When a wildfire erupts in the rugged backcountry of the American West, getting firefighters on the scene as quickly as possible can make the difference between a minor problem and a major catastrophe. The men and women of the U.S. Forest Service Smokejumpers are specially trained to parachute into the fire zone, carrying everything they need to battle the blaze on their backs.
Smokejumping was first proposed in 1934 as a means to quickly provide the initial attack on forest fires. By parachuting in, self-sufficient firefighters could arrive fresh and ready for the strenuous work of fighting fires in rugged terrain. The smokejumper program began in 1939 as an experiment in the Pacific Northwest, and the first fire jump was made in 1940 on Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest.
Today, smokejumpers are a national resource. Typical jump-country includes most of the western United States from Alaska to New Mexico and from California to Wyoming. Jumpers travel all over the country to provide highly-trained, experienced firefighters and leadership for quick initial attack on wildland fires in remote areas.
Tools, food, and water are dropped by parachute to the firefighters after they land near the blaze, making them self-sufficient for the first 48 hours. The smokejumpers’ work season usually runs from June 1 through October.
Smokejumpers work from Forest Service bases located in McCall and Grangeville, Idaho; Redding, California; West Yellowstone and Missoula, Montana; Winthrop, Washington; and Redmond, Oregon. There are also two Bureau of Land Management smokejumper bases – one in Boise, Idaho and the other in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Visitors to the Smokejumper Visitor Center in Missoula, Montana have the opportunity to learn about the dangerous job the smokejumpers do, how they are trained, and the history of the smokejumper program. Visitors can tour a small museum with displays on wildfires and the smokejumpers, go inside a replica of a 1930s lookout tower, then take a guided tour of the smokejumper facility, including the parachute rigging room and out to the flight line to climb aboard an airplane specially outfitted to carry the smokejumpers and their gear to the fire scene. Tours are free and are available five times a day.
Smokejumper duties can be hazardous and physically demanding. They must have at least two years experience in wildland firefighting, and be skilled in using the tools of the trade. Smokejumpers must be in excellent physical condition and possess a high degree of emotional stability and mental alertness. There are also height, weight, and health requirements.
During the spring training period for new smokejumpers, and annual refresher training for experienced smokejumpers, they practice the basics of their craft such as aircraft exiting procedures, parachute maneuvering and emergency procedures, parachute landing rolls, timber let-down procedures, parachute and cargo retrieval, and tree climbing. Some training sites even have “virtual reality” parachute jump simulators to provide on-the-ground practice, with an experienced smokejumper at the computer.
During their initial training period, trainees cut fire lines for fourteen hours a day, and shoulder 110 pound packs on strenuous three mile hikes. After a week of this intense workout, they enter parachute ground school, which consists of half days of simulated jumping, followed by afternoon studies. It takes a minimum of seven practice jumps before a jumper can parachute into a real fire. Though their work on the ground is hazardous, the actual parachuting is rather routine, and safeguards built into the program provide for maximum safety. Between 1939 and 1991, with more than 350,000 jumps completed, only three jumps resulted in fatalities.
The single most devastating loss to the Forest Service firefighting program occurred at the Mann Gulch Fire on August 5, 1949, when twelve smokejumpers and a Forest Service fireguard were killed on the ground when the fire overtook their position. Visitors to the Smokejumper Visitor Center will see exhibits on the Mann Gulch fire and the National Smokejumper Memorial, which honors the victims of Mann Gulch.
After training is complete, and during periods of fire inactivity, smokejumpers are assigned to various natural resource projects away from the base. These may include brush piling, prescribed burning, and other forest management projects, construction and maintenance of facilities, or trail maintenance. Jumpers are also used as tree climbers in New York and Chicago as well as other areas of the country for a variety of reasons from insect detection to seed cone picking.
While on duty at their jump base, daily work may include packing cargo boxes for fires, checking and packing parachutes, maintenance and manufacturing of equipment, and other miscellaneous jobs.
To meet the physical demands of their job, all smokejumpers are required to work out up to 1½ hours a day, depending on the time available during the season. The Missoula Smokejumper base facilities include a weight room, aerobic workout room, and a two mile running course.
When a fire is spotted, there is no time to waste. When a call comes from the dispatch office, smokejumpers immediately begin to suit up as the spotter, a smokejumper supervisor who will serve as jumpmaster on the flight, plots the fire’s location on the map. The jumpers board the aircraft, which has been preloaded with firefighting cargo, and within ten minutes after receiving the call, the aircraft taxis to the runway for take-off.
A typical jumper fire can vary in size and is usually located in mountainous terrain far from roads or easy access. Depending on the number and size of fires, two to sixteen smokejumpers suit up quickly, load the airplane and fly to the fire. A “spotter” selects a safe jump zone, judges the wind, and the jumpers exit the aircraft two at a time.
After jumpers parachute to the ground and cargo boxes are dropped with tools, food, and equipment, the jumpers then bring the fire under control and perform mop-up operations. Smokejumpers remain on the fire until it is declared out or the host unit makes the decision to release them. During this time the jumpers are self-sufficient and can be resupplied by air from the jumper unit.
Once mop-up is completed or the jumpers are released, all the jump gear and equipment, weighing roughly 100 pounds, is either slung out via helicopter, packed out on mules, or carried out by the jumpers to the nearest road.
The Ford Trimotor was the first official Forest Service jumpship, and was used from the early 1940s to the 1960s. It could carry up to six jumpers, and flew very slowly, allowing for safe jump exits and a good view of the terrain below. Today jump aircraft commonly used in smokejumper operations include turbine engine DC-3s and Twin Otters. For safety, there is always a spotter on board communicating essential information about the wind, fire activity, and terrain to the pilot and the jumpers.
The Missoula Smokejumper Base, located at the Aerial Fire Depot at Missoula International Airport, is the largest active smokejumper base in the nation. Currently 85 smokejumpers, consisting of men and women from many walks of life, work at the base. Ranging in age from early 20s to 50s, these are all dedicated and professional individuals who are highly-trained and experienced firefighters.
The Smokejumper Visitor Center is located at 5765 West Broadway in Missoula and is open daily in the summer from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the winter, please call (406) 329-4934 two days before your visit for an appointment and reservations.
Today is your last chance to enter our Free Drawing for an audiobook of PIRATE TRIALS: The Three Pirates, book four in my friend Ken Rossignol’s Famous Murderous Pirate series. To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn this evening.
Thought For The Day – Rock bottom will teach you lessons that mountain tops never will.