Out of the plane and into the fire

A celebration of smokejumpers from Sandpoint

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Every year, wildfires burn millions of 

acres across the West. While many of these burns affect public land, others creep ever closer to residential structures as we build farther into the wilderness.

When the call comes, wildland firefighters answer. Everyone from the engine crew to the elite hotshots chip in to attack, suppress and contain these dangerous burns, often working grueling hours with very little respite.

At the tip of this spear are the smokejumpers, a group of airborne wildland fire fighters who train to safely and quickly parachute as near as they can to remote fires. They help keep high-risk fires small by attacking them early, in locations otherwise inaccessible by road. Smokejumpers are a highly skilled and trained force that operates with self-sufficiency once they stand at the open door and drop into a fire.

Despite being located hours from the nearest smokejumper base, Sandpoint has contributed an inordinately high number of smokejumpers to the cause. Whether training with the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service, smokejumpers from Sandpoint represent more than 1,000 operational fire jumps ó a substantial chunk of the outfitís output.

Smokejumping has a long history that started right here in Idaho. Rufus Robinson and Earl Cooley are credited as the first to make a ìliveî fire jump at the Martin Creek Fire on July 12, 1940. In those days, jumpers using old-style round parachutes would descend into a fire to provide initial attack. A lot has changed in the more than 80 years since its inception ó including upgraded equipment and more downtime between jumps ó but the primary mission of smokejumpers remains the same: To rapidly attack and suppress wildland fires as self-sufficient entities able to reach terrain far in the backcountry.

Here are some stories from just a few of the many smokejumpers from Sandpoint.

Gary Johnson

While he was born in Tucson, Ariz., Gary Johnson said his family ties to North Idaho go back more than 100 years. His family often visited Sandpoint during the summer, while his father was in the U.S. Air Force.

After his father retired in 1960, Johnson’s family moved to Sandpoint, where he graduated from Sandpoint High School in 1965. When faced with what job he would take to pay for college, Johnson said he tapped into old memories of his father, who worked with a chainsaw for the Kaniksu National Forest.

Gary Johnson in his full smokejumper rig. Courtesy photo.

“I was heavily influenced by my dad,” he told the Reader. “I remember him coming home smoky — that smell and his eyes always bloodshot. I thought, ‘This is cool. This is what I want to do. I want to get dirty.’”

While attending college at University of Idaho in Moscow, Johnson began working as a wildland firefighter. Little did he know it would be the beginning of a career that would dominate a large portion of his adult life.

“It was a great way to put myself through college,” he said. “I never borrowed a cent from my mom or dad.”

For the next seven summers, Johnson worked on the ground fighting fires in Yellowstone. His first exposure to smokejumpers came from one particular burn he worked on in 1966.

“I was on a fire where we hiked 12 miles in and got treed by a grizzly bear,” Johnson said. “Then jumpers came in and landed in a field when we got there. I thought, ‘Wow, what a neat way to get into a fire.’ … I cut and dropped trees and worked alongside these jumpers and thought these guys were really cool.”

It took nine years for Johnson to finish college due to the allure of fighting fires in summer and skiing in winter.

“I went to U of I so long, they thought I was working on my doctorate,” Johnson joked. “I wasn’t. I just liked fighting fires and skiing.”

It wasn’t until he and some of his fellow firefighters were sent to pull out a fallen smokejumper that Johnson began seriously considering joining the elite group he had admired from afar.

In 1973, a smokejumper named Gene Hobbs was inadvertently pulled out of an open door of a DC-3 plane. He hit the ground with only a damaged chute to slow his descent, receiving multiple traumatic injuries, including a broken neck. Johnson and his comrades were credited with saving Hobbs’ life after they brought him to safety.

“He was a pretty well-known jumper, so my name got out there,” Johnson said. “So I got picked up pretty easily at all the bases the next year.”

Johnson then underwent intensive training at the BLM smokejumper base in Fairbanks, Alaska. From Day 1, he was determined to succeed.

“You’ve got 100 pounds of gear on, and you’re out all day long for eight hours with your nose in the dirt, climbing walls, running a lot of miles,” he said. “Smokejumpers are the elite of the firefighting force, and the training is quite difficult.”

After completing training, Johnson worked as a regular jumper in Alaska for six years, then became a spotter and squad leader, an assistant training officer and EMT. 

The training was brutal and the work often both physically and emotionally taxing, but there were always light moments.

