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Insider's Look at Smokejumping

Insider's Look at Smokejumping

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Bruce L. Nelson w/introduction by

Smokejumpers are highly trained wildfire firefighters deployed to remote locations. They are parachuted in to to secure fires otherwise unreachable by local forces. By making use of high-altitude aircraft, smokejumpers are able to reach fires faster, cheaper, and better equipped than any road-bound vehicle.

Because smokejumping forces are limited to small teams, most of us don’t get a chance to see what these special forces battle. “Buck” Nelson, a 20-year smokejumping veteran, gives us an insider look into the smokejumping world…

Commonly Asked Questions…

I have spent my smokejumper years at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) base in Fairbanks, Alaska. There is one other BLM smokejumper base in Boise, Idaho. The rest of the bases are Forest Service bases, and they are located in Winthrop, Washington; Redding, California; Redmond, Oregon; McCall, Idaho; Grangeville, Idaho, Missoula, Montana; and West Yellowstone, Montana. During fire season, fire dispatch will send these jumpers to whatever region they are most needed. Every fire season temporary smokejumper bases are set up in such places as Silver City, New Mexico; Grand Junction, Colorado; and LaGrande, Oregon.

There are about 400 smokejumpers nationwide. There are also smokejumpers in Russia, and, off and on, in Canada.

Smokejumper Education and Gear

Smokejumper training is intensive and consists of lots of physical fitness (PT) training as well as training in parachuting. The washout rate is often high, mostly due to injuries or failure to keep up in PT. There is a lot of competition to get into smokejumper training. Experience in fighting wildfires is a must, usually two or more years, and previous service on one of the elite “hotshot crews” increases a candidates chances of being selected.

Answers to commonly asked questions:

Isn’t it dangerous landing in a fire?
We land close to, not in, the fire. (at least that’s the plan, it’s not uncommon to land in smoldering areas.)

What happens if your parachute doesn’t open?
We use our reserve parachutes. Since 1940, only four smokejumpers have died during a parachute jump, a remarkable safety record.

What do you eat?
It depends on the jump base, but common foods include power bars, canned fruit, beef jerky, nuts, MREs (military Meals Ready to Eat), candy bars, small cans of tuna or chicken or ham, freeze-dried meals, ramen, energy drink mixes, canned chili, condensed soup, etc. Often the smokejumpers get to choose what goes into the boxes, so as tastes change, so do the box contents.

Want more info?
Check out a few smokejumping videos…

Video: Firefighter Heli Rappelling
in the Tahoe National Forest

Video: Helitack Fitness Test

Take a Quiz: “Could You Be a Smokejumper?”

More videos…