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Frost native has been a smokejumper for over 30 years

By Staff | Dec 2, 2018

This is smokejumper Mel Tenneson, a native of Frost.

The idea is to get to the fires when they are small and get them out.

That quote, by Mel Tenneson, states very simply the goal of a smokejumper, which has been Tenneson’s occupation for over 30 years.

Tenneson grew up in the Frost area attending Frost High School through 1979.

In 1980, his senior year, Frost consolidated with the Blue Earth School District.

Following his graduation from Blue Earth, Tenneson journeyed north to Brainerd where he attended vocational school at what is now Central Lakes College.

“I knew I wanted to work in the woods,” explains Tenneson.

He also had an ultimate goal of going to Alaska.

The school in Brainerd offered a Natural Resources Technology degree, which started Tenneson on the road to his eventual career as a smokejumper.

The school also had a hand in Tenneson beginning his trek out west.

“During the summer months, the vocational school required the students work somewhere related to their field,” Tenneson comments.

For Tenneson, that somewhere turned out to be the state of Washington, where he worked for the U.S. Forest Service.

Learning how to climb trees and studying reforestation were some of the things that occupied his time.

Tenneson took tree climbing to new heights when he became the first person working for the U.S. Forest Service in the upper Northwest to pole step a tree, a 260 foot Douglas Fir to be exact.

Picture a wooden telephone pole with rods coming out the sides of the pole to facilitate easier and faster climbing of the pole.

That is what Tenneson did to the Douglas Fir.

He first used two 21 foot lengths of corded cable wrapped around the tree to spur up the tree to a height of 12 feet.

He then hand drilled a hole in the tree using a brace. A brace is a hand tool used with a bit to drill holes in wood. Battery operated drills were not available back then.

The next step was to pound the metal rod into the tree until it was snug and then wind it in further with a wrench.

He then proceeded to hang from that first step by a hook while he drilled the hole for the next step 36 inches higher than the previous step. He continues that process until he reached the top of the tree.

It was a job that took 2.5 days to reach the top.

By 1985, he had reached his goal of going to Alaska. He accomplished this by joining the Chena hot shot crew based in Fairbanks.

In the United States, an interagency hot shot crew (IHC), or simply hot shot crew, is an elite team of 20 wildland firefighters, the most highly trained in the country, which are prepared to battle the most serious fires nationwide.

A hot shot crew drives in to battle a fire or is dropped off by helicopter.

By the end of 1985, spurred on because of some close friends, Tenneson applied to become a smokejumper. In the spring of 1986, he got his chance.

Tenneson explained that most smokejumpers come from hotshot crews. Today there are 150 people applying for six to seven available jobs as a smoke- jumper, so it is not an easy job to get.

Tenneson interviews applicants for smokejumper positions.

“When I interview someone, while experience is important, what I really want to hear is that they are the hardest working guy on the crew,” he states. “I want that guy who will give 110 percent.”

Tenneson spent 17 years based in Alaska before moving to the Boise, Idaho area in 2003.

Like hot shot crews, smokejumpers must also retain a high level of physical fitness.

They are given a physical test each year. Each person must do 10 pullups, 60 situps in less than three minutes, 35 pushups and be able to run 1.5 miles in less than 9.5 minutes or three miles in 22.3 minutes.

When they jump out of the plane to start battling a fire, each jumper is carrying 90 pounds of extra weight. This includes their main and reserve parachute, helmet, let down rope, pack out bag and the contents of their personal gear bag. The items in their personal gear bag are things such as a hard hat, water, a fire shield, a GPS, a head lamp, a medical kit, an Eppy pen (for others) and a tent with tent poles.

Other items such as a Pulaski tool or chainsaws are dropped in a separate fire pack. The Pulaski tool is a combination of a fire axe and an adze (or hoe). This tool allows the firefighter to go from chopping to digging with a flip of the wrist.

Tenneson explains that the Pulaski tool is commonly used to create fire breaks, that is, sections of land devoid of vegetation which can help contain forest fires.

Tenneson currently holds the position of Air Operations Manager for the Great Basin Smokejumpers.

Some of his duties include training pilots for smokejumping and also teaching smokejumpers to be spotters.

Tenneson, who is himself a spotter, explains how an operation works.

The spotter occupies the right front seat of the airplane while the pilot is in the left seat. There are eight other smokejumpers on board. The spotter does not jump.

When a fire is spotted, the goal of the spotter is to give the dispatcher the most accurate information possible on location, spread potential, access and structure of the topography.

Next, the pilot will make a low pass at 200 feet to determine what hazards, such as rocks or snags, are in the potential landing area.

The low pass also serves as a way to see if there is wind turbulence that would affect the smokejumpers.

The plane then ascends to 1,500 feet and a test drop with weighted streamers is done. These test drops are timed as the length of time it takes for the streamers to hit the ground can also raise red flags for the smokejumpers.

An observation will also be made as to how far the streamers were from hitting their target. This gives the team more data to use before they make their jump.

Tenneson then explained the parachutes used by the smokejumpers are ram air parachutes. They are designed for more maneuverability and faster speed. In a no wind situation they can reach speeds of 24 miles per hour. A typical round parachute will top out at a speed of 10 mph.

That faster speed becomes important when jumping in higher winds. If you are jumping when the wind speed is 15 mph and you have a traditional parachute, you end up going backwards.

Once the last smokejumper has exited the plane, the pilot circles the landing site while the spotter quickly moves the boxes of equipment in line in preparation to send them out the door to the firefighters below.

When they are on the ground the crew works quickly to begin battling the fire.

The strategy for fighting the fire is basically the same no matter the size of the fire: an anchor point is established, the next step is to flank the fire and finally, pinch the fire.

On a small fire, the crew uses the hoe end of their Pulaski tool. Starting at the anchor point they would start digging a border on both sides of the fire until they reach the point where they are able to come together and “pinch” the fire. Next, they would work on snuffing out the fire within the border.

This is a simplified explanation. That small fire might have a border that is initially only four inches wide. On a larger fire where it is possible to bring in big equipment, bulldozers may be utilized to make the fire break.

There are, of course, many other aspects that affect how a fire is fought.

Wind speed and direction, terrain and the ability to get equipment on site are just some of the many things taken into consideration when battling a fire.

Dangers abound with the occupation of being a smokejumper. Engines can stall on the airplanes, there is always risk in jumping out of a plane and then there are the risks that occur with the fire itself.

A firefighter is at risk of being hit by falling trees not to mention the havoc that the wind can create by changing directions or picking up in speed.

“The bottom line is this, if you’re aggressive in fire fighting you’re going to run into tense situations,” Tenneson says. “Knowing your location, knowing where you can escape to and using common sense are all important in staying safe.”

Tenneson has made 284 fire jumps in his career. That number puts him in the top three for all smokejumpers in the United States. He has made over 700 jumps total which include practice jumps and jumps to work on projects.

There is an old quote that states, “Choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Tenneson clearly loves his job.

“One of the biggest thrills of the job is seeing parts of the country not many others get to see.” he comments. “I have seen mountain lakes, I’ve been working to beat out a fire while watching Beluga whales swimming in the water.”

Now, as he approaches mandatory retirement next summer, he talks about the tremendous appreciation he has for his fellow smokejumpers.

“The camaraderie I have with the guys I work with, you trust your life with your friends,” Tenneson says. “Everyone wants to work hard and get the job done and they are fun to be around.”

Tenneson and his wife Melissa, who is from Oregon, are parents to two children, Melissa and Jordan.

Tenneson’s mother, Grace, still resides in the Frost area.