[This is the “One of Our Own” feature that originally appeared in the Summer 2023 Issue of Two More Chains.]
He got his Red Card in 1988. He’s been smokejumping for over 30 years. He’s got many insightful wildfire suppression stories and lessons. It’s obvious that this man loves his work. “I couldn’t see myself being in an office. I don’t think I would be happy that way,” he explains. On September 19 of this year, he made his 300th fire jump, the second highest of all time for the Great Basin Boise Smokejumpers—which also earns him the honors of being fifth nationally for the most fire jumps. We think you’ll truly enjoy this conversation that Kelly Woods, Director of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, recently had with longtime Boise Smokejumper Shannon Orr.
Kelly: OK, Shannon. Let’s get started. Can you tell us who you are and where you work?
Shannon: I work for the Bureau of Land Management’s Boise Smokejumpers. I started smokejumping in 1992. I rookied with the Redding Smokejumpers in California and transferred to the BLM in 1999. I’ve been at the Boise base ever since.
Kelly: That’s awesome. What year did you get your first Red Card?
Kelly: Dang. I know you’ve been a jumper nearly your entire career. And you’ve also spent time working in Florida between western fire seasons. What are some of the other things you’ve done in the off season?
Shannon: When I was a Redding Smokejumper, I would spend my winters working for the National Park Service in south Florida at Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. That was a lot of fun. Most of us were still seasonals back then. It was just a way to stay in fire and learn a lot about burning.
Kelly: That’s pretty cool. I had the opportunity to work in the Southeast a little bit. It’s a really cool experience coming from the West, to be out there where you can get stuff to rip with high humidity. It’s great topography and fuels to really study ignition technics. I loved my time down there.
Shannon: Oh yeah, definitely. The burning they do is great. We also did a lot of burning on the Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana as Boise Smokejumpers. We could have rain come in and two days later it’s burning, ripping through the pine stands and stuff. It’s very effective. They are able to accomplish more with their burning in the Southeast than we do out West—just seems like we’re limited with all the political and other ramifications that come with burning here.
Kelly: And then you’ve also done a fair bit of work in Oklahoma too, right?
Shannon: Oklahoma was more initial attack. I went as part of a module to support the Bureau of Indian Affairs with IA on the Osage Nation. They treated us really well. It’s fun working with the BIA in Oklahoma. They have a good program.
Kelly: That’s cool. Can you also talk about some of your quals, some of the things you really have enjoyed doing over the years.
Shannon: I’ll say this, the hardest qual and the qual I was most proud of getting was my RXB2 [Prescribed Fire Burn Boss Type 2]. That was back when we used to have a prescribed burning program at our base. We no longer have that. And I no longer have that qual, but I was proud of getting it. It was hard to get and took a while.
I also was qualified as an ATGS [Air Tactical Group Supervisor]. I was injured in 2010 on a fire jump. I was blown over a ridge backwards during a jump. As soon as I crested the ridge, I was smashed straight down from about 50 feet above the ground. I landed in some gamble oak that was about 15 feet high which sort of cushioned my fall and probably prevented more severe injuries. I broke my fibula and both ankles were badly injured. I was in a wheelchair for about 10 days.
As soon as I was out of the chair, I started ATGS training. I actually had some complications because I did not do physical therapy. I had to make some overtime. My symptoms persisted. Whenever I tried to run with any speed, both calves would severely strain. I ended up having surgery on my left calf which relieved some of the symptoms. I still had some symptoms up until about four years ago.
So, this injury led me into doing the Air Attack. That was also a hard qual to get. It was a whole different perspective for me because I was up in the air doing circles. I enjoyed a lot of it but really wanted to be back on the ground with the guys. Even so, it was a great qual to have during my injury because I was unable to jump for two years.
I held onto that qual until 2017. It was just getting too hard to maintain because it kind of consumes your whole season. To stay comfortable being in an Air Attack, I would need to do that position way more than just filling-in once in a while. And I am a smokejumper. That is what I like to do. You know what I mean?
Kelly: Yeah. For sure. For sure.
Shannon: So, I’m starting to drop quals as I get older.
Second Oldest Jumper at Boise Base
Kelly: Aren’t you the second oldest jumper at the Boise base right now?
