Animated Cartoon & Watercolor Honoring Smokejumpers
by
Brownielocks and The 3 Bears

and
To all  volunteers who help fight wildfires!

(The image below is animated. The flames should flicker.)

Midi is the theme from "Greatest American Hero" by Mike Post and Stephen Geyer
(Lyrics are at the bottom of the page if you want to sing along!)


To learn about the author click here!
"Jumping Fire" by
Murry A. Taylor

One man's career expressed with sincere, honest and at times  tough,  tangy and gritty dialogue just like the men and their profession.  We all see them on TV,  but most of us  know little of what their life is really like.  This book has reviews at AMAZON.COM   for those who want to check it out.

   I have read "Jumping Fire"  and after doing so strongly feel that it is not appropriate for younger kids. I realize family  values vary home to home.  But I feel due to the gritty language (you'll hear the "F" word  and "Sh**t a lot), descriptive details of some of the injuries the men have suffered, as well as the personal sexual relationships, I would say that this book is best fit for ages 15 and older.

It can be a very educational book for those interested in this career field.

It is also well...speaking as a woman, strictly a man's viewpoint on some things.
 So, below is MY own personal take
 on this book.

I put in quotes direct comments from the book.

"Jumping Fire" is slow, grasping and  intense reading about one smokejumper's life.  The hardcover  book is 448 pages done in small print and took me a few weeks to read.  After finishing the book, I felt exhausted, as if I had spent the summer running from one fire to another too.   I also felt a little sad to hear of the deaths of some of the men mentioned in the epilogue of the book.
  Murry does a great job of making his firefighting brothers, yours also.

 I also felt (at times) that I needed to take a long hot bath.  The sweat, dirt, and grime seems to jump off the pages and onto the reader. At other times I was lost & confused, especially when it came to the technical issues of the jumping gear.
I felt the book needed a diagram of a jumper in his suit with the parts explained better.  That's just my own female perspective on it. Maybe others will get it?

So what kind of a man becomes a smokejumper? 
What does it take?

"According to tradition, they're not true smokejumpers until they actually jump a fire."  Notice he doesn't say jump INTO a fire?  People often assume they jump into a fire.  What smokejumpers really do is try to jump near a fire, with the blessing of a good wind and Big Ernie of course. ;)

Surprising as this may be, smokejumpers are not often big, hunkie men the size of football players.  But, physical fitness is a major part of the job requirement making it a year-round priority for those that seek this work, in order to pass the rigorous Physical Training test in the Spring.  "Each winter over 200 applications are received from the best fire crews in the nation. Only 1 out of 25 are selected for Alaska rookie training.  Of these, half wash out. Former marines who have become smokejumpers all agree that Alaska rookie training is tougher than anything they saw in boot camp.  Rookie training lasts 3 weeks. Refresher training, by comparison, lasts only one week."

Big Ernie is their God, while the Canadian geese seem to be their mascot. The reason isn't too clear, but many feel it's because of the geese's freedom of flight, their wildness living and their migratory lifestyle that creates a bond between them and the smokejumpers.  I do not know how Big Ernie got his name.````

Smokejumper's etiquette also states that NO ONE touches anyone else's jump gear except in emergencies.  Each is responsible for his own gear. Jumpers now use rectangular parachutes.  But some of the older jumpers had a problem adjusting to them after using the round chutes for such a long time. 

Injuries & Drowning

Most smokejumpers have to quit because of bad knees.  Others get injured ankles, backs and shoulders (or all of the above).  One-third get knocked unconscious at least once in their careers. While some sort of torn ligaments seem to affect 50% of them also.  Others do get  seriously hurt on the job, and surprisingly it isn't the fires that are the most danger to the men. The first danger is the trees themselves.  Falling into a tree and becoming "skewered" is the biggest fear they face.  So jumping out of the plane isn't their greatest fear as most of us assume. It's the fear of not having a good landing.  Some  jumpers not only have been stuck in the trees, others have caught bad winds and landed on the other side of the river where the fire wasn't (being literally stuck away from the group for food, etc. for days). One jumper has even landed on a moose!  The one location they do not want to land is in the river (or lake).  It's not that they don't know how to swim, but they carry packs of up to 200 lbs. and well, it's more like sink than swim. "During water-landing training, jumpers  are told that their life expectancy in Alaska water is 15 minutes."  Also, many of the waters are not clean, clear and sparkling like you see in photos.  And during a fire, the waters can become filled with silt, debris etc.  This stuff sticks to the jumpers clothing and can often drag down the best of swimmers. Oh, and in some cases the water is also freezing!

