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Protectors of the Forest: Firefighter Jump Training

Story and photos by Sam Averett
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Firefighters protect our forests and wildlands from destruction. They put their lives at risk to stop blazes before they threaten our communities. Apparel- and gear-maker Filson is celebrating their stories, and we share a few of them here in the series ‘Protectors of the Forest.’

Smokejumpers are specially trained wildland firefighters — and their training is grueling. Often the leading edge of a wildland firefight, smokejumpers parachute out of airplanes to reach fires before they grow into infernos. Their specialized training gives them the tools needed to lead and situational awareness to stay safe in emerging incidents.

Check out the journal entries of one smokejumper, Sam Averett, as he goes through training to be a protector of the forest.

Story and Photos by Sam Averett

In the Dark

April 15, 2018

Tomorrow: Physical training test in the morning, then God knows what. They don’t tell you anything around here. Sounds like it’ll be a hard day. Supposed to rain, too. That will be nice.

Smokejumper Training: ‘The Rack,’ ‘Tramp Stamps’

April 16, 2018

Our lead trainer was a hatchet-faced man with laser-sharp brown eyes that didn’t miss and a French crop haircut, combed over. Not a big guy, maybe 5’6”, with the build of an Olympic gymnast. He looked like the type who could do pushups for a week straight. As it happened, he was precisely that type.

“Down, down, down, down,” he barked out a set of 25 cadence pushups. “On your backs.” Thirty-five situps followed. “Pushups,” he said flatly. Twenty-five pushups followed. “On your backs.” Thirty-five situps. “Pullups, hustle.” We ran to the pullup bar. Ten pullups. “Dips, go.” Fifteen dips.

For the next hour and a half, sweat rolled off our faces and onto the gritty concrete slab trainers called “the rack.” Triceps trembled and burned and failed over and again. Hands slipped and bled and struggled to grip the pullup bar.

Everyone felt the beginnings of a raw patch forming in the smalls of our backs from endless situps. Trainers called it a “tramp stamp,” and they wore the scars from theirs like badges of honor. Day 2 of Smokejumper training in the sun-baked town of Redding, California was underway. Forty-five days to go.


Running Harder Than Ever

April 17, 2018

PT at the rack this morning, then the 110-pound pack test, fire refresher, and an 8-mile run. Man, that run was a doozy! Did well for the first 3 miles or so, right behind the trainers. They’re fast. Did OK until they bumped the pace into the mid-5-minute-mile area. Ha! I lost them, finished about middle of the pack, not great. The whole time I was sure I was going to throw up. I’ve never run that hard before. Ever. Trainers run by and shout, “Still want to be here?!”

At the head of the classroom, the training foreman glanced at his watch and sighed, “Alright, PT clothes, 2 minutes.” Chairs screeched on linoleum and binders snapped shut. No one spoke as all 10 of us scrambled into the locker room and pulled on sweat-soaked shoes and shorts from our morning at the rack.

“Alright, guys,” grinned a short, lean man who wore a beard gray beyond his years. “The objective for this run is to keep up with the trainers,” he said. He went by James, and his eyes flashed as he turned, punched a button on his watch, and sprang into a quick trot.

Shoes hammered on blacktop as we passed through the barbed-wire-topped gate and around the corner onto the street. Our group was a single organism. Three miles later, our group stretched along the scorched blacktop over the better part of a mile. The trainers danced and hovered like hellish buzzards over each runner, motivating when necessary, providing an easy out for anyone who felt like quitting.

Five miles after that, hammered runners stumbled back into the compound one by one, sweat-soaked and spent, some of them — myself included — unable to talk or think clearly. The last man had finished the 8-mile run with an average pace of 6:49 per mile. Day 3 was over.


Some Drop Out, the Rest Study

April 21, 2018

Saturday morning, first full week down, two guys have quit. My roommate packed up his stuff and left today. He looked up from his bunk with misty eyes, “I can’t do it, man. I can’t be in pain like this for the next 6 weeks.” I tried to talk him out of it — we all did. But he was done. He looked back once, just before he shut the door, “Good luck.”

For the next 2 weeks, every day was Groundhog Day. PT at the rack each morning — countless pushups, pullups, situps, and dips. Hands blistered and bled, pecs burned, and backs chafed raw. Then we studied: tree climbing, let-down procedures, how to pack cargo chutes, and smokejumping history. In the afternoon, we ran. The shortest runs were 5 miles, most were more. But always, we ran.

At night, we retreated to the safety of the barracks and cured our ailments with ample complaining, laughs, local takeout, and, if the weekend allowed, plenty of light beer. When Week 2 ended, we crammed into government Suburbans for the 8-hour drive to Boise, Idaho; relieved to be headed to units training and, hopefully, jump phase.

Training in Boise, Idaho: Units & Jump Phase

May 2, 2018

Wednesday of our first week in Boise for units and jump phase. Our trainers here are hard dudes, but they know their stuff. Guys say this is the worst week in the whole training — lots of situps and practicing let-downs and aircraft exits. Lots of running up and down the three-story tower in blistering heat. Lots of opportunities to wash out.

