Wildland fire: Slaying the Wildfire Dragons


CarolinaFireJournal - Trooper Tom
Trooper Tom
04/23/2012 -

It is mostly unknown that from 1971 to 1976 the U.S. Forest Service came east of the Mississippi to an unfamiliar country for parachuters. The Smokejumpers came to jump eastern hardwood mountain ranges to find and destroy the wildfire dragons in the forest. At first it was the string of national forest ground in the Appalachians, but the hard noses moved on into the Ozarks to chink for dollars, and quest at the land.

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Smokejumpers from Montana returned to look at the possibility of dropping smokejumpers on those fast raging leaf fires in deciduous forests east of the Mississippi river.

The late winter and early spring winds were always high. They changed so often that the original jumpers sent back there pronounced the place as un-jumpable. Fire season in the deciduous forests began in late February. The forests were barren, with dormant periods devoid of green canopy. There were lots of dead looking trees and strong, direct sunlight beat down on the redish brown leaves on the forest floors. Old chestnut trees that had once been part of the ecosystem feeding turkey, deer, and gray squirrels, were slowly decomposing since the blight changed the forests and all the wildlife they once supported.

Delos Dutton was on that Montana Crew, and it stuck in his craw, that the main group were just not aggressive enough to jump there, and expand the ground base, of federal land, that could use jumpers.

Another great thing about jumping fires back then was that the couple of months of fire season occurred during the western wet springs and snow filled forests affording smokejumpers longer employment and simply giving them more fire jumps. But the high winds and shifting nature of those winds seemed to not favor jumper operations in the eastern forests. In the early 60s the idea of jumping got shelved.

In 1966 Dutton became the leader and manager of the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base in Cave junction, Oregon. The Siskiyou National Forest was in the southwest corner of Oregon.

Duttonwas called Old Bullet Head with great affection by those who worked for him. He was quiet, but the hardest worker, and the most bull headed person any in the smokejumper community had ever met. Quietly, but with sharp elbows and impressive strength, he managed to work his way back east to properly start proving to the sissies in smoke jumping, that smokejumpers could jump in the east.

In 1971 a great ranger, Clyde Todd, on the Clinch District of the Jefferson National Forest in Wise, Virginia hosted six of the first pioneer jumpers to prove the concept.

At first look the country looked lower and less intimidating — sort of like rolling hills with lower trees — half the height constantly dealt with, and weathered in the west.

Some of the land in the west sort of looked like death waiting for you. So many times we would be in the open door of the plane dressed in jump suits, with wire meshed face screens and football helmets. We would be crammed in with our parachutes on and ready to leap out into the great beyond, and whatever hazards were waiting for us down below the trees. What a strange job, yet the folklore of the job always captured the spirits of some classic characters.

Looking out the door, the tall trees, rocks, snags, high lakes, raging rivers, incredibly steep ground with lots of hidden cliffs, were all waiting to hammer us. How could we make it through all the dangerous things waiting out there, and not get hurt simply trying to get to the ground.

It soon became obvious the ground on these low hills in the east,was in fact very steep and slippery. The winds were always throwing us around quite beyond anything we had ever experienced out west. It was always a huge wager with the wind out there. Not only was it strong and fast, it kept changing like nothing we had experienced in all of our west, Alaskan or Canadian adventures with bigger wilderness areas.

The fires themselves were also very different — fast moving and dangerous. So we started slowly thinking the Montana guys may have had a point regarding why they did not want any part of this place.

Of course our Montana smokejumper brothers hated the excessively tall trees over on the Siskiyou. When not dealing with those they were dumped out into rock filled brush fields of the Kalmeopsis Wilderness. The Kalmeopsis is the least used wilderness in all the wilderness areas in the United States. There they would find impenetrable Manzanita brush that shredded the clothes right off you. This made for maddening fights to get out of these vast, waterless, rock- filled areas overpopulated with, of course, what else but rattlesnakes.

While back east, it dawned on us that there may have been valid reasons why the Montana guys turned down the opportunity to work an extra three months a year. It wasn’t just the high winds that scared the hell out of us. We were all getting smacked hard into rocks and horizontal, massive oak limbs. There were barbed wire fences, that we usually did not see until after we got dragged along them...

To read more of Trooper Tom’s eastern adventures,visit www.carolinafirejournal.com.
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