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The joy of jumping

Donna Daniels

Joel Kerley loves his job.

He jumps out of airplanes to fight fires.

Kerley is a member of the small and elite corps of smokejumpers, the initial attack force that skydives onto forest fires in rugged and often inaccessible terrain.

After eight years, he still can’t get enough of it.

The thrill of jumping out of an airplane on a fire is “something you can’t explain,” he said.

Kerley, 29, of Troy, Idaho, is stationed at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, and is part of the Boise BLM smokejumpers.

He’s now on temporary assignment for the summer at the Upper Colorado Interagency Fire Management Center in Grand Junction.

His mother wanted to know why he does it. Rather than trying to put it into words, he took her skydiving.

“I took my mother jumping last year for Mother’s Day. She loved it,” Kerley said.

But there’s more than thrills to the smokejumper’s job.

When they take to the air, they’re carrying 80 to 100 pounds of gear.

First Kerley dons shin and knee guards, the same ones hockey players use. A heavy Kevlar suit follows, with what he called an “Elvis” collar that comes up behind the head. Kerley also dons a white helmet with a heavy wire mesh face mask, the better to prevent injury if he lands in a tree.

“It protects you in a hard landing,” he said.

He carries two parachutes, the main chute on his back and a reserve chute in front.

Smokejumpers like Kerley jump with what are called “ram-air” chutes, with red, white and blue square canopies that are maneuverable in high winds.

Ram-airs are used by BLM jumpers, while the Forest Service prefers the traditional round parachute, he said.

BLM jumpers also deploy out of their planes at higher altitudes, usually about 6,000 feet. The higher altitude also gives the jumper more room to maneuver, Kerley said. Forest Service smokejumpers usually jump at 3,000 feet.

He also carries a personal gear bag with enough food and water for two days, one change of clothing and a fire shelter.

“We pride ourselves in that when we’re there during a critical fire period for the fire managers, we don’t want to impact them operationally,” he said.

When the call comes in, the goal is to suit up and be on the plane in seven minutes.

“Sometimes it’s a lot sooner than that,” he said.

Kerley and his seven fellow smokejumpers board a DeHavilland Twin Otter, parked on the ramp in front of the Grand Junction center.

The plane has been gutted of the standard passenger seats to hold the eight jumpers and a spotter. The jumpers sit on one side of the plane on jump seats. The opposite side is lined with cardboard boxes filled with firefighting equipment and water.

Before the jump, the pilot flies over the jump zone and the spotter lets loose colored paper streamers that help gauge the wind speed and direction. The plane then circles to altitude and the jumpers are away, two at a time.

Once the jumpers are down, the spotter pushes the cargo boxes out the door.

During a typical fire season, Kerley will make about 20 fire jumps and 10 to 15 practice jumps, he said.

Just before a jump, the jumper will attach his main chute to a static line. The static line automatically opens a small drogue chute that stabilizes the jumper. “Otherwise, we’d tumble in free fall,” Kerley said.

Then the jumper manually opens the main chute.

Thursday, the smokejumpers demonstrated their skill with a practice jump a few miles south of Walker Field in Grand Junction. The plane made a pass across the jump spot, then circled up into the sky gaining altitude, and the first jumpers appeared.

Jumping in tandem, it took them more than a minute to fall to Earth, their chutes growing larger and larger as they neared the ground.

Just before touching down, they seemed to slow and almost hover. They touched down gracefully on the hard-packed earth, falling over on their sides like marionnettes whose strings are loosened.


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