Shannon: I am. Currently, I’m the second oldest. Next year, I’ll be the oldest. That’s surreal. Ten years ago, when I’d get on the plane, there would be a 50 percent chance I’d be the oldest guy. As the years progressed, I’m now the oldest guy. It’s a cliche to say that time goes by fast, but it really does. I still remember being in my 20s doing this. And here I am now. I’ll be 55 in November.
Kelly: What are some of the differences that you noticed over the years? Some are probably obvious. But as a 20-something-year-old smokejumper versus a 55, how do you work smarter, not harder? What are some of your strategies for doing that?
Shannon: I think you gain patience as you get older. You try to look at the “bigger picture” instead of just running right at something. You learn to hang back for a little bit and see, let things play out, and then go about your deal. And, as an older jumper, obviously, I’m not going to be the one on the chainsaw, running that thing all day. It’s going to be one of the younger guys. My role will be more of just making sure that we’re in a good spot and communicating.
Kelly: I bet you can outrun a lot of the young guys, though. I see you running by my house here in Boise all the time.
Shannon: Well, maybe a few. But that’s one thing I’ve always enjoyed is running. That’s what was so frustrating when I was injured because it was not a severe injury, but it was an injury enough to where it made me unable to run like I wanted to. But yeah, there’s definitely a few of those younger ones I can still beat.
Lessons from the Price Canyon Fire
Kelly: Nice. Well, let’s talk about the Price Canyon Fire a little bit. In this issue of Two More Chains it’s one of the incidents that we are featuring. Clearly, experiencing that fire had to have some lasting impacts on you. When you reflect on the Price Canyon Fire now, what can you say are some of the biggest lessons that you personally took away from that day?
Shannon: Gosh, Kelly. I think the biggest lesson that I took was listening to that feeling that you get that you are in a bad spot. We were on defense right away. We knew the fire was going to come—but we didn’t know it was going to come that fast. I had this feeling that our situation was not good. And at that point, I should have probably gathered the four other guys that were with me in that group and said: You know what? Let’s just call and try to get a truck up here to get our stuff out of here and let’s get out.” Something like that. I should have listened to what I was feeling.
But all those other guys that I was with, I don’t know if they felt the same as me. They probably did, but we didn’t talk about it. We tried to create a little black zone around our gear. So right away we were basically trying to create a safety zone. And that’s not a good thing to start your shift off with, especially when the fire was transitioning to a Type 2 incident. So, for me, a key lesson from that day is we all need to trust our instincts and listen to that nagging feeling that you get when you know you are in a bad spot. And talk about it.
Kelly: Can you think of examples later in your career where you were in a situation and Price Canyon flashed in your mind and you thought: “We need to do something different here”?
Shannon: Yeah, as a Great Basin Smokejumper, primarily we are in the light flashy fuels. That’s still, as far as I know, one of the “Five Common Denominators on Tragedy Fires”. And I’ve always known that. And so I think about it and take extra precaution whenever I’m out in Nevada or Utah or areas with that type of fuel model. I always want to make sure there is somewhere where we can go. That we have good black somewhere.
One specific situation when I thought about Price Canyon and took action was a scenario where a load of jumpers had jumped a fire in southern Nevada before my load. When we came in three hours later, the guys that were on the fire told us: “Don’t even come up here. This thing is blowing out on us.”
I remember thinking, wow, if it moves as fast as Price Canyon, we’re not in a good spot right here. So we moved into a big rock pile that would work as a safety zone to wait things out. I was flashing back to how fast the fire came at Price Canyon and definitely didn’t want to take any risks at all. I didn’t try to burn a black area. I was like, we’re going to the rocks.
So, yeah, it’s on my mind. It always is. And, yes, it affected me pretty hard because it was a close call for sure.
Another thing is Price Canyon happened on June 30. We have had a lot of other significant fires blow up at that time of year between the end of June and mid-July. Yarnell was, of course, June 30. South Canyon was July 6—and there are others, too. The timing itself is something I think about every year. I always tell the guys that I’m around at that time of year: “Hey, we just got to make sure we’re paying even more attention than we already do.” But that’s what’s great about working with guys that are so experienced. I don’t have to worry about them. It’s not like I’m taking out a crew with brand new firefighters. These are experienced firefighters—smokejumpers. So I feel good about that.
