Record number of smokejumpers on roster in Alaska

Alaska smokejumpers
North Cascade Smokejumper Nicolas Glatt from Washington state packs a parachute at the Alaska Smokejumper Base at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, on July 20, 2019.

Story and photos by Geoff Liesik, Alaska Fire Service, July 21, 2019

A record that stood for nearly 30 years fell this past week when the roster at the Alaska Smokejumper Base at Fort Wainwright was filled with the names of 206 jumpers at the same time.

That’s more than half of the roughly 400 smokejumpers on rosters nationwide this year. The previous record in Alaska was 202 jumpers on the roster at once. It was set during the 1990 fire season, according to Alaska Smokejumper Chief Bill Cramer.

Alaska has 63 smokejumpers and has added up 143 jumpers at one time from bases in the Lower 48 to respond to fires that continue to pop up across the state.
“We were outnumbered, but never outfought,” Cramer said.

Shane Orser with the Redmond Smokejumpers from Oregon said he’s been to Alaska at least six times in his 12 years as a jumper. The camaraderie at the base makes assignments to Alaska fun, he said. “All the guys are pretty welcoming up here,” Orser said.

Alaska smokejumpers
Redmond Smokejumper Shane Orser from Oregon packs a parachute at the Alaska Smokejumper Base at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, on July 20, 2019.

The Alaska Smokejumper Base’s 10-year average for jumps between April and September is 495. As of July 20, the base had notched 829 jumps during 123 jump missions. It had also delivered more than 500,000 pounds of para-cargo as of July 20, Cramer said. The 10-year average for para-cargo delivery between April and September is 313,000 pounds.

For speed, payload and range, Cramer said it’s impossible to beat smokejumpers as a firefighting resource. “We travel faster, carry more and go farther than anyone else,” he said.

The BLM smokejumper program started in 1959 with the first fire jump happening near Flat, Alaska, on June 3. The Alaska Smokejumpers celebrated their 60th anniversary on June 14, 2019.

Alaska smokejumpers
Boise Smokejumper Kevin Norton packs a cargo chute at the Alaska Smokejumper Base in Fort Wainwright, Alaska, on July 20, 2019.

Colorado’s PC-12 mobilized to Alaska

The crew will provide intelligence on emerging and existing large fires in central Alaska

PC-12 Colorado aircraft MMA
File photo of one of Colorado’s two Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-mission Aircraft” at Sacramento McClellan Airport March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

One of Colorado’s two Multi-mission Pilatus PC-12 aircraft is being dispatched to Alaska to assist with the wildfires burning in the state. The other will remain in Colorado and continue supporting fires and other incidents there.

The PC-12 will depart Centennial today, July 2, to be based out of Fairbanks, Alaska. The crew consists of two sensor operators, a pilot, and a mechanic. The team will support initial attack firefighters and provide intelligence on emerging and existing large fires in central Alaska.

Meanwhile the other PC-12 in Colorado is on fire detection missions today in Jefferson County, Douglas County, and the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest.

PC-12 Colorado aircraft MMA
Guy Jones describes the intelligence console on Colorado’s PC-12 Multi-Mission Aircraft, at Sacramento McClellan Airport, March 23, 2016.

NPS Regional Aviation Manager and Safety Manager killed in Alaska plane crash

The two men died May 27 in the accident near Whitehorse International Airport

(From the National Park Service, May 29, 2019)

The National Park Service (NPS) is mourning the loss of two of its Alaska-based employees following an airplane crash in Whitehorse, Canada on Monday evening.

The two men, Jeff Babcock and Charles Eric Benson, were on a personal trip to ferry a privately-owned airplane from the Lower 48 to Anchorage, Alaska, when the plane went down shortly after take-off from Whitehorse International Airport.

According to Canadian officials and witnesses the airplane crashed at about 5:30 p.m. Monday shortly after takeoff into a forested area south of the airport. A column of smoke was seen rising from the area and emergency personnel from Whitehorse Fire Department, the Whitehorse RCMP and airport firefighters responded immediately to the scene.

Jeff Babcock served as the NPS Alaska Region Aviation Manager and Charles Eric Benson was the NPS Alaska Region Safety Manager. “Jeff and Eric were two of our very best and the National Park Service and Alaska Region have suffered a terrible loss,” said Bert Frost, NPS Alaska Regional Director. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of Jeff and Eric and we are heartbroken,” said Frost.