On his first trip to the field as a jumper, Johnson said an S.O.S. call came from Arctic Village, a small Indigenous settlement located near the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.

“They said, ‘Run the jumpers out there,’ so myself and another jumped,” Johnson said. “When we got down, we learned that the Native was out of cigarettes. That was the emergency … We had a fire pack that had old C-ration cigarettes, so we left him all of those and some snoose. It was a very expensive trip.”

Aside from that super-sized smoke run, Johnson said a lot of his jumps were to suppress single-tree lightning strikes to prevent them from growing larger.

“But the biggest challenge of jumping is often that the terrain we’re jumping into is really hostile,” he said. “Lightning doesn’t select nice places for us to jump.”

Once on the ground, jumpers would get to work with Pulaskis, chainsaws and shovels to dig fire lines.

“We would a lot of times jump a fire, dig fire line and work all the next day mopping up and digging more line,” he said. “We would do 48 hours almost straight. They’ve changed a little bit now. They’re more conscious of you getting rest, but we never got any rest in my era.”

After the hard work was completed, jumpers would sometimes catch a ride out by helicopter, but most often had to hike upward of 20 miles carrying 100 pounds of gear.

The work was not without its consequences. Johnson once broke his back on a hard landing after a fire jump. Another time he ran a tree branch right through his arm. In both cases, he was flown out by helicopter. 

Aside from personal injury, there were other instances when jumpers didn’t come back at all. At the Mann Gulch fire in 1949 in Montana, 15 jumpers attacked the fire, but when high winds caused it to suddenly blow up and cut off the escape route, the jumpers were forced back uphill. Ultimately, 13 smokejumpers lost their lives that day, with Bob Sallee, of Sandpoint, being the last survivor. It remains the worst disaster for smokejumpers in history.

“It’s something you just cannot put into words,” Johnson said of his profession. “To be at that open door looking down at your proposed jump and knowing that the wind is going to change. It’s something that, unless you do it, you have no idea what it’s like to stand at that open door. … I really felt like forest defense was national defense. It’s like the National Guard doing their thing here at home, but we were trusted with protecting our national resources. I felt really good about that.”

At 40 years old, Johnson finally packed his chute for the last time and left smokejumping behind to continue his career in other aspects of wildland firefighting.

Johnson is quick to point out that he’s not interested in talking about his own exploits, but rather in sharing the history of all the Sandpoint jumpers who came before him, as well as those who followed him out the door. See the sidebar for Johnson’s notes about these Sandpoint jumpers.

Kim Keaton

Kim Keaton’s grandparents moved to Sandpoint in 1911 and he was raised on Railroad Avenue, where the Seasons is now located. Keaton remembers the 1967 Sundance Fire well. In fact, he and his friend (Gary Johnson) hiked up there frequently to enjoy the expansive views after the fire. After college, Keaton joined a trail crew and began a five-year stint as a wildland firefighter.

“After obtaining a degree in microbiology, I realized I wanted to continue my adolescence,” Keaton told the Reader.

Kim Keaton heading to work. Photo taken in 1981 by J.C. Jones.

Fire marshall and jumper Larry Stone, who Keaton met while working on a trail crew, influenced him to explore jumping into fires. Meanwhile, fellow Sandpointians John and Jim Olson were then working for a hotshot crew, Keaton said. All three would end up joining the ranks of this elite group, with John completing training in 1977, Jim a year later and Keaton in 1979.

“Fifty guys in a hotshot crew would apply [to jump school] and only about 13 would make it,” Keaton said. “It was mentally and physically grueling work.”

After his jump training, Keaton continued training in weather, fire suppression and was also an EMT 2, which means he could provide morphine if needed on the ground.

“When I wasn’t jumping, I was paracargo,” Keaton said. “That’s where you rig something you’re going to kick out to support large fire suppressions.”

One of the wildest missions Keaton took part in was kicking 500-gallon fuel bladders out of a C-119, which would drift to the ground with two 64-foot parachutes.

“If you had anything in the rail there, you’d be going out with the load,” he said.

While the work was always exhausting, Keaton said there was usually time for side missions.

“You were always busy, but when you’re initial attack, we all had fly fishing poles in side pockets,” he said. “The great thing with multiple fires is … while waiting for them to pick you up, you could fly fish.”

Keaton remembered one close call on a jump where, after touching down, he heard his fellow jumper scream for everyone to grab their gear and get out quickly.