Kelly: What about after Price Canyon, when you guys got back to the base? I know that there were jumpers from different bases and two different agencies. When you got back to Boise, was there any organizational learning that took place at your base?
Shannon: Yeah, the learning started before we even got back to Boise. We had jumped out of Cedar City, Utah for the Price Canyon Fire. And so we demobed back into Cedar City. Our base training foreman, Kenny Franz, happened to be at the base in Cedar City, so right away we did sand tables. We went over the whole thing with the folks who were at the Cedar base. Then we still had all fire season. But at the end of that fire season when we had our crew days, where all the jumpers in the Boise program were in Boise prior to folks going into non-pay status for the winter, we went over the Price Canyon Fire extensively. We did more sand tables. We actually talked about it quite a bit. It was like the focus, the topic of our crew days.
Kelly: That’s very cool and progressive. Sand table exercises were still pretty new to the fire program in 2002.
Do you remember feeling nervous when the Price Canyon Fire Investigation Team members came to interview you about what happened that day? Like, what are they going to say?
Shannon: Oh, yeah. For sure. For sure. Definitely. Because one big takeaway from Price Canyon was I did not report the shelter deployments until the next morning when I told our spotter Kenny Franz in Cedar City. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I knew it was a big deal, but not that big of a deal. But it was a big deal. If I could go back, I definitely would’ve called the IC right away and said: “Hey, we had a couple guys pull shelters.”
Because I did not immediately say something, it felt like the review team thought I was trying to hide something. But that wasn’t the case. That feeling wasn’t good.
The whole thing was a weird one too, because these guys, they didn’t really crawl into their shelters. They were in the black, and there was so much ash and they couldn’t see. There was no flame impingement, but they both had the conversation. It was a McCall guy and a Boise guy. They both said: “Hey, you know what? We carry these things, let’s pull them out.” And they were just using them to shield themselves from all this ash and smoke that would come through.
Kelly: Those guys were doing what they were trained to do. If you can improve your conditions, use the tools that you have, right?
Shannon: That’s exactly what they did. And they came out just fine.
Kelly: I’m curious what you think about the report in hindsight when you looked at it. Do you think it’s a fairly accurate depiction of what happened?
Shannon: I do think it’s fairly accurate. I haven’t looked at it in a long time, but from what I recall, it’s pretty darn accurate. We all had the same story of how fast that fire came at us. It was pretty crazy. Basically, the column collapsed. It was that downflow wind, just like a thunderstorm—that’s what happened. We had 50-60 mile-an-hour winds that pushed it right at us. And my decision was, well, both Pete Bryant and me, we were standing on that road, we just took off running.
Kelly: This is a weird question. But what was that emotion like to feel like you were running for your life?
Shannon: Oh, it’s interesting. Once Pete and I outran the initial fire, we talked about it, and we both had the same feeling. If we could have ditched our packs, we would have, but we didn’t even have time to do that. As I was running, I had my pack, I still had my tool in my hand. It went through my head, and it went through Pete’s head, too: “Boy, I wish I didn’t have this pack on.” But we didn’t even have time to take them off. We had to just go.
Kelly: When you got to a point where you could talk, did you say: “I wonder what happened to those other guys?”
Shannon: Oh yeah, for sure. When we ran down that road, there was another guy that went into the green. And I saw him from my peripheral vision as I’m running. I remember thinking, he is going to die. And the guys who were in the black, I wasn’t thinking about them at that point. Once Pete and I got to a point where we could stop, the guy that went into the green popped up onto the road. He had no pack, no helmet, no radio, and his eyes were super big. He could barely talk. And I was like, wow, he almost died. I don’t know how he survived, but he did.
Kelly: And relatively injury free, right?
Shannon: Yeah. He, somehow, had no injuries. I have no idea if the fire went over him, if he was in a ditch or something, but he survived.
