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Rookie Smokejumper Goes Airborne Across the West

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Joe Heisel plays with fire

It’s the height of a record-breaking fire season, and that pleases a person like Joe Heisel, who likes to watch how wildfires move. And this season, he’s been able to watch them from the air working for the United States Forest Service (USFS) as a rookie smoke jumper, an elite corps of fire fighters who parachute in to remote areas at the first sign of a blaze.

     The 27-year-old Clark Fork resident has been fighting wildland fires since 1992, the same year he graduated from Clark Fork High School.

     “We had a dry year that year, and 70 new people were hired in Sandpoint,” he said.

     Every fire season since then, he has been fighting fires on the ground all over the West ­ Texas, Arizona, Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nevada ­ and even in Florida and Virginia.

     But this season is different. He got the opportunity to attend the USFS Region I smoke jumper training facility in Missoula, Mont., and attended the session that began May 29 and continued until the last Friday in June. Trainees need a minimum of two years of wildland fire fighting experience. He and 21 classmates trained five days a week during that period.

     Shortly after graduation, Heisel was sent to a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) base at Cedar City, Utah, to jump a couple of fires in the Great Basin. Next they went to Redding, Calif., where they ended up not jumping a fire. But then it was off to Redmond, Ore., to jump a fire there.

     Heisel recalls taking the summer of 1996 off to fish for salmon in Alaska. After six weeks, he came home to fight fires. “The lure of fire fighting brought me back,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. I guess I really like fire. I like to watch it gobble up hillsides and play with it ­ anticipate what it will do.”

     That fondness for watching fire is a trait, he says, of people who stick with the profession. And as for smoke jumping, it’s “something you toy with the idea of” when you’re a wildland firefighter.

     Another aspect of the job he likes is the people. His smoke jumping classmates and co-workers are all great, quality individuals, he says, calling them “high-energy types who are excited about what they do.”

     He adds, “The (smoke jumping) instructors were a great bunch of guys and gals, but they have to be pretty hard on you during training to see how you’ll react and make sure they’re getting the kind of people they want. They weren’t too mean to us, though.”

     The first time jumping from a plane was a memorable experience, to say the least. “I was pretty scared. You have to do it, though, and get over your jitters,” he said. He remembers standing in the doorway of the plane and receiving the telltale slap on the back, signaling him to jump out. From there, training takes over.

“It was a kick. Once your canopy opens, it’s really silent. You have this moment where you’re thankful the canopy opened, and then you have a nice 80-second ride down,” Heisel said.

     The short ride is a result of jumping from a low elevation, only 1,500 feet, to ensure a more precise landing. Jumpers have to plan their landings carefully, looking out for logs, stumps and snags and dodging them on their way to the rugged terrain below. Cargo is also dropped from a low elevation and provides them with the bulk of their food, water, tools and sleeping bags. The smoke jumpers carry their personal gear with them in a pack when they jump. It includes water, a snack, first aid kit, radio, extra batteries, a headlamp and hard hat.

     Then they stay until they put the fire out, anywhere from four to five days, or until the “fire escapes initial attack.” Then the district calls for more resources on the ground, and the smoke jumpers’ role ends.

     “The idea behind smoke jumping is rapid initial attack when a fire is smaller than one acre,” Heisel said. “Once they’re larger, then larger hand crews and equipment are brought in.”

     Heisel had just gotten back from such a fire in Montana last week. The Moose Fire north of Columbia Falls that has encroached into Glacier National Park went from a small, lightning-strike-caused fire to a 65,000-acre blaze.

     According to a CNN report published in May 2001, there are about 450 smoke jumpers and nine jump bases in the United States. Smoke jumping began in the 1930s in Washington State as a way to reach inaccessible areas to fight wildfires. The BLM projects that smoke jumpers successfully control about 97% of the fires they jump. The members of a crew can be suited up and in the air within eight minutes of receiving a call. About 5% are women.

     Training requirements are rigid. A trainee must do 25 push-ups, 45 sit-ups, 7 pull-ups and run 1.5 miles in less than 11 minutes. About a third of them are certified emergency medical technicians so they can treat themselves and fellow smoke jumpers. As the USFS and BLM were planning ahead for a worse fire season in 2001, they increased the number of smoke jumpers by 30 %.

     As Heisel was heading back to his USFS jump base in Grangeville, Idaho, he wasn’t sure where he would be jumping fires next. He’ll spend the entire season as a rookie, but when he fights his first fire as a smoke jumper next season, he’ll be a full-fledged smoke jumper ­ that is, if he jumps again next year. Smoke jumping is a “point of contention,” as his wife, Lorilee, prepares to have their second child in January.“Smoke jumping is definitely a lot of fun, but if I’m not doing that, I’ll still be playing with fire,” Heisel said.

Billie Jean Plaster is the editor of Sandpoint Magazine.

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Billie Jean Plaster Billie Jean Plaster is the editor of Sandpoint Magazine

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