Story: Jon Lewis
Fishing in the North State
Lightning sparks a blaze that rages through the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, far from the reach of fire hydrants and water tenders. From the sky, the cavalry arrives, bailing out of a plane and parachuting into the woods.
“I always wanted to pursue a job that was kind of extraordinary,” says Rick Rataj of Redding, who will soon begin his ninth summer as a smokejumper. “It’s a last-frontier type of job.”
The Redding-based Region 5 Smokejumpers are ready to fight wildland fires at a moment’s notice – within minutes of receiving the call, they are suited up, their equipment is loaded and the pilots have started their engines and done their safety checks.
“In 10 or 15 minutes we should be airborne,” says base manager Don Sand, a smokejumper for 29 years.
Large wildfires are extremely costly – in dollars, in property and occasionally in human life. The U.S. Forest Service’s smokejumpers can travel into these areas quickly and effectively to suppress those fires.
The Redding smokejumper base is the only one in California – founded in 1957, it features a 40-person crew in the summer, with 21 who work year-round. They fight an average of 60 fires a year, Sand says.
After the jumpers bail out of “the ship,” a spotter kicks out cargo boxes (also attached to parachutes) that carry everything from chainsaws and gas to food and water. Then “the un-glorious part” starts, Rataj says.
“You’re diggin’ dirt,” he says.
The firefighters cut a trail around the blaze, eliminating grass and brush that would otherwise keep fueling the flames. Once it’s contained, they wait for it to burn out – and they check every inch for hotspots before they leave. A typical structure fire is out in hours, but forest fires can take days or weeks, Rataj said. More often than not, the jumpers end up camping out at the site.
When the fire is out, they pack out their 100-plus pounds of gear and head back to base. They hang their chutes from hooks in the ceiling of a spacious warehouse to shake out debris and let them dry. Parachutes are made of a nylon “rip-stop” material, but “a sharp stick with a little energy can cut it pretty easily,” Rataj says, so they check carefully for damage.
Sewing machine tables line an entire wall of an adjacent room. (Yes, the smokejumpers patch up their own chutes – they also manufacture their own jackets and cargo pants, Rataj says.) In the same room, two guys meticulously fold and repack the parachutes, a process that takes about 45 minutes per chute. “Don’t want to take any chances,” one says with a smile.
Smokejumpers must complete a strenuous six-and-a-half-week training course. Packing 60 pounds of gear, they parachute into a remote area, retrieve their equipment, practice firefighting techniques and pack out of the backcountry over rugged terrain.
Still, there’s no training like on-the-job training. Rataj’s first jump didn’t go quite as expected, he says.
“There was a really big open area to jump into, and I think I jinxed myself because I told my buddy, ‘Oh, I can land in that.’ I landed in a tree,” Rataj says. “You hope your chute snags on something so it holds you up. Your heart’s going a million miles an hour.”
And that fear creeps into his throat each time he prepares to make a jump.
“Every time I get in the door of a plane, I’m scared,” Rataj says. “It’s good to be a little scared. It’s a little dangerous.”
Fighting fires is just one of a smokejumper’s many talents. When pinecones (and other tree cones) are ripe, jumpers climb the trees, retrieve bushels of them and give them to nurseries, which grow them into saplings that are replanted in the forests. One of Rataj’s scariest experiences was high in a New York elm tree, which requires a different climbing strategy than the pines that he’s used to climbing here. He was at the top of the tree, transferring from one climbing system to another, when it dawned on him that in the moments that he was untied from his gear, “if I slipped, that would have been it.”
From the tarmac of the Northern California Service Center at the Redding Municipal Airport, home of the Region 5 Smokejumpers, Rataj gestures to the mountains and forests that surround the valley. “This is our jump country, right out here,” he says. “It’s like the best tourist helicopter ride ever.”