In 2001, smokejumpers in Washington State trained earlier than normal due to predictions of a bad fire season.

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After igniting in late May 2011, the Wallow Fire tore across large swathes of Arizona and New Mexico, scorching hundreds of thousands of acres. More than a month later, firefighters were still battling the blaze, which at that point, was the largest in Arizona history [source: New York Times].

More than 4,000 firefighters dedicated their efforts to fighting that particular wildfire, and they can all be deemed heroes for their tireless efforts. But a few took the hallmark bravery and daring of the firefighting profession to a whole other level. We're referring, of course, to smokejumpers.

Smokejumpers are men and women who specialize in fighting blazes their ground-bound peers can't reach. When a wildfire breaks out, these elite aerial firefighting teams rapidly take to the skies and fly where others can't travel easily, often parachuting in to combat fires on the ground in remote and inaccessible landscapes. They organize on a dime, remain completely self-sufficient for up to 72 hours, create access points for other arriving forces and provide seasoned leadership for assembling crews.

They don't always parachute to their destinations, of course. While they're commonly used for out-of-the-way fires, their rigorous training and special skill sets mean they're also deployed to fight easier-to-reach fires. But when the situation does require parachuting, it's just these select few who are called upon to undertake that perilous task.

Read more about how smokejumpers got their start on the next page.