Both men were accomplished professionals, as well as skilled airmen. Prior to working for the National Park Service:

Jeff Babcock had a distinguished 23-year career as a Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Captain in the Alaska State Troopers where he served as a Commercial Pilot, Aircraft and Vessel Section Supervisor, Use of Force Instructor, Accident Reconstructionist, Undercover Investigator, Internal Investigator, Tactical Dive Master, Firearms Instructor, and Certified Flight Instructor. After retiring from the Alaska State Troopers, and before coming to work with the National Park Service, Jeff flew for 7 years as a pilot for K-2 Aviation. He enjoyed flying guests around Mt. Denali and sharing with them his favorite parts of Alaska.

Eric Benson served for 25 years in both the U.S. Air Force and in the U.S. Army in a variety of assignments. From 1993-1994 he attended and graduated from the Initial Entry Rotary Wing Qualification and the Aviation Officer Basic Courses at Fort Rucker Alabama. He then served as a UH-60 Army Aviator, Platoon Leader, Company Executive Officer, Brigade Aviation Element, and an Aviation Maintenance Company Commander. Eric’s active duty career culminated in December of 2007, with the 10th Mountain Division while serving as a Battalion Executive Officer for the General Support Aviation Battalion at Fort Drum, New York. He joined the National Park Service after retiring from the U.S. Army.

Jeff Babcock and Eric Benson were long-time residents of Alaska and are well-known throughout the state. Services for Jeff Babcock will be held on Saturday, June 1, 2019 at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, The Colony Chapel, 9475 East Silver Springs Circle, Palmer, Alaska at 11:00 a.m. Everyone is welcome to attend. Private services are pending for Eric Benson.

Jeff Babcock killed plane crash Alaska
Jeff Babcock. NPS photo.
Eric Benson killed plane crash Alaska
Eric Benson. Photo courtesy of the Benson family.

NPS aircraft crashes in Alaska — pilot rescued

A Cessna 185 operated by the National Park Service crashed north of Nome, Alaska April 15 in a remote area within the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on the Seward Peninsula. The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center received an emergency locator transmitter signal from the aircraft at about 9 a.m.

The Alaska Region Communications Center based in Denali National Park was monitoring the mission and when the pilot did not check in as scheduled, was able to use its automated flight following technology to relay accurate identification of the pilot as well as the exact location of the airplane to the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center.

The pilot, the sole occupant on the mission from Kotdzebue to Nome, was able to communicate with an overhead aircraft and reported that he had minor injuries. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pilot from Nome attempted to overfly the area later in the morning, but was turned back due to poor weather conditions.

File photo. An Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk prepares to demonstrate in-flight refueling from an HC-130J Super Hercules during the joint forces demonstration at the Arctic Thunder Open House, July 1, 2018 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Valerie Halbert)

An HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter and a C-130 refueling tanker responded from Joint-Base Elmendorf-Richardson with pararescuemen but initially were unable to access the area due to weather — strong winds and blowing snow.

A ground-based Search and Rescue team in Shishmaref could not mobilize because of white-out conditions.

Later in the day the Pavehawk was able to land at the site. The crew extricated the pilot and flew him to Elmendorf and then to Providence Hospital in Anchorage, where he was treated and released.

According to Alaska Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Evan Budd, the downed pilot was located with adequate food and survival gear to wait out the storm despite his injuries.

National Park Service pilot honored in Alaska

He shares his story of transporting in his plane a grizzly bear — that was not as well tranquilized as hoped.

Lynn Ellis, National Park Service Pilot
Lynn Ellis, National Park Service Pilot.

This week the Alaska Air Carriers Association is honoring as a living legend, Lynn Ellis, who flies for the National Park Service.

If you are having trouble viewing the video here, you can see it on YouTube.

Firefighting in Alaska in October

water bucket frozen
We understand that a person in Big Lake, Alaska forwarded this photo, via John T. Johnson. The helicopter was working on the Moose Creek Fire.

(Updated at 1:43 p.m. MDT October 21, 2016)

Firefighters are confident that the 303-acre Moose Creek fire north of Palmer, Alaska will be fully contained after this weekend.

We had a report that said it started last weekend when there were sustained 65 mph winds with temperatures as low as 15 degrees F.

Though the wind has abated, the cold conditions continue to pose problems for crews. Firefighters have had to winterize pumps and engines to keep the plumbing from freezing in the sub-freezing temperatures and any hose lines left out overnight are frozen in the morning. In addition, the cold temperatures have made conditions miserable for firefighters trying to stay warm. Firefighters are going through considerable amounts of coffee and hot chocolate to combat the cold temperatures.