Summer’s End

I’m writing this from my hotel room in Fresno, Calfornia, and i’ll be flying back to the West Yellowstone jump base tomorrow.  It’s been a great two weeks out here, and included my favorite fire jump of the season, the 100 acre Irene Fire at 8000 feet in the high sierra and within view of the plume from the massive King Fire.  It was a pretty slow year for most jumpers, myself included, but I’ve had a great time at West Yellowstone exploring the park and doing things people do in the summer like canoeing, fishing, and of course photography.  By Tuesday I should be on the road on my way home to Virginia, where i’ll be until next May.

For most of the summer I was having trouble with this blog and was unable to post anything, so i’ve got a good number of photos to share today, though i’d say it was a pretty slow year for photography as well.




Canon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm lens, 1/100 sec at f/11, ISO 400

The last time Erin visited by herself, we did a 20 mile round-trip hike up to the Hilgard Basin, a really amazing glacial bowl surrounded by jagged peaks and dotted by little alpine lakes.  While we were there these flowers, called White Mule’s Ears, were growing in and around the shallower lakes, so I came up with an idea for this portrait, holding the wide-angle lens as close as possible so the flowers would take up more of the scene.


2Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/15 sec at f/32, ISO 400

One evening I was at Hebgen Lake at sunset, searching around for something to shoot, when I noticed these wind-blown ripples and their interesting effect on the reflections of some trees on a small island in the lake.  It’s not quite as neat as watching it in real time, but it’s close.


3Canon 5d Mark iii, 100mm macro lens, 1/500 sec at f/2.8, ISO 100, handheld

Recently I took my first day off in a month, and Brett and I decided to climb the Sphinx, a mountain about an hour’s drive from the base that we’ve flown around many times on the way to fires.  Brett thought it was 7 miles round trip, but it was actually 14 and took us most of the day to climb the 5000 feet to the summit.  The view was incredible of course, and my favorite thing was that when we got high enough, maybe with 500 feet of the top, there wasn’t even grass on the ground anymore, just a succulent-like ground cover that was soft to walk on.  On the way down I spied this crab spider on a Prairie Crocus seed head, and spent a little while shooting it with my macro lens, which I haven’t used in a good while.


5Olympus OM-D EM-5, 9-18mm lens, 1/100 sec at f/8, ISO 200

It sometimes amazes me how much gear and junk we end up with when we jump a fire, as this photo illustrates.  It was sunrise the morning after we jumped, and the sun slipped through a gap in the clouds and lit up the far hills.


4Olympus OM-D EM-5, 9-18mm lens, 1/60 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400

I took this from the plane as we flew to Redmond, Oregon on a boost awhile back.  They had just been hit by a powerful series of dry thunderstorms, and I counted over 15 fires on the way to the base.


6Olympus OM-D EM-5, 9-18mm lens, 1/100 sec at f/8, ISO 400

These two images are from a fire that a couple 20 year jumpers have said was the most amazing they’ve ever seen.  It was a fairly small smoke at the base of a 500 foot waterfall, and a trail led up the steep cliff face to an amazing glacial lake.  It was absolutely incredible to see from the air, unfortunately I was number 7 on the plane and they only threw 4, so I didn’t get to jump it.  After spending a few days putting it out, they were unable to get a helicopter to fly their gear out and they were getting dumped on, so their pack out bags weighed between 130 and 150 pounds each on the 8 mile hike out, so in a way they paid for the experience.


7Olympus OM-D EM-5, 9-18mm, 1/200 sec at f/4, ISO 400
11Olympus OM-D EM-5, 9-18mm lens, 1/350 sec at f/4, ISO 100

Our first view of the Irene Fire, after flying through the huge plume of the King.  Normally the fires we jump don’t look like this, because what are 8 guys really going to be able to do.  As it happened there was already a twenty person type 2 crew down there working one edge, and after getting our asses handed to us the next day we ordered two more loads of jumpers and two hotshot crews.  Still, the first two days were tough, sawing all day through thick oak and manzanita brush in really steep terrain, though it mellowed out after that.



Olympus OM-D EM-5, 9-18mm lens, 1/60 sec at f/4, ISO 400

We jumped the Irene pretty late in the evening, so after getting our gear in order and heading out to scout the fire, dusk was coming on.  I took this photo when we stopped at a granite outcropping to get the lay of the land, and to take in the scene: the smoke from the fire illuminated by the light from the setting sun.


8Olympus OM-D EM-5, 9-18mm lens, 1/500 sec at f/4, ISO 100

Helicopters were absolutely vital to us those first two days, as the low humidities and dry fuels combined to create extreme heat in the down trees, so much so that we couldn’t get near them without having a bucket drop on them first.


9Olympus OM-D EM-5, 45mm f/1.8 lens, 1/200 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

Damien holds an unidentified feather he found that he was planning on giving his girlfriend when we got home.  It’s funny, but I always use to bring home gifts from fires to Erin, and still do sometimes, I suppose to make up for being away and to reassure her that she was important to me.  Being married makes the practice seem less important, but it’s still fun sometimes.


12Olympus OM-D EM-5, 9-18mm lens, 1/100 sec at f/11, ISO 200

I took this when we first got to the fire the morning after we jumped, of smoke filtering through a group of huge dead snags that all ended up being cut down because they had fire in them and were throwing embers.






West Yellowstone

It’s hard to believe that fire season is 1/5 over already, and I haven’t yet smelled a whiff of smoke.  I got four jumps during refresher training and all went well, and another jump yesterday near the base here in West Yellowstone.  In slow times it’s no insignificant consolation that I’m a 5 minute drive from the entrance to Yellowstone, and I’ve been heading in there whenever I get the chance.  I’ve got a few photos to post today, mostly from inside the park but a few from Virginia and Missoula also.




Canon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/13 sec at f/32, ISO 100, handheld

Another slow shutter speed shot of a seagull off the beach at Cape Charles.


chaosCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/13 sec at f/22, ISO 125, handheld

I just never know what I’m going to get with this technique.




Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/6 second, handheld

Erin and I were eating dinner one night when I looked out the window and saw this beautiful crescent moon.  I forgot my tripod and it was pretty dark, so the shot is somewhat blurred and noisy, but It still conveys the scene pretty well.