When they weren’t around, we called them Bad Andy, Square Jaw, and Crazy Eyes. When they were, we called them Andy, Jeff, and Mike. Or “sir.” Square Jaw was a smokejumper of 15 years, Crazy Eyes was a Marine, and Bad Andy was just plain mean. My quads screamed from the 70 pounds of jumpsuit and gear as I hustled up the three-story staircase to the tower. Rivers of sweat cascaded off my brow and into my eyes. From below, Bad Andy bellowed at me to run. Veins popped in his neck from the strain. It was 10:30 a.m., and I was already smoked.

“One jumper ready and tight?” the spotter asked. “Ready and tight,” I gasped. He passed me the static line.

“Hook up. Get in the door,” he barked.

I stumbled and flopped down in the door. “Get ready!” My feet snapped to the edge of the step and I cocked back, shifting my hands to grip the outside of the aircraft. He slapped my back — and I jumped.

There was a split second of weightlessness, then the cable caught and I zipped down the line toward the heap of dirt that was my make-believe jump spot. Below, Square Jaw droned malfunctions through a megaphone, and I grabbed wildly for the corresponding handles on my harness. “Look, reach, pull. Look, reach, pull.” For a week we struggled in the Idaho heat. On Monday, we’d been certain we’d fail. By Friday night, we thought maybe, just maybe, we could make it.

We passed our units tests today. Everyone did good. Now it’s the real deal. Tomorrow we’re jumping solo from 4,000 feet. I should probably try to sleep … but that’s a pipe dream now.


Smokejumping in Tandem

May 3, 2018

“Two jumpers ready and tight?” the spotter screamed over the deafening roar of the engines on the Twin Otter. “Two jumpers ready and tight!” “Hook up!” The sickly sweet smell of jet fuel washed over me and I shuffled toward the open door and snapped my static line into the extender. The spotter flashed me a thumbs-up. I nodded.

For a nanosecond, raging, blinding panic welled up from where I’d buried it in the deep in the back of my mind. Then it was gone. Each choreographed step was seared into my brain over almost 4 weeks of memorization, practice, and repetition, of late nights and early mornings. “Get in the door!” I slammed the static line home and swung into the open door.

Like an April river, the prop blast grabbed my legs and I pulled back, tight to the fuselage. Four-thousand feet below, the Idaho desert stretched endlessly. Dotted with dozens of black Angus beefs and four white Forest Service Chevrolet pickups. A pair of red, white, and blue parachutes floated toward a bright-orange flag already surrounded by canopies. “Get ready!” I snapped to.

The prop blast ripped through my facemask as I pulled myself out into the hot desert air. I was tumbling. The ground rushed toward me. Bad exit! The plane disappeared behind me and was gone, the deafening roar of the engines suddenly silent.

Everything was silent but for the wind rushing past and my own hurried chanting: “Jump thousand … look thousand … reach thousand … wait thousand … pull thousand.” A jump count designed to take 5 seconds took only half that, and I yanked my release handle. Above me, the canopy sprang to life, fully inflated.


Jump Partner in Peril

May 16, 2018

Three jumps yesterday. My jump partner, Gomez, took a hard downwind landing into rising terrain and scared the shit out of everyone. The trainers were furious. Lucky he’s a ball of muscle or he would have probably broken both femurs. Trainers said 95 percent of the time he’s not walking away from that.

“What’s he doing!?” Square Jaw rasped, eyes fixed on Gomez as he floated past us still 500 feet up. Man, he’s gonna take a downwinder,” someone muttered. “This is gonna be bad.”

I’d hit the ground seconds earlier and I glanced up, transfixed. My mind raced. “How did he get so off track? Did I fly a bad pattern and hang him out to dry? Am I about to watch a good man get hurt on my account?” Gomez slammed into the hillside opposite us. Dust and foliage erupted from sage and grass. Legs buckled and he bounced, then rolled, orange canopy settling around him in the still canyon air.

“Get him on the radio,” said Square Jaw.

A radio crackled to life and Gomez came through, “Jumper OK.”

“Pulling that kinda stunt will get you life-flighted or worse.”

For the next 2 weeks, we jumped twice a day, every day. We jumped in high winds and no wind. We jumped into timber and onto knife ridges. We learned that landing lee side on a windy day is a cardinal sin, that half brakes is your safe place, and complacency is dangerous.

We learned to fly our own pattern, to be aggressive and to act quickly with confidence. We made mistakes and paid the price, usually with an impromptu desert run or roadside calisthenics. We briefed and debriefed. We talked about what went wrong and why. Occasionally, we talked about what went right. And then, just like that, it was over.

Graduation Celebration

May 25, 2018

Graduated jump training yesterday with an awesome jump into a tight timber spot. Pat was the Jumper in Charge and led us in. When we hit the ground, we got GPS coords for the trucks and started hiking. Trainers were in PT clothes when we got there, so we knew we were about to get burned. They put us in pushup position, berated us for taking so long to hike back, and told us we’d be running back to the units station … like 25 miles away.

Our bags with our PT clothes and shoes were placed out on the ground, and they told us to get dressed. We had 1 minute. We ran to the bags, heads spinning, and zipped them open. Inside everyone’s bag were two Coors Banquets. The trainers laughed like jackals. It was over. Everyone was totally amped up. We drank beer and ate pizza and laughed over the ridiculous situations the last 7 weeks had placed us in with the people who’d put us through them.

I’m proud of these guys and proud to be a part of this community. I guess it’s time for the real thing now. Fire season starts Monday.

This article is sponsored by Filson. Learn more about the partnership between Filson and the U.S. Forest Service here.

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