Once the three of us made it down to a paved road, we got a ride with some civilians. They took us up to where an ICP was being established. We ran into a Nevada Department of Forestry crew. We asked them if they had an extra pack and helmet for the guy who had run into the green and lost his. They did. So we outfitted him back up and we went right back up to the line. We saw that some of our gear had burned. A dozer showed up, and we used that dozer and ended up putting line in all night to the Price Canyon cliff—and actually did some good.
Shannon’s Approach to Risk Management
Kelly: How would you say your approach to risk management has evolved during your career?
Shannon: I have to say I lean way more toward being safe than not. We’re always safe, but I’m even more hands off making sure we have some black somewhere or are able to bring it with us, especially in the light, flashy type of fuel that we primarily fight our fires in within the Great Basin.
I try to stand back and get that overall picture before just diving into something, or I ask other guys what they think. All these guys are highly trained and that’s a cool thing about working with a group of smokejumpers. They all have an opinion and, most of the time, they are good. I really like the input from the younger smokejumpers. They’re coming fresh off these hotshot crews and have a lot of experience. As a smokejumper, you can get isolated, especially an older guy like me. And it’s cool to get a fresh perspective from these young rookies, even though it’s their first year of smokejumping. They’ve been in fire for five, six years or more.
Kelly: That’s great to hear. As somebody who’s been a jumper since 1992, how do you instill lessons or help develop the younger folks coming up?
Shannon: I try and instill confidence in them, because we’re dealing with a couple of different things as a smokejumper. First, we are firefighters. Our main priority is to put out a small fire before it gets big. Like I said, these guys have seen a lot of fire and are probably sharper than me. I might have more seasons, but they’ve seen a ton of fire. They’re fresh from hotshot crews versus me who has been a smokejumper for 30 years.
The other huge part of our job is that we’re jumping out of an airplane with a parachute. We have to learn how to fly that. So that’s where I try to interject. I can provide help with their parachuting. I try to give them encouragement. They’re always asking me questions like: “What would you do with this type of wind?” “How could I have done this better?” That sort of thing. The fire stuff though, they have that figured out.
Wouldn’t Be Happy in an Office
Kelly: What has kept you operational all these years? So many people come in and they spend a lot of years operational and then transition into more management type of jobs within fire. What has kept you eager and interested in the operational piece?
Shannon: I like to be outside. I like all the cool places that we go. I like having to be in the top level of physical fitness. That keeps me motivated through the winter, knowing that I have to go out and be able to keep up with these young folks. I couldn’t see myself being in an office. I don’t think I would be happy that way. Also, I don’t have any of those skills. I can barely use a computer. I was born in the sixties.
Kelly: I like that you genuinely really like it. And it’s very cool to see that really positive energy anticipating the next fire persist with you after more than 30 years of solid fire operations. That’s impressive and unique.
Shannon: I appreciate that, Kelly. It’s something I’ve really enjoyed. I remember way back being a rookie writing a postcard to my parents. I said: “If I can make it through this training, I think I’ll be doing this for a long time.” Of course, I didn’t realize quite how long. A lot of guys, are like: “Oh, I’m only going to jump three years and then I’m going to move onto this and that.” I wasn’t that guy. I was like: “Boy, if I can make it through, this is what I’m going to do.”
Kelly: Over the years, I’m sure you’ve been around a lot of stories and a lot of lessons. Can you share one lesson you have learned from someone else’s good story and one story you tell others that has a good lesson?
Shannon: Let me start off with a story that I tell others. It’s a pretty basic lesson. The lesson is to expect that anything can happen at any time. In 2000 I was a Strike Team Leader of crews on the Scott Abel Fire on the Lincoln National Forest by Sacramento, New Mexico. I had been assigned two contract crews. And it was like day number nine. This fire was winding down.
It was beautiful, big ponderosa pine all around, not much going on. I had an ATV and I rode up to tie-in with the crew and said: “There are just a few smokes, guys. Get those and we’ll just be hanging out. This thing’s winding down, it’s beautiful, yada, yada, yada.” Everybody was in a good mood. I rode my ATV down to a nice lookout spot where I could see things. And I remember thinking, wow, this is so cool. An hour later, I get a call on my radio from a Crew Boss off one of the contract crews who says: “We have a guy that’s having a heart attack.”
Kelly: Oh, Geez.