Flower_doubleexpCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/500 sec at f/2.8, ISO 400, Gitzo Tripod

A double exposure of a flower in the forest along Rock Creek near Missoula.  For this shot, I took one normal exposure of the flower, and then adjusted the focus so the scene was blurred, and took another shot on top of the original.


Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/30 sec at f/11, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

A pretty classic (and often photographed) scene in the park, but it caught my eye all the same.  A two-image panorama.


CoyoteCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/250 sec at f/2.8, ISO 400, handheld

I followed this coyote through the woods for awhile, and got this shot of him digging after something underground.


Swallows_closeCanon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/500 sec at f/4, ISO 400, handheld

I spent a night in the park last weekend, and in the morning found a small bridge that hundreds of Swallows were nesting under.  They were continuously streaming into and out of the tunnel under my feet, so I took hundreds of shots from above, trying to get them in focus and also in a good composition.  This was my favorite close-up shot, and the next  is my favorite wider composition.


Swallows_wideCanon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/500 sec at f/4, ISO 400, handheld

It’s hard to tell because the photo is pretty small, but this was the sharpest shot I got that morning, and almost all the birds and in crisp focus.  I suppose choosing between this image and the previous one comes down to the size of the print: for a larger print this is definitely the one I would choose as there’s just more to see.


Pronghorn_blurCanon 5d Mark iii, 300mm f/2.8 lens, 1/10 sec at f/22, ISO 100, handheld

I remember learning a long time ago that the Pronghorn is the fastest land mammal in North America and can run upwards of 45mph, because they evolved alongside a species of Cheetah that went extinct around 20,000 years ago.  They definitely exude confidence in their speed, and when I surprised this one resting in the sage it didn’t run, but pranced away gracefully.



Canon 5d Mark iii, 70-200mm f/4 lens, 1/100 sec at f/11, ISO 100, handheld

A two-image black and white panorama of steam vents in Yellowstone.


Yellowstone_falls Canon 5d Mark iii, 50mm f/1.8 lens, 1/30 sec at f/11, ISO 100, Gitzo Tripod

The view from above this waterfall is stunning, and right now the river is swollen with snowmelt and crashes with amazing force onto the rocks below.  The photo below is looking over the edge of the cliff.


crashingCanon 5d Mark iii, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, 1/500 sec at f/8, ISO 100, handheld








Mount Two Top Fire

These are the last photos from this season, taken on the Mount Two Top fire which straddled the Idaho/Montana border.  We were on it for 9 days, which is longer than jumpers usually stay on fires, and although it did get boring at times it was nice to get the overtime.  We had our end of the season party last night, and will spend next week packing up the base for winter, and then it’s 7 long months until I get to jump out of a plane again.  I’m not sure what i’ll be doing this winter, but it will definitely include some photography!


A couple of the sunsets we had during the fire were stunning.  Here people sit around the campfire before dinner under a vibrant sky.


I had to shield my eyes and shoot blind while this helicopter was taking off, because of the amount of dust it kicked up.


 A forty second exposure of everyone around our two campfires one night.


A group of jumpers loads up into the plane.  It’s going to be a long time until I do this again, and while I could use a break both physically and mentally, I’ll be plenty ready when the time rolls around again next summer.


Frenchie Creek, Ohara, and 975 Fires

Today I’m posting photos of 3 fires from the meat of the season, when we were really busy and it felt like you were going to jump if you were at base and available.  The Frenchie Creek Fire was a neat one because it was several hundred acres in grass, while we normally end up on smaller fires in dense timber.


Bryce at the campfire.  The Ohara fire was not far from Grangeville, and we even drove by my house on the way out.  The jump was nice because the spot was pretty big and since I was the last guy on the plane with an odd number, I got to fly by myself with no jump partner to worry about running into.  The landing was a bit of a surprise because what looked from up high like small shrubs was actually dense ferns about 5 feet tall, so each person disappeared when they hit the ground.  The hike to the fire was pretty gnarly, and we all had a lot of weight to keep ourselves supplied with food and water for 2 or 3 days.  The forest was dense and seemed pretty unhealthy, so there was plenty of dead and downed timber to crawl over.  The fire itself was fine, and other than a violent storm that came through and knocked trees down around us, everything went well.


Ryg at the campfire.  I looked over from my campsite the first night and saw Ryg spending some time alone with the fire.


I took this photo and the one below on our first flight of the Frenchie Creek Fire one evening, and although it was certainly active and needed attention, there’s a limit on how late we can jump so we had to turn around and jump it in the morning.  Most of our fires are small and in dense timber, so it was exciting to look down at a running grass fire for a change.  When we jumped it the next morning it was much less active, but some edges were still burning.


A different view.


Russ Frei coming in to land his square parachute in the background, and my round parachute lays sprawled in the grass in the foreground.  Jumpers have used rounds since the 30′s, and they’re basically the same parachute used during the D-Day invasion, but squares have some advantages over them and there’s talk of switching everyone over within 10 years.


Frenchie Creek Campsite.  This was one of those stunning campsites where you sit around the fire in the evening after a hard day’s work and completely forget that you’re getting paid to be there.


There was no wood near our campsite, so three of us each carried about 40 pounds of firewood up 1000 feet so we could have a nice fire.


I found these baby birds on the ground while we were cutting line through one of the only brushy areas on the fire.  It was strange, but there was no nest on the ground near them or a tree nearby they could have fallen out of, so I assume it was some sort of ground nesting bird.  They were alive when we found them, but I doubt they lasted long.


The rotor wash from a departing helicopter blows dirt in front of the sun on our last morning on the Frenchie Creek.  We got our gear slung out, but for some reason they decided to have us hike out instead of fly.  The hike was beautiful but pretty long and hot, and we gained about 2000 feet of elevation before hitting the dirt road.


Our next fire was the #975, and this is what it looked like from the air.  It was in a nice, open Ponderosa forest, and was cleaning up the understory well without killing any trees, so it was kind of a shame we suppressed it.


We dug line late into the night after jumping, and I took this photo around midnight on the way back to camp with the help of my tripod.  It was hard to find a spot where I could see the moon through the trees.


Eight McCall jumpers reinforced us on the second day so the campsite was pretty packed that evening, and it was tough keeping up with the spam and coffee cooking for everyone.  As usual, the view from our campsite was spectacular.