Some injuries become VERY painful until a medical helicopter can come and take them to treatment. "Until a few years ago, smokejumpers carried Demerol (synthetic morphine) in all the jump planes.  That practice was an early victim of the war on drugs, and now new regulations disallow it.  Spend one night in the wilderness with a badly injured friend, watching him suffer and you'll see what a travesty this policy is."

 Spotters & Jumping

I was stunned to learn that the pilots do not have parachutes and often go down with their planes. Ironically, the smokejumpers are free from FAA regulations requiring them to fly with seats and seat belts.  So most of them lay on the floor of the plane (seems crowded) waiting until the spotter decides they should jump. The spotter also doesn't wear emergency parachutes either. Hmmm? But the safety of the spotter is the responsibility of all the jumpers.  The spotter will get close to the open door and attach the "pigtail" (not sure what that is) of his harness to the restraining line inside the plane.  This way if he accidentally falls out, he can get pulled back in.  

How a guy gets to be a spotter, I didn't really figure out from reading this book. But he's the man who analyzes the fire from above and might even have it fly around more than once until he can figure out where is the best place for the men to land.  Knowing how the wind is (and how the men will drift) is the key. So the spotter sends out these "drift streamers" made of crepe paper, that are 20 feet long, 10 inches wide and weighted to drift the same as a smokejumper under a canopy.  There are 3 drift streamers to a set: Bright Yellow, Red and Blue. The streamer altitude is  1,500 feet.

They jump in teams of 2 men each.  A two-man team is called  "stick."  And the first man is the first stick and the second is the second stick.   The "stick" (1 & 2) jumpers go out at the same time.  They keep it two-by-two to help minimize the danger of mid-air collisions when landing in small areas.

Ever wonder what's going through their minds as they fall from the sky?
According to the book they say this...

Jump Thousand...
Look Thousand...
Reach Thousand...
Wait Thousand...
Pull Thousand...
Check Your Canopy!
Check Your Airspace!
Check Your Three Rings!
Check Your Cutaway!
Check Your Reserve Handle!
Grab Your Toggles!
Check Your Steering!
Check Your Airspace AGAIN!
Disconnect Your Stevens!
Start Steering!

(They have to know this by heart. By the end of the book some of you will too!)

But until you get to the fire, many smokejumpers try to catch a nap if possible because they never know when they'll be able to get some rest when they get there.

Tanker Planes & That Red Stuff! ;)

There is a base for the smokejumpers to stay until they are called to a fire. There is also a base for the tanker planes and their pilots to stay also.  From reading the book, both of these "standby" bases are not the most pristine facilities. However,  the tanker planes during a busy fire season earn tons of money! "During peak periods these planes will fly fires day and night, earning their owners upward of $15,000 per day."  On the other hand, more tanker pilots have died fighting fires, than smokejumpers.  It's a more dangerous job. "Since 1958 over a hundred have been killed in the line of duty. Simply put, they have buried a lot of their friends. They know it.  Smokejumpers will tell you that the tanker pilots are the real heroes of the wild land fire fighting. "

We've all seen the tanker planes flying over the fires dumping that red stuff down. I've often wondered, "So is it landing on the firefighters or do they leave before the plane drops the stuff?" 

I found the chapter explaining the fire retardant the most interesting of all. The best way to explain it is to just directly give you some quote excerpts from the book as Murry explains it.

"The retardant is contained in individual tanks in the belly of the aircraft. These tanks are sealed by hydraulic doors, called gates. ...  In Alaska, the fire retardant of choice is Phos-Chek.  Phos-Chek is primarily water, bentonite clay and ammonium phosphate fertilizer mixed with red colorant.   Retardant is dropped from various heights depending on the restrictiveness of the topography.  Falling from 200 ft. it disperses in the air and comes down like a muddy rain. Drop areas are always cleared of people, since sometimes it comes down in lumps big enough to be lethal."

So, does it land on the smokejumpers?

.... "I hugged the tree tightly as the retardant rained down all around me, smelling salty and cool like the sea....It is best to get completely clear of the drop zone. Not only is it messy to get drenched with retardant, it can be life threatening. A load from a DC-7 weighs more than 27,000 lbs.  The 3,000 gallons of retardant is traveling approximately 130 mph when released.  If the load is dropped too low, trees 8" to 12" in diameter can be ripped out of the ground like matchsticks.  In more open areas, low drops rip out sections of tundra 10-15 feet wide for a 100 feet, clar down to permafrost, two to three feet below the surface."

