On Sept. 11, 2017, an elite team of firefighters made history. They were battling a wildfire in the Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California. It was considered historic because these were no normal firefighters.
These were smokejumpers and this was the first time ever they’d been sent to fight a fire in the Channels Island National Park. The fire was first reported by a boater the morning of Sept. 11, and by about 1 p.m., the team of four was on top of the blaze after parachuting in and attacking it from the ground [source: Gabbert].
This fire was small — just 1/10 of an acre (.04 hectare) by U.S. Forest Service estimates — but smokejumpers regularly assist with intense wildfires that cover vast amounts of land. For instance, as of this update, smokejumpers are currently helping battle multiple wildfires in the Western U.S., including the massive Dixie Fire in Northern California. As of Aug. 31, 2021, it’s the second largest wildfire in California history and has burned (to date) more than 807,000 acres, according to CalFire.
Smokejumpers are men and women who specialize in fighting blazes their ground-bound peers can’t reach. When a wildfire breaks out, these elite aerial firefighting teams rapidly take to the skies and fly where others can’t travel easily, often parachuting in to combat fires on the ground in remote and inaccessible landscapes. They organize on a dime, remain completely self-sufficient for up to 72 hours, create access points for other arriving forces and provide seasoned leadership for assembling crews.
They don’t always parachute to their destinations, of course. While they’re commonly used for out-of-the-way fires, their rigorous training and special skill sets mean they’re also deployed to fight easier-to-reach fires. But when the situation does require parachuting, it’s just these select few who are called upon to undertake that perilous task.
Smokejumpers have been active in the United States since 1939, and, since then, about 5,000 people have been officially certified to jump [source: USDA]. Airplanes, aerial photography and other aviation-related technology had already been implemented for firefighting efforts in some areas of the country, but it wasn’t until 1939 that the Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project focused on developing a parachute delivery system for firefighters.
After a year of practical experimentation and program development, the first generation of smokejumpers was ready to fly, and on July 12, 1940, Earl Cooley and Rufus Robinson took the first official plunge into the proverbial frying pan. All in all, smokejumpers would parachute into nine wildfires that first year, saving approximately $30,000 in damages.
Over the years, operations gradually expanded, and in 1981, women entered training for the first time. Deanne Shulman was the first female smokejumper in the United States, and Charlotte Larson was the first female pilot in the program. A variety of planes have been employed, too, from the Stinson that flew the experimental jumps of 1939 to the DC-3, Twin Otter, Sherpa, Dornier and CASA 212 aircraft that are commonly flown today.
Not everyone can hack it in the world of smokejumpers, however, and that is perhaps demonstrated most profoundly during their annual training regime. Get ready to meet “The Mutilator” next.
Employed by the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, smokejumpers go through rigorous training courses each year, usually during the month of May, to prepare for the onslaught of wildfires that tend to crop up during America’s hot, dry summer months.
Trainees, whether novice or veteran, are expected to already know how to handle themselves on the ground — only people who are already professional firefighters get considered for this job. The training mainly focuses on parachuting skills and physical conditioning, although, again, potential smokejumpers are largely expected to be in shape at the onset.
Trainees must pass the smokejumper physical training (PT) test on day one of training. The PT test includes a certain number of sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups, and candidates must finish a 1.5-mile (2.5-kilometer) run in 11 minutes or less. Trainees must pass the test in one go-round, with 5-minute breaks between each exercise. But that is just the beginning.
One of the most demanding physical requirements of a smokejumper is carrying gear that can weigh up to 115 pounds (52 kilograms) for long distances, sometimes 10 miles (16 kilometers) or more. So candidates also must prove they can haul a 110-pound (49.8-kilogram) pack of gear 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) in less than 90 minutes.
Next, trainees have to learn everything there is to know about parachuting, including care of the necessary equipment, proper aircraft procedures, correct jump techniques and methods for landing in rough terrain in understandably less-than-ideal conditions. Since wind speed and direction are often unpredictable near a fire, smokejumpers learn how to drop and interpret the descent of streamers to plan their jumps, as well as recognize the most conducive landing area.
One especially brutal part of training is done on a simulator nicknamed “The Mutilator.” It’s an apparatus that simulates parachute landings — particularly, crash landings. With winds often contributing to wildfire outbreaks, it’s important for smokejumpers to be able to handle any powerful gusts they encounter mid-air and still land safely. In the event something does go wrong during a jump — or as a result of fighting a fire — trainees also polish their basic emergency field care.
But once training is over, the real job begins. After hitting the ground and properly stockpiling their cargo, smokejumpers leap into action.
So when exactly is it time to call in a team of smokejumpers? It depends on the fire in question: Teams can help stage an initial attack on a fire that just broke out, run interference on a fire that’s getting out-of-control or assist overtaxed local crews when multiple fires are the issue.
Smokejumpers can also be deployed in a number of ways. While permanent bases are located throughout regions prone to wildfires, if the risk of fire is especially high, they may be pre-positioned even closer to a potential site. When they’re stationed somewhere temporarily, they develop what’s known as a spike base. The standard getaway time, either from a permanent base or a spike base, is generally 15 minutes from the time a call comes in, although special requests for additional items or particular skill sets can lengthen that window.
Each mission includes a spotter among the members of the smokejumper crew. Spotters must have years of experience, because the other smokejumpers rely on spotters’ well-honed ability to gauge the fire and coordinate a safe and successful landing.
During training, smokejumpers run through many instructive settings, so they’re prepared for different scenarios, including how wind typically acts in a canyon or on the ridge of a mountain, for example, and how they need to adjust their jump accordingly. But the expertise of the spotter is still paramount, and he or she also helps gather direct visual data and manages communication efforts — all vital for extinguishing a wildfire.
Once a jump spot is selected, the smokejumpers take to the air and get to work. One thing smokejumpers often do once they land is start creating a fireline, also known as a firebreak. This may involve felling trees and clearing brush to try to stop a wildfire from spreading; sometimes they even dig trenches to stop flames in their tracks. They typically use crosscut saws and other handheld tools to accomplish this.
Whenever smokejumpers need to drop in remote locations, they also carry a couple of days’ worth of food along with their other supplies. This ensures they — and the coordinator managing the operation — can concentrate on fighting the fire, rather than worrying about whether they’ll be able to replenish frequently during the effort. Mobility, flexibility and self-sufficiency are some of the biggest assets smokejumpers offer.
When parachuting in isn’t necessary, smokejumpers may also serve as backups to ground crews that are low in numbers or in need of some additional technical expertise. When fire activity is low, smokejumpers step into other positions. They might coordinate a variety of natural resource projects, such as prescribed burns and trail maintenance, or they might work as fire-safety specialists or fire-management officials.