Diving into the Fire: The Life of a Smokejumper
Skydiving into a hot zone is sometimes the only way to access a remote area and fight a fire. It’s a dangerous job but someone has to do it before the fire spreads any further.
The people who do this are called smokejumpers. Equipped with a parachute and firefighting gear, they go in and try to control the fire until reinforcements arrive.
These smokejumpers use two types of parachutes. The Forest Service gives them the round parachute while the Bureau of land management uses the ram air type sports parachute. Aside from that, they wear heavy padded clothing because there is a strong possibility that they could land on a tree.
Smokejumpers are deployed in fixed wing aircraft because it can carry more men and equipment. Most units are stationed in places where wildfires ignite regularly like in Redding, California; Fairbanks, Alaska; Boise, Idaho; Winthrop, Washington and Redmond, Oregon.
The United States has the second largest number of smokejumpers in the world. Russia is number one with other countries like Canada having their own teams in place to handle a wildfire.
The history of smokejumpers in the US dates back to the 1930’s when someone thought of the idea of sending a group of firefighters to neutralize a threat. The first actual fire jump in history happened on July 12, 1940 and since then, other people have joined in.
Despite the seemingly dangerous nature of the job, fatalities from jumping are rare. The largest disaster involving smokejumper deaths on the job was the Mann Gulch fire blowup of 1949. Thirteen firefighters died during the blowup, twelve of them jumpers. This disaster directly led to the establishment of modern safety standards used by all wildland firefighters.
Through the years, the number of smokejumpers who were killed in active duty has been very low. The biggest one day fatality was in 1949 when out of 13 firefighters lost that day, 12 of them were smokejumpers.
Such an incident prompted the government to modernize the safety standards and fortunately, this has not happened again.
Before smokejumpers are deployed, the situation is analyzed to see if it is safe for firefighters to move in or not. If the decision is to deploy them, the smokejumpers put on their gear and head to the runway so they can be airborne in a few minutes and deployed over the area.
Smokejumpers may not get the same recognition as firefighters because they work in remote areas. But if you think about what they do, saves acres of forest land. Sometimes, these brush fires get too close to residential areas and the only way to stop it is if they use explosives to try and contain the fire.
The US currently has 270 smokejumpers all across the country. To keep these individuals prepared, they undergo refresher training which includes aircraft exiting procedures, emergency procedures, parachute landing rolls, parachute maneuvering, parachute and cargo retrieval, timber let-down procedures and tree climbing.
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In some of the bases all across the country, they now use virtual reality simulators to train the smokejumpers.
This just goes to show that skydiving is not only an extreme sport or only used by military for incursions. We can also use this to fight fires that can ignite at any time. We just have to rapidly deploy the necessary manpower to handle the situation.
Written by Bobbie McKee