Just when is it determined that the smokejumpers need help from the tanker pilots?  And when to send in the planes?

 Since it's a more costly way of fire fighting than paying smokejumpers.... "Available manpower is the key factor when using retardant.  If people can't get into the area right after the drop and take advantage of it, it may not be worth dropping.  Aerial retardant works in 3 major ways to cool a fire.  It knocks the flames down physically.  It coats the fuels -- tree tops, branches, brush, grass --- with a thin layer of watery, red mud, thus providing a barrier between the fire and fuel.  Lastly, it immediately raises the humidity in the surrounding area. Higher humidity is the significant factor for maybe only half an hour, but that is usually enough time to allow us to work in close to the fire and take advantage of the effect.  Many fires would simply be too dangerous to move in on without the cooling aid of aerial fire retardant."

So how environmentally safe is all this red stuff?  "The retardant chemicals have no apparent adverse effects when dropped on land, and we are extremely careful to keep them out of any natural body of water...... Retardant pilots, especially the old hands, are good at making tactical decisions on their own.  Some are excellent.  Even though they do all their fire fighting from the cockpit of an airplane, they've developed a keen sense of what coverage levels will suppress fires of varying intensities.  There's not one that will tell you he isn't still learning, and it doesn't take long to tell a rookie from a veteran either."

Personal Sanitation

I know you're curious about some of the personal hygiene. Aren't we all? ;)
Well in one chapter Murry describes using his helmet as a sink, filling it with water to use to wash his face etc.  And most of the time they use the great outdoors as their outhouse. But in this one chapter, he describes one of the finer ways to deal when Mother Nature calls...

"There's and old green Willys station wagon that used to sit out in the weeds along the road.  Back then the area had no plumbing, so the jumpers dug a hole and moved the old wagon over it and put a few boards across where the seat had been. Nice! Just like that the old Willys had become our own town and country two-holer, complete with a roll of toilet paper on the gearshift lever. The preferred hole was the one behind the wheel.  That way, when the locals came driving by, the jumper doing his business had only to fake and interest in the old station wagons and no one would know better. Those were the old days. Things are different now. There is plumbing, even showers."

Bears

Believe it or not, besides the fear of jumping into a tree (getting stuck or stabbed) the second greatest danger they face are from the locals of the area....BEARS!
The smokejumpers come under the Bureau of Land Management, whose unofficial policy is to not kill a bear unless it's eating you.  So if it's between jumper and bear, most of the time the bear wins.  "We generally give them all the room they want, moving our camps and keeping out of their way. If that doesn't work, chasing them off with helicopters usually does."

Smokejumpers call the Grizzly Bear "Ursus Arctos Horribilus or the horrible one."  Ironically, the grizzlies are not their biggest trouble makers and they have few encounters with them.  No, it's the black bears.  These black bears literally make their way into the camps, eat all their food, rip up tents and do other things I won't go into.  They are usually not intimidated by yelling, screaming and rock throwing.  Sometimes even chain saws don't intimidate them.  Thus trouble is inevitable. 

Food They Eat

Food at the base camp is pretty good, especially Galena, AK as Murry says. He also says "the cooks are beautiful."  But, while fighting fires, the men are eating all kinds of stuff...K-Rations, food dropped from supply planes, fish they catch and the items they have packed with them.  Many pack foods high in sugar and carbohydrates.  Junk food seems to be their main course many times. And, in one case Murry describes shoving some instant coffee granules into his mouth, taking a chug of water, swishing it around and then swallowing.  Talk about a caffeine boost!  But I often wonder if their knees don't give out, why their stomachs don't (acid reflux, ulcers, etc.) give out first from the way they eat and drink?  They're also munching aspirin (without water a lot).  In one chapter, he packed a potato and an onion in his jump suit to eat later.  I have no idea why. Does the potato bake while he's near a fire?  So he's cooking his dinner while he's fighting the fire? Or is it to keep it protected from the bears. (See above)

Occasionally they get a few days off, get to go into the local town and eat a good meal at a restaurant or lodge.  

Family and Social Life

He says it's a lonely life.  Most of the time it's sitting and waiting to be called to that fire.  The men spend the days sleeping, cleaning, reading, writing letters, talking about women and doing what is referred to as male bonding.  

I got the impression that not everyone really likes everyone's personality, but deep down they all have a brotherly love for each other because they all love what they do no matter how much they complain.

   Murry states, "The suicide rate is high among smokejumpers."  And most of the suicides occur in the off-season when they are away from their fellow jumpers. Hmmm?