This is what our campsite looked like a few days later, after the McCallies left and we were just mopping up whatever heat was left on the 8 acre fire.



Winding Down

The fire season seems to be winding down around here, and actually it’s the first time I’ve spent more than 2 days at the base in quite a while.  My last fire jump was the Mount Two Top Fire, which was 140 acres and straddled the Idaho/Montana border.  It was my 8th fire jump of the year, and looks like it could be my last unless we get another lightning bust in the next week or so.  It’s been a great season, and this job is definitely all that it’s cracked up to be.

As far as my photography goes, I’ve been using an Olympus OM-D E-5 this season.  It’s a micro-four-thirds camera, the idea of which is basically a smaller body with a bigger sensor.  The image quality is very good, though I do wish I could bring my big Canon out on the line with me.  I’ve got four photos in the semi-finals of the Windland Smith Rice International, the competition I won a category in last year, so I’m awaiting any news from them.  Today I’m posting photos from some fires earlier this summer.


Flights early in the morning and later in the evening are my favorite because the views can be amazing.  I took this photo out the window during a pretty late flight, and since they were only going to drop 4 and I was 6th, I was able to concentrate on getting photos.  This is the best one I got of the fire, but it’s a little blurry.


A view into the cockpit and of our pilot, Nels Jensen.  I was looking at old photos on the wall here the other day and saw him in the smokejumper class of 1969 photo.


A small pot of coffee brews on the Nut Hill Fire a few weeks ago.  We dug line late into the night and a gal from a local district got hit by the top of a tree when it burned out and fell from about 40 feet up.  Luckily her vitals were stable and she wasn’t bleeding really badly, and she ended up not even having any broken bones.


Bryce, one of my fellow rookies, goes out the door on a small fire.  We have to jump out hard but then tuck into a ball quickly so the 100mph wind doesn’t send us ass over teakettle.


The Ring Fire from the air.  This was one of my favorite fires this year because it was way out in the Frank Church wilderness at about 8000 feet.  There were huckleberries everywhere and a clear stream ran through our campsite.


Our jump spot on the Ring Fire was a little opening on a ridge with a 360 degree view of wilderness.  Here somebody comes in for a nice soft landing.


Another view of our jump spot.  The blue strip of paper Francis is holding up is called a streamer, and is used to show incoming jumpers the wind conditions on the ground.


I started packing a compact tripod about halfway through the season, so I’ve been able to take some long exposures.  The wooden tripod in the photo is used to dry clothes and hang our cooking pots over the fire.


The hike out from the Ring Fire was 7 miles or so along a good trail, with gorgeous views of the Frank Church.  We were able to get our jump gear slung out by helicopter, so all we carried were our fire packs and tools.


First Fire Jump!

After graduating from rookie training in late June, I went to the southwest for a little while as part of a throw together crew, and mostly ended up just cutting dead trees and getting poured on by the monsoons for a week or so.  Once back at Grangeville, it wasn’t long before I got my first fire jump on the Crescendo Fire up on the Idaho Panhandle.  It was good to get it out of the way, and since then we’ve been pretty busy.  The photos I’m posting today are from that first fire, which was a pretty tough one in general, but especially for me because I had an incredibly painful IT band issue pop up on the fire, something i’ve never dealt with.  It seems to be somewhat common that people have physical issues for a while after rookie training until your body is able to heal up.


Four of us pack our jump gear into our waterproof bags, called Alaska bags, after my first fire jump.  The hike was a mile or so up to and along a ridge to get to a road that took us to the Crescendo Fire.  Sometimes you have to jump fairly far from a fire because there’s no jump spot nearby or the winds are unfavorable.


A view of the Crescendo Fire from the ridge.  It was 25 acres when we arrived and we nearly got a handle on it before getting demobed.  I saw on the National Sit Report yesterday that it’s now 1100 acres and 5% contained.


So you’re not allowed to wear a smokejumper t-shirt until you get your first fire jump, and this shirt was tossed to me by one of the other guys after I hit the ground.



Rookie Training Journal: Part 2

Tue. May 28th 5:50 AM:

We’re meeting downstairs for PT at 6:30, and I’m really nervous.  I suppose I’m traumatized from last week and am wondering what’s in store for us, it’s the not knowing that’s hard to deal with.  It consoles me to know that 15 other people will go through it with me, and I know I can handle it if they can.  I know this is what I want for right now, but it’s kind of hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel this early on.

8 AM : The PT session this morning was pretty tough, but it only lasted an hour and then we started on the units.  We were in our jumpsuits from 8 until noon, going from station to station learning different skills.  It was good to be finally learning about jumping since our first trip out the plane is scheduled for next Thursday.  I re-injured my thigh pretty bad trying to get up in my jump suit today, so my bad leg now has to be my good leg.  It started hurting towards the end of the 110 lb pack test, a sharp pain in the upper middle part of my quad, but I thought it healed this weekend, but it definitely didn’t.  My PLF’s (Parachute Landing Falls), were pretty good, but I need to work on my exits and letdowns.

Sat. June 1:

I thought I’d be better about journalling through this, but I’m really tired in the evenings and things are going fairly well, while i’ve noticed in the past that I usually journal when I would otherwise need someone to talk to.  The PT Tuesday morning was pretty bad, a long run at a fast pace, starting with our carrying the metal bars for a mile or so and then going basically as hard as we could uphill for awhile.  Actually I just remembered that that was Wednesday’s PT, Tuesday’s was a fairly short run but at a really fast pace and we all felt gassed afterwards.  For yesterday’s PT they drove us to a quiet part of town and said the engines died, so we pushed the trucks in groups of 5 for an hour or so, which was tough but actually sort of fun.  The Units have been enjoyable, at least for me, because despite roasting while running around in our jumpsuits all morning, we’re finally learning the nuts and bolts of jumping.  It’s fairly simple stuff, but it has to become muscle memory to overcome the nerves that we’ll inevitably have when we’re actually in the aircraft door.  I still haven’t really gotten the PLF’s down yet, but I’m counting on the practice i’ll do this weekend to help me figure them out.  Letdowns are no problem, and my exits are getting better though I need more “vigor”, which seems to be the default critique when there’s nothing else to criticize about an exit.  My right quad seemed to spontaneously heal on Wednesday, so I feel basically injury-free for the first time during this training.  Russ, one of the trainers, said that two guys from his rookie class washed because of getting injured on their first jump.  Our first is scheduled for Thursday, and I hope that’s not the case with our class.  Erin’s parents are with her in Jackson, doing some fishing and wedding planning.  Being in the dorms over the weekend is pretty depressing, so maybe i’ll camp out tonight.