Shannon: Yeah. So, the lesson is to expect anything can happen at any time. We weren’t in a dangerous situation. Everything was going well. It was perfect. And a guy has a heart attack.
Kelly: Oh my gosh. Were you able to get him out?
Shannon: Yeah. Luckily for him they had a full paramedic guy on their crew that carried nitroglycerin. So they gave him some nitro. We were able to get a truck up there. They put him in the back of the truck and they worked CPR on him. He ended up surviving.
He was an older guy, probably younger than me now. His son was also on the crew. So the whole crew obviously took it really bad. We ended up demobing them afterwards because it was pretty traumatic for them. I tell this story quite often. The lesson is simple: Anything can happen at any time.
Kelly: What about a lesson that you’ve learned from a story from somebody else?
Shannon: Man, that one’s a hard one because you hear all kinds of stuff. I did have one young smokejumper the other day tell me a story about one of his Captains on his hotshot crew who would always go out and scout line, but he would never wear gloves, and he would always roll his sleeves up. Of course, PPE use is up to each of us individually. Apparently, this guy took a fall and his hand went right into an ash pit and burned it pretty good. He was very experienced. He was a Captain and the whole bit.
And the younger smokejumper said another time, they started getting spot fires and that same Captain was trying to catch these spots. But the heat was so intense, it was burning his hands again. I thought that was kind of a funny story. The guy is a super-experienced fireman. But he’s just being stubborn and doesn’t want to wear his PPE.
Kelly: That’s a really good lesson! There’s a lot of talk about changes in culture and expectations in the newest generation of wildland firefighters. Do you see differences in trained rookie smokejumpers now versus 20 or even 30 years ago?
Shannon: I do. I think our rookies are being trained better now than they were when I came up 30 years ago—or even 20 years ago. Our rookie trainers work super hard to be in great physical shape and to make sure the rookies are, too. They get intensive parachute training.
We’re just like all the hotshots, engine crews and helitack, and everything. We’re all having the same problem trying to get more applicants because of what’s going on with housing and all that stuff. But we still try to get the best candidates. And the folks we hire, they are the best out there. And they’re getting trained by some of the best trainers that I can imagine.
Your Proudest Moment as a Wildland Firefighter?
Kelly: That’s very cool. What are some of your proudest moments as a wildland firefighter?
Shannon: It’s a little cheesy, but I was working in Florida at Big Cypress and a cold front passed through with winds blowing 40 miles-an-hour or so. And an arsonist lit a fire on state land—it was a gobbler. This small little… it wasn’t even a town; it was unincorporated. It had been evacuated. We pulled up to a single-wide trailer in our swamp buggy. They had a green yard around it. We knew we were going to have to burn around this thing.
The fire was coming, but it was still some distance away. I remember looking around the yard and I saw all these kids’ toys. I thought, “A family lives here.” They’d been evacuated. We started doing our burn and we’re having some success. The fire started to carry into the southern rough, into the pines.
I looked back over at this little sort of dumpy single-wide trailer and saw a little bit of smoke coming out the window. I thought, oh sh*t, something got in there. So I went to the front door, it was locked. Went to the back door of this trailer, it was locked. But I was able to force it a little and get the door to open. I popped into that little trailer. I noticed the same thing. All these kids’ toys, video games, dirty dishes. I could tell that these people didn’t have much beyond this trailer and its contents. I saw the source of the smoke. It was an old recliner chair. Some ember had come through the window. The chair was smoldering, just getting ready to take off. I grabbed it and threw it out into the backyard.
And, of course, that chair burned up. But I remember thinking, these people will never know how close they came to losing the little bit of stuff they did have. There were homes lost on that fire, but I saved this one. I was proud of that.
It’s cheesy, but I was at the right place at the right time.
Kelly: That’s an awesome story.
I know that becoming a smokejumper is a feat, so I’m impressed you didn’t say that’s your proudest moment—becoming a smokejumper. You had a chance to say becoming a national treasure, and you didn’t!
Shannon: I am proud of being a smokejumper but also, I have to say, coming back after my injury is something I am proud of, too. It was mentally really tough on me. I wasn’t certain if I would be able to jump again. I wondered whether I was going to have to give this up and permanently become an Air Attack or something. So, to be able to come back and get back into it, I was proud of that as well.
