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Rookie Missoula smokejumpers test nerves and skill on Flathead Reservation

By Lailani Upham
Char-Koosta News

The Mission Mountains paint a serene backdrop for first time smokejumpers. (Lailani Upham photo) The Mission Mountains paint a serene backdrop for first time smokejumpers. (Lailani Upham photo)

RONAN — Ten Missoula rookie smokejumpers looked at the Sloan’s Bridge area 3000 feet below. What they saw and felt was perfect wind conditions, blue skies and wide open Flathead Indian Reservation lands; it was the perfect backdrop for conducting their first aircraft jump.

Streamers are thrown out of the airplane to test wind direction. Seeing acceptable conditions, the rookies – under the watchful eye of their instructors, jumped from the airplane to plummet to the earth.

“There are definitely knots in their stomachs,” said Missoula Smokejumpers Public Information Officer, Kurt Rohrbach.

Many rookies hit the ground with a thud and tumbled as their parachutes gathered behind them. Their instructors landed gracefully into a short run.

OOF! A Missoula rookie smokejumper conducts a parachute landing fall during a training on Thursday, May 11, in the Sloan’s Bridge area. (Lailani Upham photo) OOF! A Missoula rookie smokejumper conducts a parachute landing fall during a training on Thursday, May 11, in the Sloan’s Bridge area. (Lailani Upham photo)

Rohrbach said the reservation area has been used for a number of years for the wildland fire fighting training exercise.

The Sloan’s Bridge area, 14 miles east of Ronan, is the ideal spot for first time jumpers, says Rohrbach. “It’s very wide open,” he said. “There is no type of area in Missoula for this  — a lot of private land.”

Through the years the US Forest Service wildland firefighters and their counterparts at the CSKT Division of Fire have worked well together combatting wildfires and training firefighters.

“The U.S. Forest Service and the (Confederated Salish and Kootenai) Tribes have a great relationship,” Rohrbach said.

A rookie glances a smile at a fellow rookie jumper after landing, a typical facial communication that could be seen immediately after landing. (Lailani Upham photo) A rookie glances a smile at a fellow rookie jumper after landing, a typical facial communication that could be seen immediately after landing. (Lailani Upham photo)

Bob McCrea, CSKT Division of Fire Wildlands Operations Specialist and former smokejumper, said the government agencies work pretty close. McCrea said he especially enjoys the timing of the jumpers. “It happens every year during the River Honoring,” he said. “It’s really great for the River Honoring kids to see.”

The four-week rookie training begins each May, by their second week rookies take their first of 25 jumps needed for certification.

The intense training isn’t for everyone, says Rohrbach.

“We started out with 25 and we’re down to 18 now.” According to Rohrbach, the other jumpers were hopping out of an airplane the same day in West Yellowstone.

The training isn’t the only intense process of becoming a smokejumper; the competition is pretty tough.

A Missoula smokejumper rookie floats down during a training jump last week near Sloan’s Bridge. (Lailani Upham photo) A Missoula smokejumper rookie floats down during a training jump last week near Sloan’s Bridge. (Lailani Upham photo)

“Each year we get roughly 400 applications and this year we took 15 jumpers,” he said. “We look for hardworking and humble individuals.”

The selected rookies don’t always make the cut though. “A couple were washed out by the second week and two already pulled themselves out. They didn’t want to continue,” Rohrbach said.

The first week is fieldwork with a pack test of 110 pounds strapped to the back for miles, tree climbing training, physical fitness training, and mastering a crosscut saw.

By the second week the meat of the training dives into how to exit to ground from 3,000 feet, land right and put out a fire.

A Missoula smokejumper instructor downs a gallon of H2O while rookies “talk shop” about their jumps behind him. (Lailani Upham photo) A Missoula smokejumper instructor downs a gallon of H2O while rookies “talk shop” about their jumps behind him. (Lailani Upham photo)

“We teach them how to exit out of an airplane, proper body position, how to crosscut a saw and how to land in a tree,” said Missoula smokejumper lead trainer Travis Parker.

McCrea said there have been several CSKT tribal folks certified as smokejumpers as early as the1950s. To name a few were: Joe McDonald and his son Tom McDonald; Homer Courville; Jim and Steve Clairmont; Dan and Jim Durglo; Gary Pitts; Ken Camel; and James Gray.U.S. Forest Service official and CSKT tribal member and former smokejumper, Ken Wabaunsee was also on scene with McCrea.

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