Many jumpers are married.  Many rookies and snookies are not.  But for those who start the fire season unattached their seems to be this rule, "If you don't find yourself a girlfriend by June 1st, you may as well forget it."  Ha!

Murry did.  A girl named Sally.  I won't spoil the romance of this book so that's all I'm going to say.

But in closing I'd like to say that as a woman I do not agree with the men who seem to feel that it's the "job as a smokejumper" that is ruining their relationships with women.  They seem to feel that the weeks apart on a fire mess up their love life.  Since there are many men whose jobs take them away from their loved ones and families for weeks (i.e. military,  CIA, FBI,  field engineers etc.)  the fact that Murry is single and the oldest smokejumper to me is not the job's fault.  From reading the book, my view is that loyal husbands found their wives cheating on them while they were off fighting fires, at the same time some loyal wives were home while their smoke jumping husbands were off committing adultery say with a local waitress in a cafe close to the fire.  As I read the book I was thinking, "Well all we need is for the loyal wives to meet the loyal smokejumper husbands and all would live happily ever after...in most cases."
It's not the job you pick, it's your partner that will make or break a relationship.

With this is mind, the only discomforting fact I find in this book is the continual whining by the author about his poor social or love life through the years. It is my own personal opinion that Murry is in love with being in love.  He's as thrilled with fighting the flames of a forest fire as he is with the flames of passion.  And once the "flames of passion" are kindled to say smoldering embers, well, he gets well.....  You read the book and find out!

 


Smokejumper Talk  printed by permission from Murry Taylor from his book "Jumping Fire."
(See below for book information)

Truckers have their talk, well so do smokejumpers.
Below are some phrases or terms the guys use as they 
jump the jumps, fight the flames and talk the talk!

Air Attack The planes and people that coordinate air operations over a fire.

 

Air tankers Large aircraft that drop fire-retardant chemicals.

 

Backfire Fire set to purposely influence the direction or rate of fire spread.

 

BIFC Boise Interagency Fire Center. Boise, Idaho.

 

Big Ernie The smokejumper god. A deity with a rather twisted sense of humor, justice, and fair play. Determines good and bad deals for jumpers.

 

Blowup Catastrophic fire behavior, rapid spread, mass ignition of large areas.

 

Buddy check Last-minute check of jumper's gear, performed by jump partner prior to jumping.

 

Burnout Fire set to burn areas between control lines and main fire; denies main fire of fuel. A tactic used once control lines are established.

 

Bush General term for the Alaskan wilderness.

 

Bust Intense period of lightning fire activity.

 

Cat line Fire line constructed with crawler tractors (bulldozers).

 

Cutaway clutch The handle used to cut away from a malfunctioned main canopy. Also called the clutch.

 

Contained A fire is contained when its spread has been halted by control lines or natural barriers.

 

Controlled A fire is controlled when enough work has been done to insure it will not escape.

 

Crown fire A fire burning hot enough to continuously spread through the tops of trees.

 

Demobe Short for demobilization. The action of leaving a fire once it is out.

 

Drift streamers Weighted pieces of colored crepe paper used to determine wind drift before jumping a fire.

 

Drogue The small parachute that first stabilizes jumpers as they fall from the plane then pulls the main canopy out of the deployment bag once the drogue release handle is pulled.

 

Drogue release handle See above. Once widely known as the rip cord.

 

EMT Emergency Medical Technician.

 

Extended attack Work done after the initial effort has failed to stop a fire. For jumpers, usually the second or third day.

 

Fat boy box A cardboard box that comes in the fire packs and contains packaged and canned goods. Jumper rations for the first three days.

 

Firebrands Large embers or chucks of burning, airborne material.

 

Fire devil Whirlwind of fire.

 

Firestorm A mass conflagration of fire, a blowup.

 

Flanks (of a fire) The side boundaries of a fire looking from the tail toward the head.

 

Fusee Railroad flares used to light burnouts and backfires.

 

Head Hottest and most active part of a fire; determines the direction the fire is moving.

 

Helitorch A firing device on a helicopter, which is capable of starting fires.

 

Hootch Sleeping arrangement: tent, rain fly, parachute, etc.

 

Hotshots Organized fire crews; highly motivated and well trained. Mostly used on large, long-term fires.

 

Initial attack First effort to stop a fire.

 

Jump list A rotating list that determines the order in which jumpers are assigned to fires.

 

Jump ship Smokejumper aircraft.

 

Jump spot Designated landing area.

 

Loft Room where chutes are rigged and maintained.

 

Lower 48 Alaska talk for the contiguous United States.

