1970: How I spent My Summer Vacation

The fire was getting larger all the time. It consumed a home and a barn as it made its way up the hill. It was a juggernaut that couldn’t be stopped. Firefighters were giving their all but it wasn’t enough. Helicopters dropped buckets of water scooped from nearby lakes and C-130 Hercules airplanes dumped clouds of bright red fire retardant across the ever advancing line of flames which, for the most part, ignored it.

Twenty two of us sat in another C-130, ten on one side and ten on the other. We were making  last check of our equipment before we would hurl ourselves from the tailgate. It was difficult to move because we had so much strapped to us. We wore our fire retardant suits and over them was strapped a parachute and reserve. We wore webbing with a variety of tools, a radio, water, and protective gear, and each of us had a utility bag filled with firefighting tools attached to us. As soon as we confirmed a good chute above us, we’d pull a release that would drop the tool bags to hang by a 12 foot lanyard beneath us so on landing we wouldn’t risk injury.

There were no windows in the airplane but we could smell the odor of burning wood in the air. We wore helmets with gratings over our faces to protect us from tree limbs if we fell into trees, missing the drop zone. It did nothing to reduce the level of smoke we were breathing and it burned our throats and left an ugly taste in our mouths. When the ramp at the rear of the plane opened, the wind blew in and around in heavy eddies and behind us we could see the fire below. Standing we hooked up our static lines; straps that attached to a cable that ran from the front to the rear of the plane. When we jumped, our weight would cause the static lines to pull our parachutes from their deployment bags and then snap free, leaving us to gently drop to the ground.  The thing is, near a fire the heat causes a wind of its own and gusts come out of anywhere and everywhere. Some were superheated and would actually lift us up, sometimes hundreds of feet. No matter what, actually hitting the small spots of open field selected for our landings zones was a crapshoot.

smoke

A smoke jumper from Missoula commutes to work

We exited the aircraft a second apart. That seems quick, but it spaced us about 200 feet from one another. A look up to verify that the canopy was open brought a sense of relief. It was short lived because it was time to grab the risers and get hold of our steering toggles. We used round parachutes, not the square chutes so ubiquitous today. There was a hole cut into the back of the canopy and our toggle lines were affixed to the chute so we could distort the canopy. This distortion would shape the wind created by the pressure under the canopy to blow out through the hole, forcing it one way or another. This provided a very rudimentary way of steering as we tried to make landfall in the clearing. We jumped from only two thousand feet, so it wasn’t a long ride down. But there’s always a few moments to look around and take stock and check on the progress of the other jumpers. It was already going badly for a guy named Alverado. A hastily gathered crew, we didn’t have a lot of time to get to know each other. Our time was at first filled with training and more training that started early and ran late. So the only time to talk was during our short lunch and the hour or two we had at the end of the day as we ate dinner, relaxed a little and then went to bed to do it all over again. For Alverado, the training was about to be wasted. I watched with a sickening in my stomach as his chute was blown over one of the many super hot spots. He was low enough that the heat of the fire melted his canopy and I watched him fall into the raging inferno beneath him. Another of our guys was caught in the same wind current I was. He was turned away so I couldn’t see who it was, but we were carried away from the drop zone and over the tall evergreens in front of the fire line.

I lost track of him as I focused on my own problems. There was a tiny clearing –more like a small space between the trees and I pulled hard on the steering toggle trying to slip my way over it. I didn’t make it, my feet brushing the top of one giant fir and then falling into another. I crashed and tumbled through the branches, gravity pulling me down. My parachute slowed my fall by getting hung up in the limbs but it only took a few seconds until it was shredded and simply following me down. The lower I fell, the thicker the limbs became and glancing and bouncing off of them hurt. I hit one with my head so hard that without my helmet I would have been a goner. But I saw stars anyway and then my feet hit the ground, me off balance and unready for the impact. I heard the snap of my femur as it broke from the pressure and bad angle. I managed to pass out.

