During the 2011 peak U.S. fire season, approximately 470 smokejumpers were on deck from June 1 to Oct. 1, with limited availability at other times of the year. Employed by the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, these smokejumpers go through rigorous training courses each year, usually during the month of May, to prepare for the onslaught of wildfires that tend to crop up during America's hot, dry summer months.
Trainees, whether neophyte or veteran, are expected to already know how to handle themselves on the ground -- only people who are already professional firefighters get considered for this job. The training mainly focuses on parachuting skills and physical conditioning, although, again, potential smokejumpers are largely expected to be in shape at the onset. Trainees must be able to perform a certain number of sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups, and complete a 3-mile (5-kilometer) hike in 90 minutes or less while carrying a 110-pound (50-kilogram) pack. The packouts are coupled with obstacle course runs, tree climbing (and descending) lessons, parachute retrieval methods and fireline digging operations to prepare trainees for the rigors of being a smokejumper.
Next, trainees have to learn everything there is to know about the actual parachuting, including care of the necessary equipment, proper aircraft procedures, correct jump techniques and methods for landing in rough terrain in understandably less-than-ideal conditions. Since wind speed and direction are often unpredictable near a fire, smokejumpers learn how to drop and interpret the descent of streamers to plan their jumps, as well as recognize the most conducive landing area.
One especially brutal part of training is done on a simulator nicknamed "The Mutilator." It's an apparatus that simulates parachute landings -- particularly, crash landings. With winds often contributing to wildfire outbreaks, it's important for smokejumpers to be able to handle any powerful gusts they encounter mid-air and still land safely. In the event something does go wrong during a jump -- or as a result of fighting a fire -- trainees also polish their basic emergency field care.
But once training is over, the real job begins. After hitting the ground and properly stockpiling their cargo, smokejumpers leap into action. Find out what happens next on the following page.