Up in Smoke


BY LAURA LUNDBERG & AINSLIE FORSUM
PHOTOS: ALEX MCDOUGALL


The men and women of the Redmond Air Center jump out of airplanes to fight fire. Seventy pounds of gear. Masks. Parachutes. Smoke. Heat. Fire.

Heart pounding, mind racing, thoughts come to him quickly—a collage of memories, lessons, and snippets of his training he can recite by heart. His hands go to his suit. Reserve chute? Check. Collar up? Check. Harness clipped and ready? Check. Ralph Sweeney has jumped countless times before, but the nerves never fade. Even today, when he isn’t about to leap into a crackling inferno, the fate of his nine team members still rests heavy in his hands. Smokejumpers take their training as seriously as they would a real wildfire. They have to. Anything less could be the difference between life
and death.

The whirl of airplane blades echoes throughout the steel frame of the Sherpa C-23 aircraft, breaking through Sweeney’s reverie. Nine men and one woman sit huddled on rudimentary stainless steel seats wearing tan, padded Kevlar suits, thin gloves, and wire mesh-covered helmets. The  rookies sit silently. Some fiddle with their helmets or their chute straps while others stare out the window, taking in the majestic world into which they’re about to descend.

Sweeney gets the signal—it’s time to go. He stands up, taking his place at the front of the line. He fastens his pack, hands moving to triple-check everything. Breathing a deep sigh, he closes his eyes to quiet his mind. Then he’s on the precipice, wind whipping past the yawning door. He places one foot onto the crude, steel step beneath the door and prepares to free-fall 100 feet.

In through the nose, out through the mouth.

Adrenaline pounds through his veins as he looks at the forest below. Hearing nothing but the purr of the turbines, he focuses on his training, replaying in his mind the steps he has practiced over and over. His nerves begin to fade as courage rises to take its place. It’s time. Whether he’s ready or not, he’s going to jump.

Sweeney launches himself forward—and into thin air.

[cap]T[/cap]he Redmond Air Center is an unassuming building nestled in the high desert town of Redmond, just east of Oregon’s Deschutes National Forest. Once a home for World War II aircrafts, it now serves as a firefighting base for the United States Forest Service.

From May through October, the base is populated with some of the country’s most fearless firefighters—the Redmond Smokejumpers. The crew began its operations in 1964 when eight smokejumpers boldly leaped into their first fire on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation just north of the base. Since then, the crew has completed a jaw-dropping 11,321 jumps and suppressed 2,880 wildfires. Smokejumpers are called upon to fight some of the most remote fires that tear through the rugged West, parachuting in to contain the blaze. These intrepid men and women must be ready to travel anywhere in the United States when the alarm bell rings and are first on the scene to fires that either can’t be accessed by road or need immediate attention. It’s a demanding job that requires a steely focus earned through considerable training. An unbreakable bond of trust allows them to accomplish tasks safely and effectively.

Smokejumpers leave the plane two at a time from 1500 feet in the air and must land in difficult terrain. Because the equipment they carry is so heavy, its essential for smokejumpers to roll when they land.

Sweeney is one of many tough, determined, and highly trained smokejumpers who thrive on the thrill of the job. He has fought fires since 1995, when he answered a newspaper advertisement for summer firefighters. Sweeney was working for the forest service when he saw his first smokejumper.

“We loaded their gear and took them to an airport and they flew away,” he recalls. “I was pretty mesmerized by it. I was like, ‘What is that and how do I get that job?’”

After working his way up the ranks for five years, Sweeney finally got the job. He was appointed as a Redmond Smokejumper in 2001. During his time with the group, he has logged more than 200 jumps and fought fires across the country in locations ranging from Alaska to the Carolinas. Wherever there are forest fires, there are likely smokejumpers, and a love of unpredictability comes standard with the job.

“When you’re riding to work in the morning and you don’t know where you’re going to be that day—it’s a neat anticipation other professions don’t have,” Sweeney says, peering out a window at the hanger that houses the red and white Sherpa.

Smokejumpers have the advantage of an aerial view of the fires they fight and must come up with a strategy for the best approach. Once they find a point of entry, they parachute down, unpack their gear, and begin extinguishing the fire until backup arrives. This unique perspective gives them a strong advantage in terms of preparation and safety, but it also requires a bulletproof plan and top-notch training. Smokejumpers need to know exactly what they’re up against once they hit the ground.

Tony Loughton looks to the sky as fellow smokejumpers fall to the ground. Once on the ground they must pack up their parachutes and jumping gear to prepare to hike to a fire.

