I’m a smokejumper, an initial-attack wildland firefighter who responds to wildfires by parachuting out of an aircraft into a fire.
We use aircraft that can carry 8 to 12 smokejumpers and several hours of fuel, along with tools and equipment to last 48 hours or longer. This enables us to respond quickly to an emerging incident. Once we’re on the ground, we work either independently or as a team providing a crew-style response. We are highly experienced in wildland firefighting.
As a crew supervisor with the Great Basin Smokejumpers, I’m 1 of 5 department managers. I also recruit and hire for the program. During fire season, I actively jump.
I also serve as a spotter, the mission commander of an operation. As a spotter, I sit in front with the pilot, or pilots, and coordinate by radio with dispatch, ground resources, and other aircraft over the fire. Once we’re on the scene, I move to the back of the aircraft and open the side door. I select a jump spot and determine the number of smokejumpers needed to fight the fire. After they’re on the ground, the aircraft flies at a lower level, and I throw the paracargo (supplies and equipment in boxes affixed with parachutes) from the aircraft.
We control and extinguish a fire’s spread by removing 1 of 3 ingredients it needs to burn: heat, oxygen, or fuel.
We remove heat by applying water or fire retardant, either on the ground with pumps or wildland fire engines, if available, or by air using helicopters or airplanes. Water and fire retardant also smother fires, removing oxygen. And we remove fuel by eliminating burnable vegetation with handtools, like axes and chainsaws, and with heavy equipment, like bulldozers, or by setting controlled fires.
Every morning, we check our gear for readiness. When we get the call to respond, we quickly suit up into our jump gear. We also perform a “buddy check” to inspect another smokejumper’s gear before boarding the aircraft.
En route to the fire, the spotter gives us information, including radio frequencies and the coordinates of the fire. At 5 minutes out from the incident, we do a secondary check of each other’s jump equipment. We discuss strategies for the fireline (constructed or natural fire barriers) and tactics to use on the ground. After selecting a jump spot and immediately before exiting the aircraft, we do a final check, looking at our parachute handles to confirm that they are placed correctly in the harness.
As we exit the aircraft, we focus on our immediate surroundings. It’s calming when your parachute opens because it’s generally quiet, and you have the time and space to get oriented to the mountains, trees, and landscape where you’re heading.
Once on the ground, we put our jump gear in a safe location and begin fighting the fire. The primary objective of any suppression operation is to protect life and property as well as any natural and cultural resources. We must react quickly to changing conditions and use varied strategies and tactics to control different areas of the fire. Wildfire growth is based on weather, topography, and fuel.
The terrain varies greatly, from large grass flats with few hazards to tall timber, bodies of water, boulders, or cliffs. The anticipation—of not knowing what the jump-spot terrain is like, or the behavior of the fire—adds stress to the mission. Trusting the equipment and working with other team members to identify the safest jump plan are designed to lessen most of the hazards and stress.
Also, when parachuting, wind speed and direction can change rapidly, so falling back on your parachute training is crucial.
Smokejumpers go through an intensive 5- to 6-week training that includes getting familiar with the gear, aircraft procedures, and malfunction emergency procedures. All parachute training is ground-based initially, and you need to be proficient before moving to live aircraft jumps. Other training includes parachute rigging and operation, fireline training, and tree climbing.
Every spring, smokejumpers have mandatory fire-refresher training that includes fireline tactics, lessons learned from the previous year’s accidents, and updates on fireline gear and equipment. There’s also a weeklong parachute jump refresher.
In college, I majored in natural resource conservation and spent my summers working as a firefighter in Montana after getting basic training in firefighting. After graduating from college, I moved around the west to Utah, New Mexico, and Oregon, gaining experience in various fuel types and working on different firefighting crews. I worked with smokejumpers for the first time while living in Alaska. Before that, every firefighting crew I’d worked with spoke highly of them.
The flexibility of the mission is what drew me in: Once a fire is controlled, smokejumpers move on to the next emerging incident.
Get in great physical shape. Have a year-round, 5 to 6 days per week physical training program that includes aerobics, rucking (hiking while carrying weights), running, and weight training.
If you want to become a smokejumper, be persistent. Competition for the few positions that open each year can be high.
We spend a lot of time and effort training to respond to what the fire season could bring. Not putting that training to use in periods of low fire activity can be challenging mentally. Maintaining physical fitness and looking for ways to improve equipment, training, and procedures is also challenging but helps keep us alert.
The friendship with fellow smokejumpers is second to none. I feel privileged to work with highly motivated individuals who love what they do and push each other to accomplish each mission. I may spend up to 14 days on a single fire with the same team, and doing that many times throughout the fire season is often physically and mentally straining. I sometimes wonder when the fire season will end. But when it does, I still find myself looking forward to the next fire season and working with my crew.
Patricia Tate, "Smokejumper," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 2023.