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?”
But 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.
He 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.