Monday June 3:

There was no PT this morning, which was strange, and I feel like they’ll find a way to hurt us this afternoon.  I did great on all the units today except landings, and there I was awful.  Keeping your feet together when you land just goes against 30 years of experience regarding what to do when you land on the ground.  I don’t consciously spread my feet apart, it just happens, every time.

Thurs. June 6:

Yesterday was test day on units, and everyone made it through to jump today, although my whole squad did really poorly on landings.  In letdowns I had a tough time for a minute trying off the the bowl of the tree, and I forgot a shroud line check once, but after that I was fine.  In exits I did great, but landings was awful.  We were issued our real parachutes and reserves in the afternoon and weighed with all our jump gear on (I was 270 lbs, so 85 lbs of gear!), and then they gave us a long talk about how we’re moving to Phase 3 of training, jumping.  In the evening we circled up and one of the trainers said “Ok guys, it’s a little tradition here to run to Frenchtown and back, 25 miles and you have 3 hours to complete it.”  I was pretty distraught, because I was already exhausted and hungry and didn’t know if I could do it, but I figured that if I went down, a lot of other people would to.  The trainers took off at a good clip and said that first we’d run through the dorms, and as we ran down one hall I started smelling pizza and thought, “Great, I have to run right by someone eating pizza.”  Turned out the pizza was for us, and two rookies from the previous year were there to answer our questions and show us a video to get us pumped up about our first jump.  It was such a relief I wanted to cry.  After this morning’s PT it’s time to jump.  I’m not that nervous yet, but I’m sure it will come.

Mon. June 10:

The last few days have been pretty memorable.  We jumped twice on Thursday, once on Friday, and twice today.  The first jump was pretty crazy, especially standing in the door right before I got the slap.  My adrenaline was through the roof and I’ve never felt my heart pump that hard before.  They steered us in by radio on the first jump, so I was basically just following instructions all the way down.  The landing felt pretty hard, and Sarah, the base manager at Grangeville, was there to shake my hand.  I was so relieved to be on solid ground.  The second jump actually hurt pretty bad because I was running with the wind and came in hot, and my right leg shot out to break my fall and took a lot of the force (as I type this up 2 months later, it still hurts).  Third jump was a 2-man stick at Hanson Ranch, and all went pretty well though they said we didn’t split the wind line very well.  The second jump that day was cancelled because the wind picked up.  Our first jump today was right at the base in what’s called the field of shame, and everything went well except my feet came apart on landing and my legs dropped when I exited the plane.

Tue. June 11:

PT this morning was rough, mostly bear crawling in full jump gear and practicing PLF’s.  I think we all lost several pounds of water weight.  Our first jump was good, though I set up pretty low and my feet came apart on landing.  Bagan and Waerig almost ran into each other 60 feet off the ground and the trainers were pretty steamed about that.  My second jump was really good, and Jamie and I both got with 15 feet of our panels and the trainers didn’t have much to say in the way of criticism, which was nice.  They told us to be sure and get rest tonight, and that combined with the fact that it’s supposed to be too windy to jump tomorrow has me worried about a big run.

Sat. June 15:

Another week over and one to go.  The last 3 days went pretty well for me save for 1 bad exit and my feet coming apart on basically every landing.  My flights were all good and I feel pretty well physically.  They washed Waerig on Tuesday night, probably because of his exits.  Right now it feels like that would be the end of the world, which is silly, but still I wouldn’t trade places with him for anything.  I’ll be so relieved when this is over and I know my job is secure.

Rookie Training Journal: Part 1

Sunday May 12, 2013. -

I haven’t written in this journal for quite a while, but I want a written record of what I’m about to go through.  In 8 days I start rookie training on my way to becoming a Grangeville Smokejumper.  The notoriously brutal 5-week ordeal will be in Missoula, Montana and the rookies from the region 1 bases (Grangeville, Missoula, and West Yellowstone), will all be there, probably about 15 in all.  On Wednesday Erin and I will load up yet another U-Haul and head for yet another new home.

I just re-read the first few pages of this journal from mid-season 2011, my last year with the Wolf Creek Hotshots, and I was complaining a lot about my knees.  To pick up from there, my left knee has me doubtful that i’ll be able to finish rookie training.  I’ve had a pretty bad pain in it for almost 2 months now, and lately it’s been getting worse.  Normally the pains in my knees don’t slow me up much, but this one definitely is.  From what i’ve been reading it seems like just a bad case of runner’s knee, which improper tracking of the patella rubs on and can damage the cartilage beneath it, but i’ve suspected that I might have a meniscus tear for years.  Either way I’m favoring it a lot and it’s not improving, and in a week I’m going to be put through something harder than any fire roll.  I expect i’ll make it through, but I do have some doubt.

It’s amazing, but my dad says that his knees feel the same as they did when he was 10 years old, no pain at all.  He also never really put them through very much, not even sports in school I think.  Mom’s knees are not as good, and her dad’s have been bad for a long time.  I’m sure most of the people who show up on the 20th with be dealing with something or other, so i’ll quit whining.



Monday May 27, -

Clearly i’ve done a great job journaling.  Last week was easily the hardest physical trial i’ve been through, and i’d say there have been many.  We did some of the hardest workouts i’ve ever done while being more sore than i’ve ever been.  I’m so grateful week 1 is over and am hoping that there’s a bit more of an emphasis on learning from here on out.