[cap]W[/cap]ith his heart in his throat, S w e e n e y counts aloud as he hurtles toward the ground: “Jump one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, four one thousand, look five thousand.” The wind causes the canopy to flap loudly and, at the end of ‘look five thousand,’ it unfurls.

The vivid green forests of Oregon lay 1,500 feet below him. Bright streamers that were thrown out of the airplane to test the wind direction serve as landmarks so Sweeney and his jump partner can find the landing location. He manipulates his lines to control his parachute while communicating with his partner. They must coordinate their landings just right to avoid a collision.

When smokejumpers land, they land hard. Sweeney rolls automatically; he has practiced
this drill more times than he can count. With more than seventy pounds of gear and the wind in his face, one misstep could lead to crushed bones. Once on the ground, he untangles his lines and pulls in his chute.

Sweeney is the jumper in charge—the person who lands first and sizes up the scene. The role comes with heavy responsibility. If the jumper in charge doesn’t communicate well or misreads the fire, the entire mission could be compromised, causing potentially fatal accidents.

Whether in training or in the field, the protocol is the same: When he hits the ground, Sweeney must immediately call the dispatchers to confirm that all of his crew members are safe. He then briefs the team on the plan of action—where they will enter the fire, where they will meet when they’re done, and what task each person is assigned. These can range from digging a trench around the fire’s perimeter to cutting down potential hazards such as burning branches.

But those are drills for another day. For now, the training jump has gone perfectly. Sweeney looks at his fellow jumpers with pride.

Jesse Haury, one of the last trainees to land, surveys the cluster of smokejumpers that stand around her. All of them are men. Of the 450 smokejumpers nationwide, only thirty or so are women. Being the only woman had been an issue for Haury at some of her other firefighting jobs, but after four years at the Redmond base, she has become a respected and essential member of the family.

“When I was on the engine, they constantly reminded me that I was a girl,” she says. “Here, it’s not an issue at all. I’ve proven I can do what they can do.”

Haury says the Redmond crew is one of the most professional she’s seen. “There’s a lot of integrity here,” she says. “These guys set the bar pretty high.”

Haury lies on a backboard during a training exercise simulating serious injury. Jumpers must be trained to treat injuries because the group is isolated from hospitals and medical professionals.

For Haury, fire has been her niche, and she worked hard to find it. She struggled in school and often felt out of place, quitting college, jobs, and hobbies as she searched for her role. Growing up in the shadow of a talented twin sister, Haury never believed she measured up until she found a career in smokejumping. She finally felt like she was doing something worth noticing.

“I started on engines, I tried hot shot crew, I tried rappelling,” she says. “My goal was to try it all and see where my best fit was. When I found [smokejumping], it just finally clicked. I thought: ‘I can do this, and I can do this well.’”

But it hasn’t always been easy. The training is intense and is intended to weed out those who aren’t mentally or physically prepared for the job. Justin Wood, a squad leader at the base and Haury’s trainer, says that many people who come in for training find out quickly whether or not smoke-jumping is a good fit.

“People don’t only have to prove their physical capabilities, but they need to show that they can actively learn under pressure,” Wood says. “Some people don’t necessarily know that they’re afraid of heights until they’re eighty feet up a pine tree hanging on a limb.”

Smokejumper training goes far beyond simply jumping out of a plane. For example, the minimum fitness requirements include the basics such as a certain number of sit-ups and push-ups, but trainees are also required to be able to carry 110 pounds for three miles. The rookies are expected to climb a tree, saw off thick branches, and rappel back down—a necessary skill if their parachute gets tangled in a tree during landing. Once on the ground, smokejumpers must work quickly and efficiently, keeping their eyes trained on the flames the entire time.

[cap]A[/cap]fter a long day of training, Sweeney, Haury, and the rest of the Redmond Smokejumpers pack up their gear and head back to base, flush with success. Though the day was hot and everyone was tired, the stress of the day gives way to jokes and laughter. The smokejumpers are a tight-knit community who rely on their teammates to keep them safe,
which forms an irreplaceable bond between people who otherwise might not have much
in common.

“You got hippies to rednecks—there’s every facet of people [here],” says Wood.

Every Sunday during fire season, the base hosts a barbeque for families and friends. It’s a chance for the smokejumpers to relax and enjoy their time in the woods—at least, until the Sherpa’s engines fire up again.

“To be completely exhausted at the end of the day, watching the sun go down, sitting around a fire with some people that you just worked really hard with is really gratifying and cleansing,” Sweeney says. “Even if you’re covered in ash.”

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