The attack is a well-choreographed scenario. Aircraft can hold anywhere from eight to 16 jumpers, a ‘spotter’ who stays with the plane, the pilot and provisions to make the jumpers self-sufficient for 72 hours. The spotter is responsible for the safe release of the jumpers. Once the jumpers have landed, the aircraft will circle around and drop their cargo by parachute from just above treetop height. The spotter also is responsible for communicating essential information about the wind, fire activity and the terrain to the jumpers, the pilot and to dispatch centers.
“Jumping from a plane is fun, don’t get me wrong,” said Forest Service smokejumper Colby Jackson. “But it is the people we interact with that makes this job so great.”
Jackson has been a smokejumper for the past 10 years, currently working out of the Missoula, Mont., smokejumper base. Prior to that, he was on a hotshot crew and has had extensive wildland fire management experience.
“One thing is certain,” Jackson said. “We definitely learn something new from every experience we encounter.”
Smokejumpers must be in top physical condition. They oftentimes carry more than 110 pounds on their backs when they are packing out from the fire.
Training for smokejumpers includes parachute maneuvering and emergency procedures, landing rolls, safe aircraft exiting, and you guessed it – tree climbing. Some training sites even have ‘virtual reality’ parachute jump simulators that provide on the ground practice.
“When people ask me what it takes to be a smokejumper, I say if you like the outdoors, you like adventure, you like fire, you are in good shape and you like to put in a hard day’s work, this job is for you,” said Jackson. “But be prepared, our assignments can last for 14 days in remote areas in some very challenging conditions.”
More than 270 smokejumpers are working from Forest Service bases in California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.