A SusanvilleStuff Feature
by Melissa Blosser, Assisant Editor
Peering down over his boots through the smoke and flames there is no hesitation in his mind. Jumping from a plane has become routine for smokejumper Steve Bierman, who is no rookie, and has been smokejumping for over 20 fire seasons.
“I knew I wanted to become a smokejumper early on when I was on a smaller fire near a road while working for Lassen, and we noticed a ridge line pretty far off in the distance, with a plane and two chutes deploying out of it, two jumpers attacked a small lightening fire,” said Bierman. “It was a done deal.”
Smokejumpers are most often deployed to fires that are extremely remote. Smokejumpers are capable of reaching a wildfire shortly after ignition when it is still relatively small and extinguishing the blaze before it becomes a problem to land managers and the public.
Bierman started his fire career at Lassen College in 1980. He then went on to Laguna Hotshots in Southern California and returned to Lassen to Hotshot for 3 seasons. His first few years of jumping he was based out of Redding. The base he currently jumps out of for the last 16 or so seasons is in McCall, Idaho.
“McCall is a beautiful little Idaho town on a spectacular lake, nestled next to the biggest wilderness in the lower 48, The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, “ said Bierman. “The wilderness was our bread and butter before the “big fires” or as we call them “gobblers” ate a huge portion of it up. I jumped the wilderness this summer and ended up demobing out of the most remote dirt airstrip in the lower 48, a place called Cold Meadows.”
As one can imagine, smokejumping can be dangerous, and many in the profession can tell you about close calls, or as they call them “hair in the butter.” A tree can be one of the most dangerous obstacles a smokejumper encounters. Sometimes a tree can be unavoidable. The springing bows of a green tree can slow their decent, while the brittle branches of a dead tree can be fatal.
“I had one of my legs wrapped in my lines when my chute deployed on a fire jump and I was upside down and head down, not good, “said Bierman. “At 400 feet I managed to untangle the lines from the eyelets of my boots and pop out right side up. At that point I couldn’t look up to check my canopy because all my line groups were twisted down to’ my gills.’ I got untwisted and I had time for one turn into the jump spot and I was fine.”
Bierman says what keeps him jumping are the people he work with. All the rookies come from ‘top-notch’ fire organizations and have excellent professional backgrounds. They get selected from hundreds of applicants, many are washed-out, leaving only those who are truly dedicated.
“The cadre that is selected is the life and blood of what the base is and the bond that is created; the synergy this organization produces is really like no other,” said Bierman. “It’s why I’m still doing it.”
The risks associated with this method of personnel deployment are mitigated by an extremely well developed training program that has evolved over the course of more than 70 years. To prepare for the Fire Season Bierman typically runs hills and interval trains as spring gets near. According to Bierman a good portion of the jumpers do Crossfit, bike, climb, telemark, or swim.
“Passion is the only thing that gets me onto the icy roads, running on a cold January morning,” said Bierman. “ I also learned through this job that people, put in the right environment, can accomplish so much more than they ever thought.”
Although Bierman spends his summers smokejumping getting what he says he gets ‘the best of both worlds’by also teaching 5th and 6th grade at Janesville school.
“Teaching at a school like Janesville one of the best schools in the county with some great families and staff is amazing,” said Bierman. “Then in the summer the country we get to jump in from Zion to above the Arctic Circle, Olympic Pennisula,to the land that Custer died on…that could be my “day at the office.”
Bierman says he is happy to see the program at Lassen College is still up and running. According to Bierman to pursue a career in smokejumping it is best to get experience on the ground such as Helitack, Hotshots, Wildfire Use Crew, or Engine experience. He says these are all excellent places to start and learn skills. Starting a career in fire science is where it all began for Bierman and he has no intention of stopping.
“I never planned to do this job at 50 years old, it’s a young man’s job.” said Bierman “One problem, I’m already looking forward to next fire season.”
Watch Steve and other smokejumpers in action in this video from the ‘The Daily’