one to be suited up and on the way out to the plane- us jumpers pride ourselves on how quickly we can get ready.  Well, I had a zipper stick on me for a moment and was dead last, so the cheering mob was cheering extra loud for me and I went running- well as close to running you can do wearing 70 pounds of constrictive jump suit, parachutes and gear- to catch up with the other guys on the load.  Well about halfway through my run/limp/waddle to the plane the crowd really erupted into cheering and laughter and I heard someone yelling “hey stop!”  I turned around to notice that I was trailing about 10 feet of my let down rope out of my leg pocket… the ultimate shit show.

Anyway, the jump went pretty darn well after that.  I landed in the tight spot surrounded in trees, and without injury.  Holly cow, I actaully made it.  Celebration!  I hit the list the next day- available to jump fires on the ram-air chute.

coming in for landing

coming in for landing

My New Man Ram Air grad. class

My New Man Ram Air grad. class

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