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Sierra lightning storm stokes smokejumper memories

Work party of veteran parachute firefighters assembles near Foresthill
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - With lightning in the forecast and forest-fire smoke in the morning air, a group of veteran smoke jumpers assembled Wednesday near Foresthill was quite content to let their younger counterparts battle a spate of blazes in the Tahoe National Forest. Fifty or so years ago, it would have been their boots dropping into a smoke-filled fire scene from as low as 1,800 feet and their chutes opening as they swooped in to tackle lightning-strike fires before they spread out of control. On Wednesday, nine members of the National Smokejumpers Association from as far away as Montana set off on a five-day work camp to rehabilitate trails near China Wall, 10 miles east of Foresthill. In their 60s, 70s and 80s, the group assembled chainsaws as well as old-school crosscut saws for a hike into the wilderness to set up a camp that would serve as their base through Tuesday, when they would hike out again. Members demonstrated patience and understanding that came with experience when they learned that a Forest Service-contracted copter due to fly much of their supplies in would be delayed. The delay was necessitated because of the helicopter’s use on a series of new fires being caused by a round of lightning-caused fires in the area. “They’ve got fires everywhere,” said Bill Bowles, 74, of Foresthill. The Tahoe National Forest reported thunderstorm activity continuing Wednesday, with 206 new strikes in the 24-hour period ending at 6 a.m. Three new fires were spotted. All fires remained less than an acre. Of the 17 burning, nine were being judged contained or controlled, Forest Service spokeswoman Ann Westling said. Bowles said he made his first jump in 1957 and ended up making more than 200 over the years as a smoke jumper before letting younger jumpers take over. Bowles recalled one fire near Redding with switching winds that roared over the gear he had jumped in with but he was able to escape from the flames. The small fire erupted into 1958’s Lava Fire, covering 13,000 acres. Manny Haiges worked summers out of Missoula starting in 1958, jumping from now-vintage aircraft like the 1930s vintage Ford Tri Motor and DC-3. Haiges, who has family in Rocklin, said smoke-jumping was a good way to make money during the summer for school. But there was an added inducement to be part of an elite firefighting crew. “It was just exciting,” Haiges said. Auburn’s Monroe De Jarnette, 83, jumped between 1949 to 1955 out of Missoula before embarking on a teaching career. That period included two years off to serve in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. The work was exciting but also dangerous. De Jarnette was smoke jumping in the same area when 12 smoke jumpers and one “walk-in” firefighter were killed during the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire outside Helena. De Jarnette gathered to work and share memories during a work party for an association that counts about 1,700 members nationwide. “My ankles are still complaining but I had no injuries,” De Jarnette said.