By Willie Blazer
My static line is hooked and I’m standing in the open door, taking in the roar of the plane, the smell of jet fuel. The fire is 1,500 feet below, on a knife ridge in the rugged mountains of northern Montana. I ready myself to jump.
As a rookie smokejumper out of the Missoula base, it’s my job to parachute into remote terrain where a wildfire is reported. When I hit the ground, I’m a wildland firefighter. I just have to get there.
Exiting the Twin Otter plane, I slice through 30-mph wind in a tight body position – chin down, elbows tucked in, knees and feet together. This is cannonball position.
Falling fast now and counting: 1,000 … 2,000 … 3,000 … 4,000 … I feel the shock of my canopy fullyinflated – no need to open my reserve chute. Check canopy. Damn, the suspension lines are twisted.
I reach up to spread the risers apart and kick my feet in a bicycling motion. My lines untwist.
It’s quiet under a canopy at 1,000 feet, but no time to enjoy it. I have one minute until I hit the ground.
I see my jump buddy, veteran Missoula smokejumper Ran Crone, 200 feet below me and quickly realize the raging winds are pushing us in the wrong direction, toward a dreaded snag patch – think old telephone poles with spiked tops.
We’re at the mercy of the wind, and Ran’s heading for a gnarly, 80-foot-tall snag.
I see his parachute catch the top of the dead tree. His body starts whipping around the snag like a tetherball, and increasingly faster. I hope the tree won’t break on him, as I rapidly descend, preparing for a similar punishment.
Jumping from the aircraft isn’t the scary part – in smokejumping, it’s the landing.
BAM! Feet, ass, head and a couple flips crumple me against a small tree. My chute is hooked in a 20-foot snag but I’m safely on the ground. I dump my gear and radio the plane, then run a quarter-mile through the snag patch to find my buddy high up in the dead tree, completely wrapped in his suspension lines.
Ran says he’s OK, and we break up laughing. I radio the aircraft to drop the parachute with climbing spurs in case I need to shimmy up and cut him loose. But after 15 minutes, Ran manages to cut himself from his cocoon and rappel to the ground.
We go to work, gathering our packs, chainsaw and Pulaskis, and head a half-mile along the rocky ridge to the fire. We contain it in short order and prepare for the best part of smokejumping: “para-camping” with cowboy coffee and a can of Spam. We’ll think about our five-mile slog out with 100-pound packs in the morning.
This story was first published in the summer 2015 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.
Willie Blazer spent five seasons as a wildland firefighter; one with the Missoula Smokejumpers. He lives in Ennis, Montana, with his wife Robin, two daughters, and a birddog named Rooster. He and Robin own Willie’s Distillery in Ennis. PHOTO BY JOSEPH T. O’CONNOR
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