I woke up with some guys standing around me. Some were yelling, trying to be heard over a roaring noise so loud you could feel it as much as hear it. Others were tending to me, trying to get a splint on my shattered leg. One of the guys hand a radio and was alternately shouting into it and then holding it to his ear in an effort to hear. He was shaking his head and the expression on his face was one of frustration. While I couldn’t make out most of what anyone was saying, I did hear him bellow two words: DIG IN!. Everyone turned to and began to dig and scrape with their tools. Shovels and adz furiously clawed at the ground, creating pits. I tried to get ut to help but the guy still working on my leg shoved me back down. When I saw the fire blankets come out I knew we were in deep shit. Fire blankets are aluminized tarps that we would pull over us when we were overtaken by fire. They were better than nothing but a lot of guys had been burned to death or suffocated because the fire used all the oxygen. But you had a small chance that the fire would pass over you. I screamed at the pain when the guy working on me rolled me over twice and into a shallow pit that had been carved next to us. He unfurled a fire blanket over me and then tossed dirt on the edges to keep the fire winds from blowing it off of me and away. He gave me a thumbs up and then disappeared from my field of view past the edge of the blanket.

The heat was already unbearable and I was sure I was done. I pulled the opening shut and waited to see how I was going to buy it. It felt like an hour but I heard a noise that seemed to carry over the roar of the fireline that was now only feet away. It sounded like a tom tom. I imagined native Americans performing some kind of ceremony, as though maybe they were trying to guide our spirits. Then I realized that it wasn’t drums, it was rotors. A sound I got used to in Vietnam like every other soldier. As it passed overhead it seemed as though the fire was screaming and keening at it in a rage. Another helicopter followed the first one and then another behind it. The roar of the fire gave way to a piercing whistling and a lot of hissing as superheated wood was suddenly cooled and water turned to steam. The fire blanket was yanked off of me and I was roughly grabbed by a couple of guys who carried me as they and the others who’d been blown off course and a few ground fighters beat feet away from the fire line. The fire wasn’t out by any means and our reprieve was only temporary. I was out of my head with the pain in my leg as I was carted like cargo. We broke out of the trees into a tiny clearing and I saw a Chinook CH-47 twin rotor helicopter on the ground. It’s rotors seemed almost to be touching the trees on all sides of the open spot. Like the C-130 we jumped from, the helicopter had a rear ramp and I was carried up it and into the chopper where I was summarily dumped on the floor. The last of the group ran up the ramp as it was starting to close and the Chinook lifted off immediately. Its turbines and rotors were loud, but I could hear the thunderous roaring of the fire over it. Less than a minute after takeoff one of the guys yelled that the fire had just consumed the clearing. It was a National Guard Chinook and one of the reservists knelt next to me. He told me my leg was broken (no kidding!) but I’d be okay. Then he injected me with something and the lights went out.

The hospital was typical. It buzzed with activity as doctors, nurses and medical technicians scurried about doing their jobs. MY first realization was that it didn’t smell like smoke. Instead, it smelled like a hospital and for a second I pondered which might be worse. I lay on my back withe the top of the bed elevated. On my right leg was a cast that went from ankle to thigh. I could feel a dull throb of pain that seemed in tune with my pulse. “Hello! I’m Doctor Penar.” he said. “Seems like you’ve had yourself quite an adventure. Do you remember anything about your accident?”

Sadly, I remembered it all. Considering that I had just planned to have a summer job to earn money for school while doing something constructive, I was pretty much out of the game for the duration and wouldn’t be saving anything for classes. While I was a veteran and had decent education benefits, it wouldn’t be enough to fully cover my expenses. The doctor spoke to me for a little while, and asked if I’d been to Vietnam. I said yeah, I had, and that one of my thoughts was that I’d survived a war to be burned up in a forest fire. He asked me why I chose to be a smoke jumper and I replied that I was a paratrooper in the service and the job was available. It was a physically demanding job, but pretty straightforward. Follow the orders of the superiors and follow the training they gave me.

They kept me for two days for observation and then turned me loose to hobble my way home. Three weeks later I managed to get a job at a radio station. I just sat and watched a tape play as it broadcast religious messages and music. It paid less than I would have made had I been able to complete the fire season, but when school began in September, they let me work evenings and weekends and so I was able to keep to my plan for college.