Day 1 started with everyone doing the minimums, 7 pull-ups, 45 sit-ups, 35 push-ups, and the mile and a half run.  The sit-ups were harder than I expected because we had to do them so slowly, but the rest was easy.  The 1.5 mile run was not easy, and pushing it hard I got 8:39, which I think was 6th out of the 17.  From there we ran to a separate area and maxed out, and I did 19 pull-ups, 120 sit-ups, and only about 50 push-ups.  I’m not sure why, but other people said they didn’t do many either.  From there we drove out of town and started running up an inclined dirt road, and after a while we were split into 2 groups of 6 and 1 of 5, and each given a 5 pound water bladder to carry.  Each group was given an extra that they had to pass around while we jogged up the road, so every once in a while you were jogging while carrying 90 pounds of water on your shoulders.  Eventually we topped a hill and were told to drop the water and get into the plank position.  After a while I looked over and Nolan, one of the Grangeville rookies, was lying face down on the ground with his hands over his head.  We ran on and never saw him again.  We ran about half a mile up a good incline to where the trucks were parked, and were given three tires, a couple steel poles, and some rope, and told to construct something we could use to haul 3 concrete dummies that probably weighed 200 lbs each.  It was during that exercise that I felt the first cramps in my abs and thighs.  Then we went and started the line dig at about 3 PM, and dug until 2 AM, slept for a couple of hours, and were woken up and dug again until 10 AM.  All told we dug 3 miles of line in 16 hours.  Next was the 85 lb pack test.  85 lbs was heavier than I expected, and there was a lot of elevation change on the 3 mile course, including a super steep section called Cry Baby Hill.  I finished 2nd behind Bagan and the muscles in the top of my butt burned like they were on fire, which was something i’d never felt before.  When the last person finished, we put on tennis shoes and ran to where our camp would be for the week.

That evening was a hard PT, and each morning and evening for Wednesday and Thursday was bad, pushing our exhausted muscles as far as they could go.  They’d wake us at 4:30 AM with a bullhorn and we’d run and do calisthenics for 2 hours in shorts and a T-shirt in the freezing cold.  Much of the time we ran in 2 lines of 8 carrying 20 foot steel poles over our heads.  We got 1 real meal during the week, pulled pork and chicken, but otherwise it was MRE’s, Cliff Bars, and Mountain House dehydrated dinners.  Each morning I felt too sore to get up to piss, but would find myself on a strenuous run, amazed that my legs were functioning.  During the days we learned tree climbing and cross-cut sawing, and practiced getting into our jumpsuits as fast as possible.  On Friday we ran out of the mountains to a camp below, and loaded up in vans after 200 jumping jacks and headed back into town for the 110 lb pack test.  It was brutal, and within 100 yards of starting my right backstrap muscle was hurting because the pack was pulling to the left.  I remembered that my friend Shawn Murphy from Carson washed from the McCall rookie training because he hurt his back during the 110.  I made it through ok with a sore back, pulled muscle in my right quad, and sore arch in my right foot.  They let us off early on Friday, and I left town to spend the weekend with Erin in Jacksons, a 6 hour drive away.  After driving for 20 minutes or so I was overcome with exhaustion, so I pulled over and walked off into the woods and slept on the ground for several hours.  For the next couple of days my body felt rock hard though not in a good way, and I had a pain in my chest like someone had knocked the wind out of me.  Eventually it went away, and Erin pampered me well, of course.  I’m back in my bunk at the base now, feeling mostly healed and ready to take whatever they throw at us this coming week, but I do hope it won’t be so damaging.

Smokejumper Rookie Training Ends!

Two days ago I did my seventeenth and final training jump over a field near the Missoula Smokejumping base, attended graduation, and “got my wings” as they say.  It’s been an incredible 5 weeks, definitely the hardest thing i’ve ever done.  Soon i’ll post the journal that I kept during training, which I wasn’t nearly as good at keeping as I thought I’d be, but it will still give a glimpse into what went on.  We started with 17 people and finished with 14, and two of the rookies that finished were sent on assignment within hours of graduation.  The word is that we should expect to be called out soon to boost, or reinforce other bases, most likely to Alaska.  Today Erin and I are picking up our cat from the folks who were babysitting her for the last month, and are driving over Lolo Pass back to Grangeville, our new home.  I start work at the base tomorrow, and don’t really know what to expect.  I have one photo to post today, taken by Drew Pattison, one of our trainers, of me going out the door of the plane during one of our practice jumps.  Thanks Drew!



This is the most nerve-wracking part of the jump for me, the 30 seconds or so from getting in the door, getting the slap, and jumping into the 90 mile per hour wind and waiting for the canopy to open above you.


Montana, Idaho, Oregon

It wasn’t long before we were called again, this time to Montana for a small, 30 or so acre fire on some really steep, remote ground.  After a few days there we went to a fire in the wilderness on the Montana/Idaho border, and were there until our 14 days ran out.  We travelled home and were about 30 miles away from our home unit when we began to hear a lot of disturbing radio chatter.  Apparently there had been a lightning storm the night before and we were arriving just as the place was exploding with dozens of fires.  We were all exhausted and really wanted to go on RandR, but I had an uneasy feeling.  Sure enough, we were extended about 20 minutes before we were to be released.  Normally an extension is just a few days, because you can only be away for 21 days including travel, but a week or so before this the rules had been changed so that the 21 did not include travel anymore.  What it meant to us was that our extension was not for 3 more days, but 7.   It was difficult to get over the bitter disappointment, but we eventually did which I think is a tribute to the heart of our crew, many would have self-destructed or mutinied.  Eventually, we did get an RandR, 3 days actually, and then went back out the next day to the same fires, which were mostly dead by this point.  I worked until day 10, and then left for a best friend’s wedding on the west coast.   So the season is finally over, and I am occupied at home with harvesting vegetables from the garden and wood from the forest.  Erin is in Virginia with her family for the next three weeks, and the weather has turned typically bad for this time of year, so it’s going to be lonely.  It’s been an intense year, mostly good I would say.  It will be my last as a hotshot, and i’m still undecided about what I will do next year.  Hopefully I can pick my big camera back up and start posting some “real” photos on the website.

No, your eyes are not deceiving you, we found a disembodied wolf paw.  It could have been caught in a trap, though that’s doubtful because of the terrain, or it could have just become dinner for something bigger.  
I was relaxing with our lookout on the next fire, the Granite Pass, when I took this photo.  I had two tools because the swampers often carry two so that the sawyer has a tool to help with mopup, or stirring up hot dirt to cool it off.  
Our next fire, the Cedar, on our home forest the North Umpqua.  It was something of an IA, or initial attack, which is rare for us, and I thought it was a lot of fun.  
After a hard afternoon of going direct on the fire’s edge down a really steep mountainside, we prepared to make our way back out.  
Some professional fallers were taking down a huge snag uphill from us, and Puckett found a safe place to hide in case it made it down it us.  
While we were gridding for spots the next day, I came across this, the first split-tip fern i’ve ever seen.  