What’s the Biggest Challenge to Doing Your Job?
Kelly: What do you see as the biggest challenge to doing your job?
Shannon: It’s a bit of a cliche like everyone says, but you’re away from home a lot. I’ve known that from day one, and I’ve always liked the travel and going and seeing different places. But I see how hard it is on our folks that have kids. I don’t. But yeah, it takes its toll. I haven’t had a summer off since I was 18 years old. So you miss a lot of family time during fire season. But I sure like my winters.
I think the sacrifices smokejumpers and other firefighters make being away from home, not being able to see their kids grow up, is a huge challenge. And like everybody else, the pay issues create a challenge. That’s starting to change a bit, which is great. But you still have to ask if it’s worth it.
I’m really excited with this new generation. I think things will be better for them, for retirement, for pay, and the whole bit. It’s going in the right direction, which is awesome to see.
Kelly: Yeah, for sure. So you have one more full season or two more full seasons?
Shannon: I could go two more full seasons, 2024 and 2025, before I hit 57. Right now, I plan on coming back for 2024. I’m undecided on 2025.
Kelly: Whether you go one more season or two, what do you think you’ll miss the most when you retire?
Shannon: Again, it’s kind of a cliché. But I’ll miss working with all the guys and gals. That’s something special, being out in the wilderness with really cool people and enjoying mopping-up some little fire. The scenery and just the comradery, like everybody says. It’s true. That’s what I’ll really miss.
Kelly: What are you going to do fill the void?
Shannon: Well, the comradery part, that’ll be hard. But as far as getting out in the wilderness, I do plan on exploring backpacking quite a bit and seeing how well I like that. I’ll definitely need to get out into the wilderness and walk around. That’s one of my plans. One of my first backpacking trips will probably be into the Ruby Mountains, do that whole thing. Nevada is a special place for me. I’ve been coming down here for so long. It’s a neat state that a lot of people don’t actually get to see like we do as Great Basin Smokejumpers.
Kelly: We should have noted this at the beginning of the interview, you’re sitting in Ely right now, right?
Shannon: Yes, I’m in Ely, Nevada. I opened up this base on June 29th. I’ve been here ever since, except one short trip to California.
Kelly: You probably do have your favorite satellite bases, huh?
Shannon: Cedar City, Grand Junction, and Ely are the primary ones for the Boise Smokejumpers. But we also will go up to Wyoming to Lander, which is really nice as well. We’ll go to Idaho Falls, which is a nice place. But yeah, I like all of our little “out” stations.
What I like about Ely the best is it’s very quiet here. We don’t have a tanker base here. So you’re not constantly listening to the tankers fire up. It’s just very peaceful. The town of Ely is out in the middle of nowhere. There’s not a whole lot here. Since we do so much standby, I enjoy the standby in Ely better than the other bases that we go to just because it’s peaceful.
Kelly: Cool. Well, we always like to try and end on something fun. The question I ask a lot of people is just tell us about the best shift of your life, or one of them. You’ve been doing this for over 30 years. You probably have a lot of really great shifts. Tell us about one.
Shannon: That is a super hard question, Kelly—to pin one down. There’s been so many awesome shifts, as well as quite a few really bad shifts. You know what I mean? Those that completely taxed you, that hurt you, that took days to recover from. So yeah, it’s hard to pin down just one amazing shift.
There is one that stands out in my mind right now, maybe because I’m in Ely. This would have been in 2016 when I was, again, here in Ely. It was this same time of year, in September, and we jumped into the Mount Moriah Wilderness. It was beautiful. The jump spot was at 10,800 feet. The fire was at like 11,000 feet. There was big old bristlecone pine up there. Just amazing views. We were in Nevada, right near the border with Utah. The Mount Moriah Wilderness is is gorgeous. I’ve been up there several times.
I have tons of stories from places like that. But that’s one that comes to mind. It was a hunter fire. I think the hunters are up there again right now, or will be soon. So maybe we’ll get a fire up there again this fall.
Kelly: I love that after a lengthy career with more shifts on fires than most in the business, the scenery of that fire is so memorable to you. Super cool.
I really appreciate our chat today, Shannon.