During the first week of September a dry lightning storm had swept through Western Montana, Idaho, and Eastern Washington with the usual result; numerous fires. By Saturday, September 9, all the smokejumpers who had not already jumped on a fire were on stand-by ready for instant action.
Our squad was somewhat rudely awakened at 4:30 Sunday morning and hustled down to breakfast while still half asleep. We were to be ready for the takeoff at 6:30. A fire at Belle Lake, Idaho, was proving stubborn. Twenty-one men from our unit had jumped on the fire on Friday night and. Saturday morning, and now eight were to go in as reinforcements.
After eating a hearty breakfast we hurried to the parachute loft. (Perhaps I should explain that a parachute loft is a building used for packing and repairing parachutes — it is also where our equipment is kept). All of our equipment was checked before we loaded it onto a waiting truck. Jumping equipment consists of the back-pack chute, the emergency from-pack chute, riser protectors — an added guarantee that the jumper and the chute will stay together — the harness, two-piece canvas suit, helmet, gloves, and back brace. In addition, we carry a retrieving bag for the parachutes, and an eighty foot let-down rope, not to mention a set of signal-streamers.
A fire-pack contains a shovel, a pulaski, which is a combination axe and digging tool; a two day supply of K rations, a flashlignt headset, a file, a pocket First Aid kit, a canteen, a mess-kit, sleepingbag, and maps, compass, protractor, etc.
We threw our equipment onto the truck, jumped on, and sped out to the airport. The sky was beginning to take on a reddish hue as we struggled into our suits and harnesses, and snapped on the parachutes. Two boys were loading our cargo into the Ford Trimotor as the mechanics refueled it and gave it a last minute check-up.
As we took our seats in the plane the mechanics started the motors. The pilot taxied to the south end of the field and stopped there to warm up the motors. It gave us a feeling of security to hear each motor tested in turn, and then to hear the thrilling roar as all three throttles were opened for the takeoff.
Eight jumpers, all their equipment, the spotter, the pilot, and a newspaper reporter, out after a story, all left the Johnson Brothers Airport that morning, bound for the fire in the ancient but capable Ford Trimotor. The plane swung around and headed south, gaining altitude as we followed the Bitterroot Valley. The cool morning air was quiet, giving us a smooth ride.
It was now becoming quite light in the east, and the sun would soon be up. After fifteen minutes of flying we left the valley and soon were flying over some of the roughest mountains in the United States. We marveled at razor-like ridges, sheer cliffs, and queer rock formations. There was speculation as to how we would fare if we jumped for one of those narrow, rocky ridges. Then for the first time in our lives we watched the sun come up, from an airplane window 9,000 feet above sea level. The long shadows cast by the early morning sunlight gave one a feeling of awe at the brutal beauty of naked peaks above the timberline.
After an hour's flight we were over the fire. The cold night air had forced the smoke down among the trees and had quieted the blaze. This would be the best time of the day to battle the flames, for by noon there would be numerous flare-ups, and when the breeze begins to stir there is always the possibility that a fire will get away.
The plane glided downward and We circled the fire looking for an opening in the timber. If possible we were to head for a clearing, rather than jump into the trees. Earl Cooley, our spotter, picked out an opening about 100 yards from the fire. It seemed very small from 1200 feet up. The plane circled, and as it crossed over the spot Earl threw out a test chute, a square yard of muslin with two and a half pounds of gravel tied on. By watching its descent he could ascertain the wind drift and velocity. Not satisfied with the first trial he di- rected the pilot over the spot again, and tossed out another test chute. There was very little wind that morning, we learned, and we could jump directly over the spot.
Wagner Dodge, our squad leader, was to be the first man to jump; so he hooked his static line and knelt in the door with his right foot on the step. Earl watched the ground from a window and directed the pilot by hand signals. As the plane came over the spot he motioned for the pilot to cut the motors, and slapped Wag on the back — the signal to jump.
Out went Dodge. We watched his descent, while Del Barley hooked his static line and got into po- sition on the step. As the plane circled to come over the spot again we saw Wag's chute drape over the top of a tree on the edge of the clearing. Del jumped, and we watched him as he turned and planned his chute, and landed in the center of the clearing. On the next pass two of us were to jump. John Ainsworth hooked his static line and knelt in the door. I hooked up, and crouched right behind him. Once more we were over the spot, the motors were cut, and John jumped. I ducked through the door, straightened up for an instant on the step and dropped off. I was conscious of the ripping-off of the chute cover, and sensed the jerking of the loadlines, as they were pulled from their loops. in the back- pack. Then came the sudden tug that snapped me about like the end of a whip as my chute blossomed out. It was all very peaceful and quiet, while only three seconds before I had been in a noisy, roaring plane.