Oregon Grass Fire

We went to a 600 acre grass fire near The Dalles, Oregon and were only there for 4 days.  It was a strangely beautiful landscape of rolling hills covered in golden grass and patches of sagebrush, but sort of a hostile place also.  It obviously got very little rain, and the hills gave the impression that they had been stripped of vegetation somehow.  It seems that this type of fire is what we’re going to get for the rest of the season, grass fires that go big quick and then go out.  It will be nice to not be away from home for 3 weeks at a time, but we may not get another R&R for the rest of the season.

Joby and his ridiculously American coffee cup.
 I took this photo from the window of our buggy, and it was our first clue that we were getting close to the fire.
We drove along the entire south flank of the fire and it was completely out, and then arrived at the north end, which was active, and started putting in line while they did slurry drops nearby.
Halvey picked up a buddy during the course of the day.
A view from underneath as a helitanker drops its water.
The terrain was so rocky that the fire probably would have gone out by itself after running out of continuous grass to travel through.
My saw boss sent my saw partner and I to go cut out a thick patch of brush and trees that was putting out a lot of smoke, and about halfway to it I stopped and realized that we’d be in big trouble if it ignited because we were surrounded by dry grass.  Just as I was having that thought it burst in flames and sent us running back the other direction.  This is a shot of Jeremiah watching it move uphill.

New Mexico

We were home for a week or so after Alaska and were called again to the Southwest.  We were expecting to end up on the Las Conchas Fire outside of Los Alamos but were instead sent south to the Little Lewis Fire near Alamogordo.  We were only on that fire for 3 days before a huge storm passed over and drenched it, and us.  We spent the next 8 or 9 days staging in Mayhill, NM and finished off the roll on the El Paso fire near Timberon, NM.  We started off that fire with a 36 hour shift which was pretty tiring, and a couple days later were headed home.  We didn’t spend too many days on fire this roll, so I don’t have many photos.

I was the lookout on our first day on the Little Lewis fire, and was posted on top of a little mountain across a valley from where the crew was working.  Slowly the clouds began to build, and I got some nice shots of them as they did. 
The bottom of a building thunderhead.
The last view of the sun before it was swallowed up my this massive thunderhead that began dropping peanut-sized hail on us, in June!
Miller and Natalie chatting over a burning juniper stump the next morning.  We worked through the night getting the edge of the fire secured, and it was beautiful to see the sunrise from the first faint glow.
This is a poor quality photo because of the camera I was using, but it was an amazing thing to see.  Fire is running through the grass on the El Paso fire at about midnight when we got there, with a big yellow moon setting behind it.  
My saw partner swinging a pulaski at the break of day.  I really like this photo, because it catches such a serene moment.  


We were home for about a week after the 34 days in the Southwest and were then dispatched to Alaska to the Hastings Fire.  There weren’t too many fires up there at the time, but the weather was ominously hot and dry and there were new fires popping daily.  By the time we left after 14 days it had rained so much that the only heat left on our once mighty fire was in birch snags and protected areas of deep duff.  Like the other two Alaska rolls i’ve been on, this one was interesting, occasionally beautiful, and painful in small but significant ways.  I’ve been home for about 4 days now and am just getting feeling back into the tips of my big toes.  Something about your feet always rolling from side to side on the squishy tundra does a number on them, and the mosquitoes were horrible.  I did a lot of hazard tree cutting, which is good if you don’t get whacked by one because in Alaska most of the trees you cut are either burning, burned, rotten or hollow, so it’s a good learning experience.  No sawyers on our crew were hurt, though i’m willing to bet that they all had close calls, as I did, but a guy on Zig Zag Hotshots wasn’t so lucky.  He got hit by a 16 inch White Spruce tree that he wasn’t even cutting, and was seriously injured.  We were listening to the chatter over the radio and could hear their saws going as they cut a helispot just 300 yards or so from where we were.  I’ll never forget a short exchange I heard over the radio after the injury.  The helibase called the crew and asked if the injury was life threatening, and we waited with bated breath for the reply. A stressed-sounding voice said “Yes”, and we all looked at each other, thinking serious thoughts like “that could have been me”.  We heard a few days later that the guy had bleeding on the brain, a broken shoulder, and several broken ribs, but was probably going to make a full recovery.  A few days later a black bear found our camp and proceeded to eat most of our bread and tortillas.  We chased it away with a helicopter and chainsaws, but it kept coming back so we called in a shooter and had bear stew for dinner, which is delicious by the way.  Alaska was interesting as always but I was happy to leave and I think most everyone else was too.

Apocalypse.  A view of the plume when it was really cranking.  I think this could be a poster for a doomsday movie like The Road.  I’m standing on the dozer line, on the edge of the scorched black as the plume runs in the other direction.  
A dozer headed down the line.  These guys are pretty brazen and occasionally set in tight spots.  A few days ago 2 firefighters were killed in Florida, and I believe they were dozer operators.  
All was well with the burn and things were cooling off, and then the wind switched and plunged us into smoky near-darkness.  It was like this for days, and you can’t escape it even at night.  I remember waking up to people coughing violently.  It’s one of my least favorite parts of the job, but luckily we rarely breath smoke for prolonged periods of time.  
A huge tanker flies over my head before dropping a line of fire retardant.  A smaller “lead” plane comes through first, and that’s when you know to grab the camera or hit the deck, depending on where it’s line is.  Seconds later, the tanker rumbles by overhead. 
Two members of the Rogue River Hotshots fire Berry Pistols into our burn to get more depth.  The rounds that are fired ignite after hitting the ground.  
Quinn was my swamper for a few days at the end of the roll.  The smoke from his stogey kept the mosquitoes away for a little while, so he could pull up his bug net.  They were horrible, not the worst i’ve been in, but pretty close.  
Here’s another not-quite-so-cool one of Quinn, and Mac.  The job is really hard, but not ALL the time.
A self-portrait.  Look closely at what i’m standing on, pretty bizarre huh?  
Another self-portrait.  I’m fortunate enough to spend 3 or 4 months a year in the woods, so I get quite a few butterflies landing on me.  
Yeah, we actually cut this and dragged everything to the right side.  They asked for a 60-foot saw cut, and I have to admit my first thought was “what the fuck”.  The funny part is that it was contingency line and shortly after we finished it rained for a week, so it’ll never be used, except as a highway by moose.  
I was pump operator for about half a day, and got to spend that time relaxing next to this beautiful lake.  It was a little stressful because I haven’t run many pumps and was just positive it was going to break down and leave me scratching my head.  But all went well.  
I got someone to take a few photos of me cutting this tree. You learn a lot cutting is situations like this, but it’s not much fun.  The ground was so hot around the tree that I had to cut rounds off a log to stand on, and smoke made it difficult to see well.  The cuts weren’t the prettiest in the world, but it went pretty well considering.  
Towards the end of the roll it dried out again and we were able to do a final burn to secure an open edge.  Obviously it worked out.  
I almost hurt my neck while craning my head to see the top of this plume. 
A close-up of the fire running through the black spruce.  
The bear was small, probably about a year old and under 200 pounds, but it was plenty brazen and persistent.  

