Smokejumper hangs up in tree, falls during let down procedure

Suffered a serious back injury. Report is available.

Lily Fire smokejumper injury

On the Lily Lake Fire August 17, 2020 on the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon, a first-year smokejumper performing a letdown procedure from a tree fell and suffered a broken vertebrae. The patient was treated on scene by U.S. Forest Service EMTs then transported to a hospital via air ambulance. Surgery three days later was successful and a full recovery is expected after rehabilitation.

Below are excerpts from the facilitated learning analysis. It begins after exiting the airplane and before landing.

Once on final [approach] he recognized that he was a little downwind from where the other jumpers had set up.

When he realized he wasn’t going to make the jump spot and no alternates were available, he looked around for a healthy tree and selected a tall green western hemlock to land in. He aimed for it, snagging his parachute in limbs approximately 40 feet above the ground. As he came to rest he quickly shifted into the muscle memory he developed during rookie training that spring, calming the initial nerves he felt.

Initiating the letdown procedure, he called out to his jump partner, “JP, am I hung up well?”

Lily Fire smokejumper injuryBut his jump partner, still making his way to the tree having just landed himself, was not yet close enough to hear or respond. Now that he was treed up, the tree didn’t seem to be as good as he thought. Entangled about midway up the 100 foot tree on the edge of the branches, he was just out of arm’s reach from the bole. He seemed to be fairly level with most of the tension on his left riser. There weren’t many branches around him, and those that were nearby were short and sloped downward. Continuing the letdown procedure, he chose to drop the drogue release handle instead of placing it in his pocket, in order to avoid excess movement.

Three jumpers from the previous load heard over the radio someone was treed up as they continued hiking to the fire. The jump ship maintained orbit, waiting for the jumper to get on the ground before throwing cargo. One of his rookie trainers saw him hung up and ran over to help him through the letdown procedure.

Lily Fire smokejumper injuryHe wasn’t far along in the process when she reached his tree. “Am I treed up well?” he asked.

Looking up at the suspended jumper the rookie trainer didn’t think he was and told him so, encouraging him to continue and limiting her input to only what was needed to expedite the process. As the jumper continued through the steps small branches rained down. Throughout his training he had demonstrated great proficiency in the letdown process both on the units* and during a training jump where he treed up. He felt less stress now than he had during the training jump. His rookie trainer listened as he advanced through his five point check “perfectly correct.”

He slowly released his right side riser and felt little movement. As he suspected, his left riser was holding his weight. Suddenly he had “a bad feeling” and said as much to the jumper on the ground. He then began to release his tight left riser. He had to jerk slightly on the riser to initiate the 3 ring release. As it released and he began to weight the letdown tape he heard a crack and began to drop. He bounced back up slightly “like a spring” before feeling a snap and falling 30 feet.

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Smokejumpers attend workshop for ram air canopy transition

Region 1 smokejumpers

The U.S. Forest Service Region 1 smokejumpers (map of R1) just finished a week long workshop, part of the transition from the round parachute canopy to the “square” CR-360 ram air. Jumpers from Missoula, Grangeville, and West Yellowstone completed 140 jumps in three and a half days. During the workshop one group collected flight data using data recorders, and the other group went through a training progression in order to get familiar with the canopy. Not all participants are pictured here for the last flight.

Via smokejumpers_on_ig. Photo credit: T. Navarro

Nightline features smokejumpers

Tuesday night ABC’s Nightline had a nine-minute story on smokejumpers that featured the crew at Redding, California.

Below is Nightline’s description of the video.

Mitch Hokanson, 39, peers out the window of the roaring aircraft. Down below, a thin smoke coil emerges from a patch of pine trees. It’s been a dramatic fire season in the West. Drought conditions mixed with a rash of lightning strikes have caused small fires to break out. Close to 8.9 million acres have been burned by wildfires so far in 2015 — well above last year’s 3 million acres during the same time period.

Inside the plane, nine men strapped with parachutes and gear are ready to leap out the open door. They are part of an elite, and rarely seen, group of wildfire fighters employed by the U.S. Forest Service. Their mission: to stop the flames before they spread.

While it might take days for other crews to reach remote fires, depending on the location, this team can be at the scene, battling a fire in 30 minutes. The pay is modest, conditions treacherous, and hours can be long. Meet the California Smokejumpers.

You can see the video in a larger format at ABC’s website.

Smokejumper operates chain saw
A smokejumper operates a chain saw at a wildland fire. Screen shot from the Nightline video.

Forest Service to transition to ram-air parachutes

smokejumpers bear lake fire montana
A smokejumper from West Yellowstone, Montana jumps the Bear Lake Fire, August 24, 2014, using a ram-air parachute. The fire was on the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest in Montana. This image was taken from a video shot by a camera attached to the wingtip. Most of the jumpers at West Yellowstone are using the ram-air today. Photo credit: West Yellowstone smokejumpers.

