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Smokejumpers work to repair guard station

“From the reed’s tip, smoke rose. From the reed’s tip, flame rose, and in the flame, a youth was running. He had hair of fire, a beard of flame, and his eyes were suns.” — an Armenian tale of the Birth of the Fire God.

They haven’t jumped for years. They’ve taken other jobs, followed life down several avenues, most of them have now retired from those other jobs; but none of them can forget their days of jumping into fire.

The word “jump” being associated with smokejumpers gives the impression that this is a quick job, jump and done; however, the job for the smokejumper begins before the jump and lasts long after the jump, when they are on the ground fighting fires.

The job begins when unit dispatch office requests a smokejumper; they suit up, and within minutes of receiving the call, are on an aircraft heading toward the fire. The main reason to call for a smokejumper is the remoteness and difficulty of access of a fire; normally the fire will be far from roads and in mountainous terrain. Jumpers parachute to the ground with cargo boxes of food and equipment dropped behind them. The jumpers stay on the fire until the host unit releases them or the fire is declared out. During this time, the jumpers are self-sufficient as they battle the blaze.

At least, that is the way it once was for the members of the Colorado chapter of the National Smokejumpers Association. Those days, for these men, though, have long ended.

Most of the 10 men who were gathered last week around the Turkey Springs Guard Station last jumped in the ’50s or ’60s. Since that time, members of the group have become a biochemist toxicologist, firefighter deputy chief, parks and recreation superintendent, forester for the U.S. Forest Service, a district attorney and more.

Rich Hilderbrand, the crew leader for the San Juan District of Smokejumpers, last jumped in 1967. It was in Missoula, Mont. He jumped with Doug Wamsley. Others jumped in Alaska. Now, present day, it has been years since any of the 10 men have jumped out of an aircraft in an effort to suppress a blaze. Both Hilderbrand and Wamsley are putting a roof on a cabin, fixing a porch, painting.

Looking at the group of 10 men, the common factor would appear to be the dedication to hard work, to getting the job done and doing it well. While that might be true, while that might be one commonality amongst the men, the greatest tie is that each spent a period of his life as a smokejumper, and part of being a smokejumper is staying true to your mission.

According to the National Smokejumper Association’s mission statement, smokejumpers hold the following values: comradeship, education, pride in work well done, loyalty.

Thus, the crew headed out to the Turkey Springs Guard Station, the structure burnt, in disarray, broken windows, sunken porch, filled with dead mice and birds. It wasn’t fire, but it was their new mission, and the group of 10 did not turn from the task.

According to Hilderbrand, many of the smokejumpers at the site have been volunteering for years. Most of the volunteers live in Colorado, from Durango to the Front Range, but then there is also one man from Alabama and another from Texas. It is Hilderbrand’s job, which he took upon himself, to keep in touch with the volunteers throughout the year, keep an ear to the ground for possible projects and coordinate the dates. Many people in this group have worked on similar projects in the San Juan National Forest during the past three years. Julie Coleman, the San Juan Public Lands archaeologist, wrote several grants to raise money to fix up several structures on forest lands. Last year, the southwestern Colorado smokejumper group repaired the Glade Guard Station in the Dolores District of the San Juan National Forest.

“We do what we need to do, and we get the job done,” Hilderbrand said.

“That pretty much sums their work up. They git ‘er done,” Coleman confirmed.

Coleman explained that the Turkey Springs Guard Station was built in 1907. In 1917, there was a fire that severely damaged the structure. In 1920 it was rebuilt, and has managed fairly well considering the few repairs it has undergone in the past 50 years. With the repairs done to the guard station now, the structure should remain up and in a usable condition for the next 40 or so years, Coleman said.

The first repair: cleaning out the dead birds and rats. After that: spraying for the hantavirus. The fence was repaired, rebuilt and painted to match the original color. The porch had settled, fallen and pulled away from the guard station leaving space for rodents and smaller animals to get underneath the porch and tear at the foundation. The smokejumpers have built a new porch, put on a new roof with fire retardant shingles. They parged the foundation at points where animals and time had worn on it. All the windows and doors have been repaired. The entire house was repainted, the color again matching that of the original.

“We can’t give enough credit to Julie,” Hilderbrand said. “We’ve been very successful because we’ve had the food, water and supplies through her grants.” This year, the grants Coleman received for the project came from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Dominguez Archaeological Research Group. The food comes from Elevated Fine Foods.

“If you keep a roof on, keep it painted and enclosed, it (a structure) can last a long time,” Coleman said.

“We hope our work here has given the guard station new life,” Hilderbrand said.

According Pagosa Ranger District Archaeologist Wendy Sutton, the guard station will most likely be used in a fashion similar to how it was used in the past — as a location for outdoor education and interpretive programs.

“The Smoke Jumpers did a great job repairing the facility so that it will be there for us to enjoy into the future,” Sutton said.

But the group’s volunteer spirit does not stop with this one week. Many men in the group will leave Pagosa Country to help with trails, building bridges, clearing trees.

“We like to do what the Forest Service needs and what we have skills to do,” Hilderbrand said, and amongst the group are many highly qualified individuals ready for a wide variety of work.

The Pagosa District has used the Turkey Springs Guard Station as a location for outdoor education and interpretive programs in the past, and envisions continuing to use the facility for these purposes in the future.

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