Home After 34 Days

So we DID get pulled down to the Southwest after all, the very day that we became nationally available, and ended up R&R ing in place and spending a total of 34 days straight away from home.  After 14 days on fire we are required to have two days of R&R (rest and relaxation), which almost always happens at home, but technically we can R&R in place wherever we are and then do another 14.  That’s what we just did in Arizona, and just to demonstrate how rare it is, our crew superintendent hasn’t done it in 13 years!  We spent two days, during which almost everyone was sick, in a small town called Lakeside, AZ with almost NOTHING to do.  I mean I had to spend my R&R in a hotel room with my saw partner, who I had spent the previous 14 days with, and with whom I would spend the following 14 days.  If that’s an R&R then i’m a monkeys uncle.

But anyhow, we did another 14 days bouncing from fire to fire as one does in the Southwest, and finally arrived back home.  The grass in my yard was 4 feet tall when I got home, my chickens were eating their own eggs, we’re almost out of firewood (yes we’re still using it up here, it’s 45 degrees right now at 4PM), and we’re in desperate need of a greenhouse.  Not to say that Erin isn’t doing a lot of work here at home, she is, but there’s just so much to do with 30 chickens of varying ages, a 1500 square foot garden, and wood-only heat.  So i’ve been working my butt off the last three days, and will be going back to work tomorrow.  We’re at the bottom of the list of northwest crews for going out-of-region, and there isn’t a ton of stuff happening, so i’ll probably have at least 2 weeks at home before we get called somewhere.

I got some great photos in the last month of fires, and will be downloading them to my website as soon as I am able to.  I need to get Photoshop CS5 so that I can get Adobe Camera Raw 6.4, so that I can download photos off my camera.  It’s such a new camera that CS4 doesn’t support it, so it will be hopefully just a few days before I can get the photos up.

06/26/11 Update:  I forgot that I set my camera to take a jpeg and raw file both every time I trip the shutter, so the jpegs are below.

On our first fire in the Southwest, the Last Chance Fire, we ran into my old crew the Carson Hotshots.  It was amazing how many people I still knew on the crew, and not much seemed to have changed except the marital status of several people.  It was great seeing them again.  In this photo our Assistant Superintendent Rich Tingle is talking to Carson’s Assistant Superintendent, trying to figure out how we can attack this thing, which is obviously running through the grass  and uncontrollable.  Crews normally take large leaps on each other to stay out of each other’s way, but since we couldn’t do that on account of the fire behavior, we just acted like one 40 man crew with 6 saw teams, and it worked out great.  
A new fire now, the Bull Fire in southern Arizona right on the mexican border.  It actually started in Mexico and crossed over.  We did a burnout along a dirt road and afterwards someone found a hummingbird nest about three feet off the ground in a small bush.  This egg is about the size of your mother’s pinkie fingernail, it’s small.  It’s funny, I had never seen a hummingbird nest and then I saw one in Peru and another in Arizona within 4 months of each other.  For a camera gear comparison, look at the next photo which was taken with a high level point-and-shoot, and then the following photo taken with my Full-Frame DSLR and pro lens in Peru this winter.  Anyone who tells you camera gear doesn’t matter is full of it.  
The fire was in danger of getting up and running and it had plenty of room to do so, but this helitanker dropping slurry just might have saved the day.  We ended up working till about midnight to get around this one.  

 Night burnouts are one of my favorite parts of firefighting because they’re always so beautiful, and this late-night burnout on the Wildcat was no exception.  The firefighter in this photo is little Black (I can’t remember his first name, but it might be Brian), one of our two 18 year old rookies this year.  He doesn’t have a huge jaw, that thing hanging from his face is a shroud, which we use sometimes to keep from burning our faces or beards when working in close to the fire.  

Embers thrown up from trees torching.  We’ve got to watch the unburned side, or “green” closely to make sure they don’t start fires across the line and send us off to the races again.  
A new fire who’s name i can’t remember, and the last one before our crappy R&R in bumfuck Arizona.  The fire was on a hillside above a native village, and this adorable and presumably stray dog found his way up to while we were eating lunch.  How could we say no to that face?  She left fat and happy.  
We had relative humidity readings down to 4%, and the dead trees and downed logs would burn fiercely once they caught fire.  Sometimes I have to go in and cut on shit like this, which is another good time to use a shroud to cover your face and neck.  It’s a real tribute to Stihl chainsaws that they last for years even when firefighters use them.  
We were spiked out for several days on Alpha Division right when we got to the Miller Fire, and this is a shot of people sitting around our campfire at the end of the day.  The fire was in the Gila Wilderness, so it was beautiful and fairly remote, though we did find the occasional rusty old horseshoe in the dirt.  
A self-portrait from the top of a peak in the Gila Wilderness.  The fire was 55,000 acres at this point and was minimally active, so we were mainly just getting to high points and keeping an eye on things for a few days.  
Like I said, night burns are beautiful.  We hiked to a new division near the end of our two weeks on the Miller Fire, and did a burnout the first night there.  This was one of those days that just beats you to hell.  We hiked 7 miles to our new division, and then spent all day cutting line and hazard trees, and then had to hike back to where we started to cut line for the burnout, and then finally we were able to relax while the lighters brought fire by us.  It’s moments like this one, just relaxing and watching something beautiful, that I can’t believe i’m getting paid.  
The legend, Rich “The Ting” Tingle.  He’s been a hotshot for 32 years or so, and though he looks nearly crippled walking around on flat ground, he manages his way around the steepest ground imaginable, and isn’t slow about it either.  There was one hike he led on the Miller Fire that pushed me to the edge, and I was shocked to look up front and see Tingle up there.  He has a big personality to match his 6’6” frame, and i’m so glad he’s part of our crew.  
I got someone to take a photo of me watching the burn.
No this isn’t some cave-dwelling neanderthal we stumbled across in the wilderness, though he has the strength of one, it’s my saw partner Chris “Puck” Puckett after about 12 days without a shower.  
Puck cutting a buckskin Ponderosa Pine on the Miller Fire.  
Our freedom bird.  After 30 days of fighting fire and being away from home this helicopter was carrying us back to our buggies so we could begin the long drive home to Oregon. 
A crew photo on the way home, I believe in Arizona.  