“By the time the Bell 205 helicopter landed, we were kicking up flames on the pad,” he said. “You could feel the heat. That’s the closest I came to dying. We just got out of there. Later, we saw a little mark on the side where the fire had melted the heli’s side. When you have an experienced guy and he screams something like that, you listen.”

Keaton spent one year on a hotshot crew and four years jumping, looking back on the 19-hour days and brutal conditions fondly. He tried his hand at everything from carpentry to property management before landing in his second major career of education. 

“I taught five years at Lakeland, another five years at Sandpoint Middle School and was principal there for 15 years,” Keaton said. After his retirement, Keaton said he continued to work as an education consultant, helping school districts develop leadership teams from the bottom up.

He credits his years working as a smokejumper with helping to cultivate leadership and team-building skills that served him the rest of his life.

“Smokejumpers were a talented group of guys,” Keaton said. “You have to have grit to be a smokejumper. You have to be persistent and you have to have maybe an over-amount of confidence with decisions. … There’s an old Norwegian saying: ‘There’s no such thing as a bad day, only the choice of poor clothing.’ You need to be prepared for everything as a smokejumper.”

Kip Shields

“When I was 4 years old, I had an Alaska Smokejumpers shirt given to me by Gary Johnson,” Shields told the Reader. His family friendship with Johnson — and the T-shirt — would plant a seed for Shields to also join the ranks of jumpers later in life.

“I knew that wildland fire was something that would be a great opportunity from even a young age,” Shields said. “I wanted to work out in the woods; wanted to have time off. I liked to run saws and I loved big hikes.”

Shields wound up getting on the Carson City District in Nevada and later worked on an engine in Topaz, Calif., before he took a new job on a hotshot crew.

“Being a hotshot was like being in a 20-man family, and there were a couple of women there, too,” he said. “We’d have long shifts, and worked numerous days throughout the months. Not many days off. I loved how you’d go back into some part of the country you’d never go to if you weren’t on a crew like that.”

Shields worked all over the West Coast, making it as far as South Dakota for five years before he found himself working on an engine in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest in 1999, where his boss was a Missoula jumper. He then drifted back to the Silver State Hotshots in Nevada and rose the ranks to saw boss, then squad boss for another five years.

Johnson descends from a training jump using an old-style round parachute. Photo courtesy Gary Johnson.

Shields first put in for jump training in 2002, but didn’t get in. He reapplied the next year, too, but was also turned down.

“Then, they called me down in spring break and rescinded that declination because someone dropped out,” Shields said. “On April 26, 2004 I came up to Alaska to be a rookie smokejumper. I knew it was going to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

Shields said instructors drilled so much information into trainees that it was almost second nature when it came time for his first fire jump.

“It just becomes the process,” he said. “When it comes time to get in the door of a plane, you’re so ingrained, you’re like a machine. When you’re in the door, you do your four-point check … Then the spotter slaps you and you exit with vigor … your parachute comes snapping open and the airplane is flying away. You see your jump partner and his chute opens as well. … 

“When the parachute opens, everything is so serene and quiet. You’re above the river or the Colorado mountains or the Trinity Alps. That’s the best part of the job. Checking out your jump spot and making a nice soft into-the-wind landing.”

But not all landings went as planned. On his first jump, Shields took extra care not to screw up and had a bit of a slow opening on his parachute. 

“As I was flying to the spot, over this big beautiful Alaska meadow, all of these guys are landing on the side of the meadow and I said, ‘I’m going to try for the dead center.’”

The only problem was, meadows in Alaska are a bit different than in Idaho. 

“It was like a floating bog,” he explained. “I landed and started sinking down in the bog knee-deep. I ended up swimming off of this floating peat bog and everyone was like, ‘Look at this rookie.’”

Shields said he shook off the gaffe, got to shore, grabbed a saw and started cutting line.

It wasn’t just fires that Shields and his fellow jumpers attacked. Sometimes it was project jumps, like retrieving rocket fuselages that were fired to check for aurora borealis. Because of the remote locations where the rocket bodies land and the dedication to leave these pristine wilderness areas untrammeled by man, jumpers sometimes descended to touchdown sites and packed out the rockets in pieces.

“We jumped right into the heart of the Brooks Range,” he said. “There was a caribou and grizzly bear by our jump spot. It was a graded valley that looked like a painting.”

Within three miles of their landing, Shields and fellow jumpers located the rocket bodies and cut them into 100-pound packs before searching for the next one.

“It’s weird seeing a rocket sticking up from the tundra like that,” he said.

