Missoula Smokejumpers Offer Taste of Duties

Aug. 17--Want to know what it's like to jump from an airplane to fight a fire? Head for the Missoula Smokejumper Base for a tour, often given by an active duty firefighter.

Kurt Rohrbach led a recent tour, though he was on duty and could have been mobilized at any minute. The sky was blue without the possibility of lightning, but he said that was no guarantee. "There could always be someone careless with a campfire," said Rohrbach, who hails from the Black Diamond area near Mount Rainier in Washington and lives in Missoula as a professional smokejumper during the fire season.

A smokejumper is the most highly trained level of wildland fire fighting professional for the U.S. Forest Service. They are first on the scene of remote fires, because they get there from the air _ by floating down in either a round or a square parachute.

They also have to bring all their gear with them to last three days, though some of it follows in a separate air drop. Their first job upon being dropped near a fire is to gather their gear, find a safe place to store what they don't need (such as the parachute), mark the location with a global positioning reading, then high tail it toward the fire and beginning fighting it in the manner they were trained.

The Missoula base has about 70 of 350 smokesjumpers at the West's nine bases, making it the largest in the country. Oregon's smokejumpers are based out of the airport at Redmond. Tours are also offered at the Washington base in the North Cascades at Winthrop.

The airplane out of Missoula will leave the Missoula International Airport with a pilot, co-pilot, at most 16 jumpers, a spotter and an assistant spotter. One of the planes they fly was used during the D-Day invasion of Europe in 1944.

The plane can fly 190 knots, but a jump is usually at 100 knots. Round-chute jumpers go first from 1,500 feet above the ground, followed by square-cute jumpers at 3,000 feet. The jumper decides what kind of chute they want to use then sticks with it, because it requires lots of training and practice to become proficient.

Because of the weight of the gear, they like to land close to a fire, but no too close.

After doing their job, they usually have to walk out to a road to be picked up. Since they often fight fires in wilderness areas, this occasionally can be many miles.

An inside joke among smokejumpers is who has the weirdest recipe for Spam, but Rohrbach says they eat pretty well, provided you like freeze dried food.

The Missoula Smokejumper Base is at 5765 W. Broadway St., off Airway Boulevard exit from Interstate 90 at the west end of the airport. The visitor center is open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Tours are offers hourly 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (except none at noon), though fire conditions could alter the schedule. Check the website smokejumper.com.

-- Terry Richard

Copyright 2014 - The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

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