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Western wildfire-fighters talk about the fire season and smoke jumping

Larry Hamilton  

Wildfire officials are gearing up for another record fire season this year. In preparation for that, authorities have increased the core group of an elite group that is called smoke jumpers -- firefighters who parachute into remote areas to fight wildfires.

CNN's Jeff Flock spent most of Thursday at the smoke jumpers' training site in Boise, Idaho, where he spoke to Larry Hamilton, who directs the Bureau of Land Management's fire and aviation director, and smoke jumper Lee Rickard.

Flock: You're facing what could be a very difficult fire season, right, Larry?


Hamilton: Yes, we are. The projection is that we're about in the same place we were last year, when it comes to weather and dryness and drought.

Flock: What kind of resources did you have to deploy last year -- because it was a very difficult year?

Hamilton: Last year we had over 30,000 people deployed in the field. We ended up burning over -- having over 90,000 fires and burning over 7.2 million acres.

Flock: And now let's take a look at the states: Last year the states that were bad were what? Montana? Give me the states it was bad in.

Hamilton: Idaho, Utah, and then, of course, New Mexico, and Arizona, and Florida.

Flock: And this is what you're facing again this year?

Hamilton: Yes, this year is going to be the Pacific Northwest, the Northern Rockies, Florida, we've already got activity; and now New Mexico and Arizona are having activity.

Lee Rickard  

Flock: Good deal. How many extra smoke jumpers -- these guys we're going to watch today -- how many of them have you added?

Hamilton: We've got 20 new smoke jumpers that are in training right now.

Flock: Mr. Hamilton, thank you. I want to go and see what this training is about. And as I walk over here, I want to talk to Lee Rickard, who is putting them through their paces.

What are we watching these guys do right now, Lee?

Rickard: Well, we're simulating a high-wind situation with fire shelter deployment behind a DC-3 here.

Flock: And this is what people would be facing, potentially, in a fire condition?

Rickard: Well, potentially, yes. They've done case studies where high winds are usually associated with a fire shelter deployment.

Flock: OK, now show me what these guys are doing. They're coming out -- this would be a situation where they can't get away from the fire, and then what?

Rickard: Well, they can't get away from the fire. We found that, with high winds, if you lay down on the ground, stretch a shelter out in front of you, it's a lot easier to get into.

Flock: So they're trying to go through their paces and get into this. Obviously it's a very difficult situation when they're trying to get into this, facing these winds.

Rickard: Yes, sir, it is. It's very difficult. And we found that, if you stand up and plop the thing out, you'll probably lose it, and you'll be standing there without the shelter.

Flock: This is not, obviously, a condition you want to get into, where you've got no other choice, but you've got to weather the fire out, correct?

Rickard: That's right. You can't get away from the fire, all your escape routes have been cut off and it's time to get into shelter. And this is training we try to do every year.

Flock: Lee, tell me what it is that makes somebody a smoke jumper. What makes one of these guys want to do what they're doing right now?

Rickard: Well, for one, I'd say the excitement of the job, and brotherhood that I experience with all the people I get to work with.

Flock:Can you show me one of these thing? Again, can we go up and take a look at one of these guys up under here? Obviously these guys are in a protective situation.

Rickard: Yes; this right here is probably a poor example, but he did everything he could to get in. This one over here's probably a little better. He's got more protective room in there; he's got a nice tent-like structure to keep the heat away from him. He's got a lot of space.

Flock:And you've got, potentially, fire going right over the top of these guy, right?

Rickard: That's right. You can have a potential fire bumping up against you. As soon as it would hit you and start to roll over it, you start to move away from the fire as it hits. You want to be as far away from it as you can.

Flock:How long can you weather it out in one of these things?

Rickard: Hours; as long as it takes. One hour, two hours, whatever it is for the heat to dissipate and you can actually come out and be safe.

Dry weather fuels record wildfires in U.S.
August 2, 2000

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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