Shields credits a lot of Sandpointians for both exposing him to the world of smokejumping, as well as teaching him important aspects of the job.

“Gary Johnson was my assistant fire management officer when I worked in Nevada,” Shields said. “He helped me out there as well, progressing my career and encouraging me to jump. I also worked with Joe Heisel from Clark Fork. He was a jumper out of Grangeville. Dave Lucht was my super on the Idaho Panhandle and John Olson, who I also worked with in Idaho Panhandle, came up on the bus all the time on Schweitzer. He’s one of the most stoked guys in the world and he was a big encouragement for me to jump.”

Shields still works in wildland fire suppression to this day. He currently works as a BLM assistant fire management officer of the Upper Yukon Zone at Alaska Fire Service, which oversees all 52 million acres of federal land in Alaska.

When asked why so many Sandpointians became smokejumpers, Shields said it’s probably something about this region that created so many adventurous souls.

John Olson, left; and Gary Johnson, right, pose for the camera on a burn. Photo courtesy Gary Johnson.

“We look at a lot of people from Sandpoint and what they’ve done,” he said. “There’s the skiing crowd, the snowboarding crowd. Schweitzer puts out a lot of high-functioning individuals. There are also great family values in Sandpoint, encouraging us to get out in the woods. It’s why we live here and it’s how I was raised.”

As wildfires become more severe in the future, the mission of smokejumpers continues to be as important today as it was 80 years ago when those two jumpers first pitched out of the plane and into the fire. With more than 1,000 live fire jumps, Sandpoint’s smokejumpers have certainly earned their place in history as protectors of our natural resources as well as adventure seekers. We’re honored to call them native sons.

Sandpoint’s Smokejumpers

The following jumpers all hailed from Sandpoint. Their training class location and years are noted in parenthesis. MSO = Missoula. IDC = Idaho City. BOI = Boise. McC = McCall, ANCH = Anchorage and FAI = Fairbanks. Notes about each jumper have been provided by Gary Johnson.

Al Cramer (MSO 1943) “Al was an early pioneer jumper. He jumped a long time and spotted jumpers from the tri-motor for a demonstration. He jumped near the White House lawn in Washington, D.C. Al had 100+ fire jumps.”

Bob Sallee (MSO 1948) “Many of my uncles went to school with Bob. He was the last survivor of the Mann Gulch fire. Bob had about 10 fire jumps.”

Jim Thompson (MSO 1963) “I grew up with all the Thompson brothers. Jim had 15 fire jumps.”

Oval “Bill” Gastineau (MSO 1963) “He and my cousin were on the winning state basketball team. Bill had 22 fire jumps.”

Kevin Brown (MSO 1966) “We were in high school together. Kevin held the Idaho record for the one-mile run in track for a long time. He ruptured his spleen on a fire jump and that was the end of his career. Kevin had 22 fire jumps.”

Steve Walker (MSO 1968) “We spent a year in Europe together. Steve had 55 fire jumps.”

Mike Boeck (IDC 1969) “One of my brother’s best friends in high school. Mike had 15 fire jumps.”

Wayne Fields (BOI 1976) “Wayne had 70 fire jumps.”

Doug Abromeit (McC 1971) “One of my best friends since the eighth grade. Doug had 50 fire jumps.”

Dann Hall (ANCH 1972) “Another close friend since the eighth grade. Earned the name ‘Freefall Hall’ for failing to hook up during a fire jump. Fortunately the spotter caught it or Dann would have had even less fire jumps. Dann probably had 10 fire jumps.”

John Snedden (BOI 1973) “My brother’s best friend. John had 27 fire jumps.”

Gary Johnson (FAI 1974) Gary is credited with saving Gene Hobbs’ life and had 138 fire jumps.

John Olson (FAI 1977) “I helped John get his first Alaskan job. John had 80 fire jumps.”

Jim Olson (FAI 1978) “The ‘lesser’ Olson brother. Jim had a long career in smokejumping and helped improve the Ram Air parachute system. Jim had 200 fire jumps.”

Kim Keaton (FAI 1979) “Kim had approximately 50 fire jumps.”

Scott Chehock (MSO 1979) “At one time, Scotty was the youngest ski instructor in America. Scott probably had 70 fire jumps between MSO and NIFC.”

Kip Shields (FAI 2004) “Diane and I babysat Kip when he was below knee high! Kip was on Silver State Hotshots for five years when I was AFMO for Carson District. Our families go back five generations in Sandpoint. Kip had 103 fire jumps.”

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