The U.S. Forest Service has officially decided to ditch the round parachutes they have been using and move to the “square”, or ram-air design. The Bureau of Land Management smokejumpers have been using the ram-airs for quite some time, and the FS began testing them in a pilot program in their Region 1 in 2008 (map).

The FS has been jumping with round parachutes since 1939. The agency’s aviation program, upon latching on to a technology or policy, is not prone to changing directions on a whim.

On July 1, 2015, Tom Harbour, the Director of Fire and Aviation Management, initialed a decision paper written by Arthur W. Hinaman, the Assistant Director for Aviation, officially approving the transition to ram-air parachutes (assuming that initials, rather than a signature, makes it official).

Some of the primary arguments in Mr. Hinaman’s document were that the ram-airs are more maneuverable, have a slower vertical landing speed, and result in fewer accidents to smokejumpers. The document included these accident stats:

Analysis of information from 2001 through 2014 in MTDC’s  [Missoula Technology Development Center] parachute landing data base shows the overall likelihood of injury on any given jump is 0.33% using round parachutes and 0.21% using ram-air parachutes. The overall minor injury rate is 0.22% using round parachutes and 0.15% using ram-air parachutes. The overall serious injury rate is 0.10% for round parachutes compared to 0.06% for ram-air parachutes.

The FS will support both the round and ram-air chutes during the transition, but smokejumpers who are not successful in the move to the new equipment will be “given appropriate employment assistance within the agency”, according to the decision memo.

hastings fire alaska smokejumpers
BLM smokejumpers attack the Hastings Fire in Alaska, May 31, 2011. Photo by Mike McMillan, Alaska Fire Service.
bighorn fire smokejumpers
Smokejumpers attack the Pack Fire, July 25, 2014, on the Bighorn National Forest, northwest of Sheridan, Wyoming. This is a still image from a video taken with a camera mounted on the front step on the aircraft. USFS photo.

Busy season for smokejumpers

McCall smokejumper
McCall smokejumper
A McCall smokejumper exits from the twin otter using the static line deployed round parachute system. Jumpers utilizing this system exit at an altitude of 1500′ above ground level. credit: McCall smokejumpers via Missoula Smokejumpers Visitor Center and @hammerheadslife310

The U.S. Forest Service reports that their smokejumpers have made 411 jumps on 76 fires this season making it their 3rd busiest in a decade.

Automatic steerable parachute used for the first time on a wildfire

For the first time, an automatic steerable parachute has been used to deliver cargo on a wildfire. Below is a description from the Bear Lake Fire in Montana:

The Bear Lake Fire was honored to be the first wildfire incident to use the microflight technology from the USDA Forest Service’s Missoula Technology and Development Center. The auto guided microflight technology is part of the Joint Precision Aerial Delivery System (JPADS) and was developed by the military 5 years ago. This new technology allows for cargo drops from altitudes of 5,000 ft above the drop zone (the altitude for a standard cargo drop is approx. 250 ft above the drop zone). The parachute is guided by a GPS unit that adjusts for winds, turning the cargo as needed and dropping it within 50-100 meters of the drop site.

Wikipedia provides more details about the system:


US Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) was the primary developer for JPADS, which meets several requirements: increased ground accuracy, standoff delivery, increased air carrier survivability, and improved effectiveness/assessment feedback regarding airdrop mission operations. The United States Army and Air Force began jointly developing this system in 1993. The Air Force made its first operational/combat use of the system in Afghanistan in 2006.

The steerable parachute or parafoil is called a “decelerator,” and gives the JPADS system directional control throughout its descent by means of decelerator steering lines attached to the Airborne Guidance Unit (AGU). They create drag on either side of the decelerator, which turns the parachute, thus achieving directional control.

The Airborne Guidance Unit (AGU) contains a GPS, a battery pack, and the guidance, navigation and control (GN&C) software package. It also houses the hardware required to operate the steering lines. The AGU obtains its position prior to exiting the aircraft, and continues to calculate its position via the GPS throughout descent.

The Mission Planner software gives the aircrew the ability to plan the mission, in flight if necessary, as well as steer the aircraft to its Computed Air Release Point (CARP), where the load is released.”


The Bear Lake Fire has burned about 6,400 acres 12 miles southeast of Wisdom, Montana. The Incident Commander is calling it 75 percent contained.

Smokejumpers deliver

Click on the image above to play the video.

Aviation briefing, June 5, 2015

Washington adds to their helicopter fleet

Washington DNR helicopter
Washington DNR helicopter. Photo by WA DNR.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources is adding an eighth UH-1 Huey to their helicopter fleet. Their goal is to have six operational helicopters at any given time during the fire season. King5 has a video report.

Seattle SeahawksIt is interesting how the color scheme on the helicopters is similar to that of the Seattle Seahawks.

Reno-Stead air attack base prepares for fire season

KTVN has a story about how the  BLM air attack base at Reno-Stead is getting ready for the wildfire season.

Wired writes about smokejumpers

Wired has a lengthy article about how smokejumpers and hand crews in Redding, California are training and preparing for the fire season.