Wildfire image courtesy of Carrie Bilbao, National Interagency Fire Center.
By Susan Hoffman
Contributor, EDM Digest
Wildfires can start for several reasons. For example, the cause of a major wildfire can be a lightning strike, a discarded cigarette that isn’t properly extinguished or an unattended campfire. Other causes include burning debris or a deliberate act of arson; in fact, the National Park Service states that nearly 85 percent of wildland fires in the United States are caused by humans.
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If left unattended, these wildfires can spread over thousands of acres and threaten both people and properly. Firefighting services then go into action to extinguish these blazes, traveling to the fire’s location in their vehicles and using airplanes that spray fire retardant over large areas to help put out the fire.
But what happens when a wildfire occurs in a remote area where access by road is difficult or even impossible? That is where smokejumpers come in.
Who Are Smokejumpers?
Smokejumpers are an elite group of highly trained, very experienced firefighters who parachute into remote areas to suppress wildfires. Since they travel by air, often jumping from altitudes of 3,000 feet or higher, smokejumpers can quickly reach a fire and start working to extinguish the blaze before it turns into a major threat.
Being a smokejumper is physically and mentally demanding. Smokejumpers must be physically fit; they need to carry 85 pounds of equipment as they jump from the aircraft and transport that equipment over rough, mountainous terrain. In addition, smokejumpers must use their parachuting skills to avoid injury or death resulting from colliding with other smokejumpers in midair or accidentally landing in water, in trees, on boulders, or in the fire itself.
Similarly, fighting a wildfire is stressful. While this type of firefighting is often depicted as glamorous and exciting, the reality is different.
Smokejumpers need to react quickly, think strategically and make the right decisions in a timely manner. Fast-moving wildfires can cut off escape routes and cause fatalities, which happened during the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Montana’s Helena National Forest and the 1994 South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
According to Ian Webb, Supervisory Smokejumper and Spotter for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Boise Smokejumpers of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, “Wildfires have many variables. The fuel type, the geography, the time of day and weather conditions impact the fire and how quickly it spreads. For instance, the fuel is mostly sagebrush and grass in this area, so a wildfire grows quickly.”
Smokejumping Offers Satisfying Experiences
Webb notes that being a smokejumper offers some great experiences beyond the satisfaction of saving people and property. “The lifestyle is hard to beat,” he says. “You get to work with like-minded people. There is a family atmosphere at the base; many smokejumpers have spouses and kids. There is also a lot of travel; I’ve fought fires in California, Alaska and Wyoming.”
Webb adds that the wildfires themselves provide unique experiences. Some wildfires may involve bigger groups of smokejumpers, while other fires might be a smoldering tree that only requires two smokejumpers to put it out before the flames spread. He says, “In a situation like putting out a smoldering tree, the two of you might be working in a quiet meadow where the only sound is the wind.”
What Does It Take to Become a Smokejumper?
Apart from the physical and mental demands of being a smokejumper, applicants need considerable experience and certain skills in order to be considered for a position with the BLM Boise Smokejumpers. Webb says, “We receive hundreds of applications each year. Candidates need a lot more than two fire seasons under their belts; many of our applicants have fought fires for eight to 10 years. They need to be competent, have confidence in their abilities, own up to their mistakes and be self-reliant so that they can function without a supervisor when necessary.”
Paying close attention during training is equally important. Candidates undergo a rigorous training program that helps to ensure their safety during wildfires. Webb comments, “We’ve kept our safety records immaculate, due to good training.”
Good communication skills are equally vital. During a wildfire, smokejumpers must be able to work effectively and communicate well with fellow smokejumpers and incident commanders. There is a lot of radio communication. Webb notes, “During a wildfire, you’ll have a sky full of aircraft. There’s a lot of talk on the radio.”
Webb explains that smokejumper candidates should be realistic about the demands of being a smokejumper; they should put in their time at other firefighting organizations and work their way up to a high level of expertise. “It’s important to have mental fortitude,” he says. “Being in the firefighting profession for a long time shows dedication and grit, which are qualities we seek.”
The federal government offers various positions in the smokejumping field. These jobs are available at usajobs.gov.