 

Moose-eyed Jumper talk for being in love. Being moosey, feeling moosey, having moose eyes, etc.

 

Mop-up Final stage of fire fighting—digging up all roots and burning material; putting out the last of all embers and coals.

 

Mud Aerial fire retardant dropped by aircraft. Also called retardant or slurry.

 

On final For aircraft, the final flight path before jumpers jump. For jumpers, the final flight path as they descend into a jump spot.

 

Ops Operations desk. The nerve center of any smokejumper base. The jump list, aircraft list, and all other matters of business are managed in operations.

 

Paracargo As a group, those who work to deliver supplies to fires by aircraft and parachute. As a product, supplies delivered in such a manner.

 

PG bag Personal-gear bag.

 

PT Physical training. As part of their regular daily routine' smokejumpers do one hour of PT each morning.

 

Pulaski Fire-fighting tool. An ax with a grub hoe on the Opposite end.

 

Rat-holing (also ratting) Sneaking prized food items and hiding them from the rest of the group.

 

Rats Army rations, C-rations, MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat).

 

Ready room Room in smokejumper facility where jumpers suit up for departure to fires.

 

Reburn A fire that is declared out, then later rekindles.

 

Retardant See Mud.

 

Rookie First-year smokejumper.

 

Scratch line Minimal hand line, made quickly to temporarily hold a fire until the line can be finished.

 

 

Situation report Daily report of current fires, personnel assigned, and resource allocations. Also includes weather forecasts.

 

Slash Debris left after logging; limbs, cull logs, treetops, and stumps. Can also be natural forest debris.

 

Slopover A place where the fire crosses an established control line.

 

Snag A dead tree, still standing.

 

Snookie Second-year smokejumper.

 

Speed racks Racks on which jump gear is pre-positioned to facilitate fast suit up.

 

Spot fire Fire started outside the main fire area by flying sparks or embers.

 

Spotter Person who directs the jumping from the plane.

 

Spruce bough The top cut from a small (four- to five-inch diameter) black spruce. Used to swat down flames on Alaska fires.

 

Stall In aircraft, when the airspeed gets so slow that it can no longer maintain flight attitude and begins to fall. In a square parachute, when the canopy is slowed down so much that it can no longer maintain flight, and it begins to rock forward and back radically.

 

Standby shack The main smokejumper building. Includes loft, ready room, tool room, weight room, paracargo bay, etc.

 

Steering lines The right and left lines used to steer a parachute.

 

Stevens connection A short nylon line that connects the reserve deployment handle to the left riser of the main parachute. When a main malfunctions and has to be cut away, the Stevens automatic pulls the reserve handle and initiates the deployment of the reserve.

 

Streamer Fully malfunctioned parachute.

 

Tail The back end or initial part of a fire. Usually spreads slowly at lower intensity than flanks or head.

 

Zulies Missoula smokejumpers


Here are some other smokejumper related websites we recommend you visit:

 

Mann Gulch 1949 Fire  -
 
Worse Loss in SmokeJumper's History 
(12 SmokeJumpers Killed + 1 US Forest Service Member).

Note: On July 6, 1994, near Storm King mountain outside Glenwood Springs, Colorado,
a fired killed 14 firefighters and 3 smokejumpers.
 This is considered the worst brushfire death in US History to date.

Redding SmokeJumpers
(Class Photo - 1965)

Spotfire Photography 
(Awesome fire photos. I recommend going through his photo essay-tour.)

 Bruce "Buck" Nelson - Alaskan Smokejumper Personal Website
(Great photos provided with some technical information)

 

Lyrics to "Greatest American Hero"
(I chose this because they kind of walk on air and they're just regular guys who are heroes.)

Look at what's happened to me,
I can't believe it myself.
Suddenly I'm up on top of the world,
It should've been somebody else. 

Believe it or not,
I'm walking on air.
I never thought I could feel so free-.
Flying away on a wing and a prayer.
Who could it be?
Believe it or not it's just me. 

It's like a light of a new day,
It came from out of the blue.
Breaking me out of the spell I was in,
Making all of my wishes come true-. 

Believe it or not,
I'm walking on air.
I never thought I could feel so free-.
Flying away on a wing and a prayer.
Who could it be?

Believe it or not it's just me.

 

This is our dedication to all who died on
September 11, 2001, which included firefighters, rescue personnel, etc.

 Go Back to other October observances:

{October Is...}  {Fire Prevention}  {   SmokeJumpers }
{ E.D.I.T.H.}  {Product Safety}  { Junk Food

 

 

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