If a building catches on fire in your town, brave firefighters most likely drive a fire truck to the scene to fight the fire. But what about wilderness wildfires? Have you ever wondered how humongous wildfires in remote wilderness areas are put out?
Some forests and wilderness areas are far away from civilization. What happens if a fire starts in a forest and the nearest town is hundreds of miles away? What if there are no roads that firefighters could use to drive a fire truck to the scene?
These are some of the concerns that led to the invention of smokejumping over 70 years ago. Smokejumpers are wilderness firefighters who jump out of airplanes and parachute into remote areas to fight wildfires. Their job is considered one of the most dangerous in the world.
T.V. Pearson, a U.S. Forest Service Intermountain Regional Forester, first proposed the idea of smokejumping in 1934. He believed the best way to quickly attack remote fires was to fly firefighters to a position near the fire. Then they could parachute in and be ready to fight a fire without unnecessary hiking and difficult travel through rugged terrain.
Smokejumping experiments began in 1939 in Washington’s Methow Valley. Parachutists jumped into several different types of forests and rugged terrain to prove that it could be done.
The following year, permanent smokejumping operations were established in Winthrop, Washington, and Ninemile Camp, Montana. On July 12, 1940, Rufus Robinson and Earl Cooley made the first actual fire jump at Rock Pillar near Marten Creek in Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest.
Today, well-trained smokejumpers are able to reach wildfires in extremely remote areas shortly after ignition. Reaching fires before they get too big enables smokejumpers to fight them while they’re still manageable — and before they become a danger to the public.
The United States isn’t the only country that uses smokejumpers. Smokejumpers are also used by the Russian Federation, Mongolia and Canada. In fact, the Russian Federation employs more smokejumpers (several thousand) than any other country.
After airplanes drop smokejumpers near a fire, firefighting supplies and food and water are then dropped by parachute into the same areas. Smokejumpers use these supplies to set up temporary camps they’ll live in for the next few days while they fight a wildfire.
Hundreds of highly-trained smokejumpers work out of U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management smokejumper bases in Alaska, Idaho, California, Montana, Washington and Oregon. They’re considered a national resource, though. Smokejumpers are often flown all around the country to help fight wildfires in remote areas.
From jumping out of airplanes to parachuting into dense forests to fighting wildfires, smokejumpers must be in excellent physical and mental condition. The best smokejumpers tend to be highly-motivated people in great shape who can think independently and react rapidly to situations that change quickly.
Due to their intense and specialized training, smokejumpers tend to maintain a safety record comparable to that of ground-based wilderness firefighters. Smokejumpers take extra precautions that make injuries infrequent and fatalities rare.