Smokejumpers are firefighters who parachute into hard-to-reach areas to fight fires. The smokejumper shown here is taking part in a training operation.
Photograph by J. Baylor Roberts
Smokejumpers are skydiving firefighters. When lightning (or a careless camper) sparks a wildfire in a remote, roadless place, smokejumpers parachute in as the first line of defense to fight the fire.
A Crazy Idea Takes Flight
T. V. Pearson, a United States Forest Service employee, was the first to suggest that firefighters could parachute in to attack remote wildfires back in 1934. After tests showed smokejumpers could make a difference, the first official jump on an active fire took place in 1940.
Today, the U.S. Forest Service has seven smokejumping crews stationed in the western states where wildfires most often occur. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has two additional crews in Idaho and Alaska. If the risk of fire is high in a certain location, smokejumpers may relocate to a temporary “spike base,” which is closer to the high-risk area—that way, they can get there fast if fire breaks out.
In all, about 400 smokejumpers work for the U.S. government. A few other nations with expansive forests, like Russia, also have smokejumping programs.
It Takes Training
To get hired as a smokejumper, one must already have experience fighting wildfires on the ground. Rookies need to already know how to use wildfire-fighting tools, be in peak physical condition, and be able to stay calm under severe stress.
During spring training, smokejumpers undertake physical conditioning and must pass a fitness test. One important requirement: smokejumpers must be able carry a 50-kilogram (110-pound) pack for 4.8 kilometers (three miles) in 90 minutes or less.
There is also jump training, which includes practicing safe landings and learning about parachute maneuvering. To practice parachuting skills, smokejumpers spend time in a landing simulator nicknamed the “Mutilator” that drops them (on a cable) from high in the air, so they can learn how to drop, roll, and get up unhurt.
Smokejumpers also learn about emergency medical care and become expert tailors, since they are responsible for maintaining their own parachutes, gear bags, and jumpsuits.
Boots on the Ground
When the siren sounds, smokejumpers gather their gear and jump on a plane. A designated “spotter,” (a highly experienced smokejumper) scans the ground to find a safe place to drop.
After the smokejumping team lands near the fire, the crew in the aircraft above them drops supplies that also float down by parachute. Besides firefighting tools, smokejumpers need food, water, and other supplies so they can work without further support for up to three days.
To stop a fire when there are no fire hydrants or firetrucks to supply water, smokejumpers create a “firebreak”—a zone that interrupts the fire’s fuel source—by felling trees, cutting brush, and digging long trenches in the ground ahead of the direction the fire is traveling. The smokejumper slang for this process is “punching line.” This process stops the fire in its tracks, preventing it from spreading and causing more damage.
barrier of cleared or plowed land intended to check a forest or grass fire.
person who works to control and put out fires.
device which allows a person to glide down safely from a great elevation.
device that lets the operator experience, under controlled conditions, things that are likely to occur in real life.
activity that involves jumping from a plane and using a parachute to land safely on the ground.
wildland firefighter who parachutes into remote locations to start putting out fires using simple hand tools.
uncontrolled fire that happens in a rural or sparsely populated area.