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Smokejumpers Fight Boredom

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  • Smokejumpers Fight Boredom

    Smoke jumpers fight boredom

    2003 fire season is far slower in West than 2002
    By Nancy Lofholm
    The Denver Post

    GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) — Not a single weed remains in the neatly clipped lawn ringing a patch of buildings at the far end of a Walker Field Airport runway.

    A Boise BLM smoke jumper packs his parachute at the base of the specialized firefighting unit at the Grand Junction Air Center in Colorado. The base often is the busiest in the nation but not this year, so far.

    Shaun Stanley, Associated Press
    Inside the security fences, fruit trees are nicely pruned. A shed has a new coat of paint. Rock gardens have been artfully arranged here and there.
    And in and around a two-car garage affectionately called "the shack," a dozen of the nation's most elite firefighters are busying themselves with other domestic projects.
    One muscled and mohawked young smoke jumper in lug-soled boots and fireproof pants is bent over a sewing machine.
    "I'm making a little pouch for my notebook," Lakota Burwell says as he holds up a green fabric square with pockets sewn on.
    Last summer at this time, the Grand Junction Air Center was hopping. Planes buzzed in and out, hauling as many as 70 smoke jumpers from this base that is often the busiest in the nation.
    But a slow start to Colorado's fire season means that the action-loving bunch stationed here is having to make like Martha Stewart rather than Red Adair.
    While this bare-bones crew anticipates the lightning strike or campfire spark that will spike adrenaline and send them hopping breakneck into their gear and racing for their plane in the allotted six minutes, the smoke jumpers are doing what they say is absolutely the most difficult part of their job: waiting.
    For firefighters who don't flinch at parachuting into burning forests, the hardest part is being here on this very well-tended patch of desert with absolutely no smoke on the horizon.
    Smoke jumpers, who can reach remote wildfires by air faster than firefighters who travel by land, are usually the first to respond to conflagrations in distant forests and valleys. Because they need to reach such fires early to control them, they must be ready to go on a moment's notice.







    Throughout fire season, they rotate through different bases, reporting to one base for 21 straight days, after which they get one day off before reporting to their next post. If they've been dropped into a fire, they work around-the-clock, normally for about two days following a jump. But when there aren't any fires, they must spend their days waiting on the job for a call that might not come, and their nights in hotels. (They are not on call at night; officials consider it too dangerous to drop smoke jumpers into fires in darkness.)
    "I'm waiting and I'm waiting. I'm 500 miles from home while I'm waiting, and it's tough," said 17-year smoke jumper Mike Tupper.
    It's not that these firefighters like to see conflagrations. They simply like to put them out before they become destructive.
    In fact, they say that in a perfect year for smoke jumpers, there wouldn't be any headlines about their work. They would be quickly and quietly putting out fires before they turned into destructive and newsworthy blazes.
    But with the absence of big fires in Colorado this year, the jumpers liken their situation to that of thoroughbreds in a stall before a race, physicians with an empty waiting room, a football team cooped up in the locker room before the big game.
    Or as second-year jumper Scott Morrow puts it: "Sometimes it gets to be like a low-security prison around here."
    Through the first week of July, the few smoke jumpers based in Grand Junction had parachuted into seven fires this summer, most of them small, the slowest season start since 1997.
    By this time last year, Grand Junction-based jumpers had been dropped into more than two dozen full-blown blazes.
    That season made just about anything that follows slow by comparison.

    Boise BLM Smokejumper, Ryan Jordan, demonstartes wearing one of the heavy Kevlar jumpsuits members of the specialized fire fighter unit wear when jumping into a fire.

    Shaun Stanley, Associated Press
    "Last year was off the charts. It was the toughest, most bizarre fire season ever," said Ken Franz, who has worked fires for 31 years.
    This year's slow pace isn't affecting just jumpers in Grand Junction, which serves as the only Colorado satellite or "spike base" for the Great Basin Smokejumpers' base at Boise. There are 400 jumpers in Colorado, Oregon, Idaho, California, Alaska and Montana at seven Forest Service jump bases and two Bureau of Land Management sites, as well as a fluctuating list of satellite bases. All are in the same doldrums.
    The bases share fire activity information through a daily conference call that has grown so boring smoke jumpers roll their eyes at the mention of it.
    The two daily briefings that take place at each base have also become as exciting as a garden club get-together. The weather reports are read, firefighters take turns giving a "six-minute topic" report on subjects like avoiding entrapment, and status reports are given on fires burning around the country.
    Through it all, these smoke jumpers who relish the thought of falling out of the sky into a remote area where they'll work like dogs and sleep in the ashes instead slump in their chairs under the model planes dangling from the ceiling and jiggle nervous feet. They glance out the open bay of their shack where their plane sits ready and waiting, its loading door hanging open like a yawn.
    Longtime jumpers say the success of their work is all based on speed, making it doubly tough to have patience in times like these.
    "The whole mantra behind smoke jumpers is speed. It's getting to the fire while it's still small," said Eric Reynolds, an assistant chief at these smoke jumpers' home base in Boise.
    To speed the waiting, they exercise. In an area of bars and ramps they call "the play pen," they hone muscles needed for moving around in stiff, padded jumpsuits loaded down with 80 pounds of gear.

    A Boise BLM Smokejumper flys the canopy of his parachute at Grand Junction Air Center at Walker Field in Grand Junction, Colo.

    Shaun Stanley, Associated Press
    They train. That includes turning a big dirt pile behind the shack into topographically correct mini mock-ups of past fire locations. Using toy fire trucks and little plastic men, they puzzle out the best plans of attack for fires.
    They take apart their chain saws, oil them and try them out on a log propped up outside the shack. They sew and repair parts of the $8,000 worth of equipment assigned to each jumper.
    They cook the dried Punjab eggplant and Jodhpur lentils that come in their supply boxes or, on good days, fresh vegetables and chicken on a barbecue grill they built.
    And when they run out of official duties, they pull weeds, build new additions to the shack, look for spots where a little rock garden would look nice, install automatic sprinkler systems and build planters out of railroad ties.
    "If you did really well in PE and home ec in high school, you've got it going on here," said Morrow.
    These smoke jumpers, who mostly have advanced degrees in subjects totally unrelated to firefighting, also read, learn to play concertina, listen to Spanish language tapes, watch the occasional action movie, play cards and play a punishing game they devised called Deck of Pain. Each card drawn represents a certain number of push-ups or chin-ups the cardholder must do.
    And sometimes, they admit, they muse with some longing about what regular people do in summer. Jumper Ryan Jordan would like to plant tomatoes. Tupper wouldn't mind going to a lake like the people he sees pulling boats behind their vehicles. Franz would just like to know what it feels like to take a summer vacation.
    It's something to think about while they wait.
    Front line since 1983 and still going strong

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