The Return of Fire Season

I start work as a Wolf Creek Hotshot again next Monday.  I’m not as excited for the beginning of the season as I have been for the past 3 years, but i’m glad it’s here and i’m glad i’ll be working again.  There’s some activity in the Southwest right now, so hopefully we’ll get pulled down there soon.  My crappy little digital point-and-shoot was stolen this winter when someone broke into our house, so I took to opportunity to upgrade to a less crappy digital point-and-shoot for the upcoming season.  I see some incredibly beautiful things on fires, but almost never have the time to stop and spend a couple of minutes getting a good composition.  I considered getting a Panasonic G1, a camera with a micro-four-thirds sized sensor which is basically much bigger than a point-and-shoot sensor and much smaller than a full-frame one, but I knew I wouldn’t have time to fiddle with all the dials and really make use of it.  The camera I got looks pretty good though, and it shoots in raw, so perhaps I can get some decent shots with it.  I’m posting what will probably be my last nature photograph for a while, along with some old fire photos.  I had a year’s worth of fire photos on the camera that was stolen that I never downloaded, so that was sort of heartbreaking, but I have some good ones from before that.  Now, if the weather cooperates here for ONCE and the ground dries a little bit, i’ll be able to start tilling up our garden today.

Canon 5d Mark ii, 200mm f/2.8 lens, 1/500 sec at f2.8, ISO 100, handheld

 I went up in the mountains yesterday morning because I saw that the snow level had dropped to around a thousand feet.  The forest was beautiful as always, but my heart wasn’t in photography and trying to find a composition.  I’ve got to get the garden going and get ready for the start of the season, but I was able to get this nice stark portrait of a branch on my way out of the forest.  The camera wasn’t in black-and-white mode or anything, sometimes when you frame your subject again a mix of foliage and sky, all the color gets washed out by the high contrast and you end up with something like this.

2008 Fire Season, Nevada

These are the little buggies we travel around the country in, with the fire blowing up in the background.  I still get a rush when we’re hiking towards something like this, into the dragon’s maw.

2008 Fire Season, Northern California

 Every morning on a fire we gather up and get a briefing about our objectives for the day, what the weather is expected to do, things like that.  This was a pretty miserable roll, with high heat and humidity and LOTS of poison oak.  Several people went to the hospital because they had oak so bad, while I went because I cut my hand on the saw (see following photo).

8 stitches later, i’m lucky I didn’t slice through my finger tendons.   
2008 Fire Season

 I love this photo, it’s probably my favorite one from the fire line yet.  We were working on a fire in a fairly urban part of Southern California when this Swallowtail landed on me, probably thinking I was a big yellow flower.

2009 Fire Season, Montana

 This was a pretty rough fire, though the scenery was unbeatable.  The fire was in the mountains and making it’s way down towards the grass and farm-filled valley.  I was back on a Super-pulaski tool after my hand injury in California, and we had to “dig” line up the rocky mountainside, which basically consisted of smashing your tool into rocks enough to remove the loose organic material on top.  My fingers were swollen at the end of every day.

End of Fire Season, Finally

Well, i’ve spent the last six months fighting wildfires and cutting trees and brush with my trusty Stihl 460 chainsaw, named Gilbert.  I’m happy to report there were no serious injuries this year, though i saw MANY close calls, and we all got on pretty well and had a good and prosperous year.  We went to Alaska twice for a month total, Colorado for three weeks, and all over Oregon.  One of our Alaska trips was to the Pat Creek Fire in the North Yukon Zone, not far from the Arctic Circle.  To get there we took a plane to Fairbanks, another, much smaller plane to a small village north of there, and then a helicopter to the fire.  Why the hell were we fighting a fire that far out in the middle of nowhere?  Supposedly to protect a couple of hunting cabins, but i doubt that they were worth the 10 million dollars that was spent fighting the fire.

My plans for the winter are to get a part-time job, do some traveling, and take some photos.  Erin gets February off and we’re planning on going somewhere warm and tropical, and i’m planning on taking a separate trip somewhere just for photography.  I’m not sure where yet, though i’m leaning towards Peru because a friend of mine was blown away by the wildlife in Manu National Park.  It sounds great, but you can’t enter a national park in Peru without a licensed guide, which i’ve never been interested in.  I like to do photography alone, and it would be expensive.  I didn’t win in any contests this year, but i did make it into the semi-finals in the Nature’s Best photo competition, which i’ve always liked because they put out a beautiful book each year.  Someone finally won the Eric Hosking Award this year, and to my unsurprised dismay it was Bence Mate again, for the THIRD time.  I was really hoping someone unknown would win it and get a kickstart to their young career, but for Bence it’s just another feather in his cap.  One of the photos from his Eric Hosking portfolio also won the overall competition.  It’s a great photo of leaf-cutter ants, but i’m surprised they chose it for overall winner because that usually goes to a photo with some species of megafauna as the subject.

I switched all my gear to Canon earlier this year, a painful decision, but i couldn’t stand how inaccurately the Sony A900 reproduced color.  I guess i have high color standards have used Velvia film for so long.  Switching systems costs a good bit of money, so i’ll try not to do it again.

As of today, the rain has begun up here in Oregon.  I’m looking out the window at a dreary downpour that is so familiar to me, and i’ve only lived here a year!  Erin and i are going to spend some time today in Eugene at a bookstore, going through Lonely Planet guides and escaping the fact that winter has begun.