After the chute opened I looked up to check, on line-overs, tangles, or blownout panels, and then prepared to enjoy my ride down. By pulling the proper guide line I turned my chute and headed for the spot. When I was still three hundred feet up I saw that I couldn't make the spot but saw a small opening below and a little to the right. I turned the chute and as I came down I raised my feet to clear the top of a tall spruce tree, floated just over it, and landed between two rotten logs. My chute col- lapsed at the base of another tree. I looked up in time to see two more chutes blossom out as the men left the plane.
I slipped out of my harness and jumping suit and took two orange streamers out of my rope pocket and made a cross over the bushes, our "O.K." signal.
John had landed 100 feet away; together we gathered my chutes and equipment; putting everything into two retrieving bags, as the last two jumpers floated down. Then I helped him pack his stuff, and we carried it all to the jumping spot, about 100 yards away.
At this time the plane came roaring over, just above the treetops, to drop cargo, which consisted of our fire-packs. We could see Earl in the door as he kicked out the cargo simultaneously with, the pilot's signal. The non-human cargo can be dropped with remarkable accuracy, since the low altitude does not give the wind much chance to deflect it.
In the meantime, Wag had reached the ground, via his let-down rope. He decided to leave his chute in the tree, so we could get to work on the fireline as soon as possible, before things became too hot. There would be time to retrieve chutes later, after the fire was under control.
Our firepacks were dropped two to a chute and were all near the spot. One cargo chute was hanging in a small tree. These chutes, however, are never used for jumping, so we were not particularly careful with them. We cut the tree down with a pulaski from another fire pack, put the chutes in their retrieving bags, and placed them with our other equipment — now ready to be taken out by pack mules. We then started for the fire, with our fire-packs on our backs.
We walked along the edge of the burned area to the upper end of the fire in search of the fire boss. Just ahead we saw some bedraggled-looking creatures. When we moved closer we discovered them to be two of the fellows who had jumped on Friday night. They had worked all that night and all day Saturday, and were really glad to see more help coming in. They were using a Pacific Marine pump, which was happily possible, since Belle Lake was only 200 feet from the upper edge of the fire. The two lads handling the hose were water soaked and unbelievably dirty.
An alternate ranger had walked to the fire on Saturday and was the fire boss. We located him, and he put six of us to work digging fire line. The other two were detailed to the work of sawing down burning and smoldering snags. One of these that is burning twenty or thirty feet up will send out a shower of sparks with every little breeze; no fire is under control so long as such a menaee exists.
At noon we ate a lunch of the notorious K rations. There were now twenty-nine jumpers on the fire. A two-way radio had been dropped on Saturday, and our fire boss ordered supplies and sent in reports several times a day. On Sunday he ordered a twenty–five man fire camp outfit and enough food for three or four days. The fire was larger than anyone had anticipated, and it was very difficult to keep it from spreading. The forests were very dry, and a spark blown across the line would easily start a new blaze.
On Sunday afternoon the trimotor again appeared above the fire. Along the lake shore the fire boss had laid out orange streamers to mark the spot where the cargo was to be dropped. The plane roar- ed back and forth, dropping an item of. cargo each time it passed. In succession came thirty gallons of gasoline, another Pacific Marine pump, hose a fire camp cook stove, cases of food, cooking utensils, and the tools necessary to convey the food from plate to mouth. One of the jumpers had had previous experience as a cook; so he was "it".
At night, at about nine o'clock, we were relieved by the night patrol, and trudged to the newly established fire camp, for supper and bed. We had a hot meal, and enjoyed it even more than usual, which is saying something, for smokejhmpers. The K rations we had been subsisting on are just chuck of nutrition, but oh how they taste!
After supper We took our flashlights and bedrolls and went in search of a level spot. Some slept under trees, and others were so weary that they just unrolled their beds, threw aside a few rocks and sticks which happened to be underneath, and crawled in, and immediately dropped off to sleep.
Awakened for breakfast at six, crawled into dewy, clammy clothes, and hustled over to the fire. Only a hardy few ran down to the lake to douse their sleep-filled eyes with the icy water. A case of eggs had been dropped by plane so at breakfast we were greeted by cheery sunny-sides-up.
After eating, we received our work orders from the fire boss, and went single file down the trail to our sector. At noon our lunch was brought out to us by a kitchen helper, so that no fire-fighting time was lost. The men operating the pumps kept them going steadily for twelve hours each day, refueling them as they ran. It takes a lot of water to control a one hundred and thirty acre fire.
By Wednesday evening the fire was declared under control, and the jump- ers were ordered to walk out on Thursday morning, September 14. A few men who had walked in were to stay until the fire was officially out.
Thursday morning we put our tools in our fire packs and were ready for the long trek to the road. It was sixteen miles, and with a forty pound pack each mile seemed double in length. When we reached the road a stock truck took us twenty miles to Hamilton. The Forest Service bought us bus tickets to Missoula, fifty miles away and we were there in the "Garden Clty" for supper.
Twenty-nine more miles by truck, after supper, and we reached our base camp, at Ninemile. A tired, dirty crew we Were, and very happy to shave, bathe, and crawl into a bed for a good night's sleep; and to dream about the next jump. By Allen Moyer