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SMOKE JUMPER : 'It's always a challenge to be able to fly out in that wild country, and get down safely, do your job, and get back safely.'

September 15, 1986|JANNY SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

Smokejumping was always a summer job for farm boys--leaping out of airplanes into flaming forests. Bill Yensen had grown up on farms in Nebraska and Idaho, milking cows from the age of 8 to 18. He qualified.

So sophomore year at the University of Redlands when he needed money, Yensen wrote to the U.S. Forest Service. Then in June, 1953, he loaded up his '41 Ford and headed for the McCall, Idaho, smokejumper base.

"I remember going up there," recalled Yensen, a man with a musical twang in his voice and a knack for spinning tales. "I was driving through Nevada about 4 o'clock in the morning. Whole world lit up like a big flashbulb. You know, they'd shot an A-bomb back behind me!"

It was an auspicious beginning. Quite a send-off.

Wild Bill Yensen is a U.S. Forest Service legend: For 33 summers he fought fire in the impenetrable mountain forests of the West. He reached places with names like Disappointment and Starvation creeks. He climbed canyon walls so steep "you can actually spit a hundred yards!"

Once, a boulder the size of a refrigerator barreled past him in the dead of night. Once, Yensen brought a man back from the lip of a 200-foot cliff.

He has grilled grouse on green sticks near the Salmon River. He has fried bacon on a shovel in the mosquito capital of the world.

Once, Yensen swears, he saw a UFO.

Now Wild Bill Yensen is retiring, a high-school math teacher from Bonita who no longer needs $8,000 in summer cash. His children are grown, his daughter is marrying. Yensen wants to play golf, catch up on time with his wife, "do those sorts of things."

But he's not leaving smokejumping without regret.

"Oh, it's hard to pull the plug on something that's been that much of your life," Yensen said last week, the sudden tightness in his throat telling maybe half how hard. "But everything works. I survived. So I figure I probably shouldn't press my luck any more."

Yensen is a compact, muscular man. He earned his honorific, Wild Bill, back in high school when he pitched four games in a row without walking anyone. At age 53, he weighs just five pounds more than he weighed at 20. At 5-foot-8 1/2, he has shrunk a half-inch.

He grew up close to the land, on farms. "Corn, potatoes, the usual stuff." Back in Homedale, Idaho, his sisters' boyfriends started smokejumping the year they graduated from high school. Yensen was following their lead.

"Of course, it's always been fascinating," he said. "It's always a challenge to be able to fly out in that wild country, and get down safely, do your job, and get back safely. That's where it's at."

Yensen started out in McCall leaping off a 40-foot tower, hitched to a harness and a hemp rope that jerked you up, yo-yo-style, just before you kissed the dirt. He and other greenhorns learned how to hit the ground, roll and get out of trees.

Then came the real thing.

"We took off about 7:30 in the morning and the sun's just comin' up good," Yensen said. "And I can see the shadow of the plane gettin' smaller and smaller. What am I doin' here? Then we got up there, couple other guys jumped, so it came my turn, so I got in the door and this guy says, 'Hit 'er, Billy!' And I took off and jumped.

"And it worked!

"Boy, then you're just sittin' there, just like sittin' in a swing. And the plane's gone, and it's quiet. Just unbelievable. You just drive the thing down."

The smokejumpers' role in fighting forest fires is "initial attack": In roadless areas, they suppress a fire before it gets out of hand. They jump in twos, the number depending on the size of the fire: say, a two-man-er, four-man-er, eight-man-er or "a gobbler."

Smokejumpers jump in daylight but often work best at night, when humidity is up and temperature down. They begin by digging a shallow ring around the fire to stop the spreading. Then they cut down burned and burning trees and smother them with dirt.

Their tools are collapsible shovels, axes, hand saws and chain saws--a small arsenal that drops out of the sky on a chute of its own. Pumping water on a fire is a rare luxury. Along with the tools come domestic supplies--sleeping bags, food, drinking water.

After that first year, Bill Yensen got himself a camera. The land was so beautiful, he learned photography and later taught it. Often he carried a movie camera, and a chess set, in his personal gear box. Smokejumpers like cribbage; it's a good two-man game.

After all, a man might be out on a fire for as long as a week. When they're done, smokejumpers usually load their equipment on their backs, pack out to the nearest road, and wait. Yensen remembers packing 16 miles once, carrying 110 pounds of equipment.

Fire jumps begin at 1,500 feet up. Look for a clearing near the fire, drop crepe paper streamers to measure the pull of the wind, then step out into the ether. It's usually about 90 seconds to the ground. And the ground can feel awfully hard when you're landing on a mountain 9,000 feet up, when it's hot and the air is thin.

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