Some say you have to be crazy to jump out of an airplane into a forest fire, but smokejumpers can't wait for the next fire call
| Smokejumping was first proposed in 1934 by T.V. Pearson, the Forest
Service Intermountain Regional Forester, as a means to quickly provide
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 Region, and the first fire jump was made in
1940 on Idaho's Nez Perce National Forest in the Northern Region. In
1981, the first woman smokejumper in the nation successfully completed
the training program at the McCall Smokejumper Base in Idaho.
Today, Smokejumpers are a national resource. Jumpers travel all over the country, including Alaska, to provide highly-trained, experienced firefighters and leadership for quick initial attack on wildland fires in remote areas. Fire fighting tools, food and water are dropped by parachute to the firefighters after they land near the fire, making them self-sufficient for the first 48 hours. Smokejumpers work from about June 1 through October.
Over 270 smokejumpers are working from Forest Service smokejumper 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.
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.
Smokejumper duties can be hazardous and extremely arduous. They must have extensive previous 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 some height, weight and health requirements.
During the spring training period for new smokejumpers, and 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.
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 fuels management projects, construction and maintenance of facilities, or trail maintenance. Their expertise is also used for assignments such as Remote Automated Weather Station coordinators, Fire Safety Specialists, Fire Management Officer positions on National Forests, technical writers and work with other agencies, such as the APHIS project - an effort to control invasions of long-horned beetles in Chicago and New York. Assignments, activities and statistics are outlined in the annual National Smokejumper Report. Professional conduct on these projects is evaluated, along with performance on fire related activities.
Smokejumpers are evolving to safely meet the challenges of the current fire environment. They are branching out to assist in managing America's natural resources. Smokejumper training and skills, excellent mobility, and a Safety First attitude will keep the program thriving in decades to come.