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How Smokejumpers Work


The Jumps
This photo was taken in the Gila National Forest on June 15, 1993. Small patches of fire can quickly grow out of hand.
This photo was taken in the Gila National Forest on June 15, 1993. Small patches of fire can quickly grow out of hand.
Stephen Ferry/Getty Images News/Getty Images

So when exactly is it time to call in a team of smokejumpers? It depends on the fire in question: Teams can help stage an initial attack on a fire that just broke out, run interference on a fire that's getting out-of-control, or assist overtaxed local crews when multiple fires are the issue.

Smokejumpers can also be deployed in a number of ways. While permanent bases are located throughout regions prone to wildfires, if the risk of fire is especially high, they may be pre-positioned even closer to a potential site. When they're stationed somewhere temporarily, they develop what's known as a spike base. The standard getaway time, either from a permanent base or a spike base, is generally 15 minutes from the time a call comes in, although special requests for additional items or particular skill sets can lengthen that window.

Each mission includes a spotter among the members of the smokejumper crew. Spotters must have years of experience, because the other smokejumpers rely on spotters' well-honed ability to gauge the fire and coordinate a safe and successful landing. During training, smokejumpers run through many instructive settings, so they're prepared for different scenarios, say how wind typically acts in a canyon or on the ridge of a mountain, for example, and how they need to adjust their jump accordingly. But the expertise of the spotter is still paramount, and he or she also helps gather direct visual data and manages communication efforts -- vital for triumphing over a wildfire.

Once a jump spot is selected, the smokejumpers take to the air and get to work. One thing smokejumpers often do once they land is start creating a fireline, also known as a firebreak. This may involve felling trees and clearing brush to try to stop a wildfire from spreading; sometimes they even dig trenches to stop flames in their tracks. They typically use crosscut saws and other handheld tools to accomplish this.

Whenever smokejumpers need to drop in remote locations, they also carry a couple of days' worth of food along with their other supplies. This ensures they -- and the coordinator managing the operation -- can concentrate on fighting the fire, rather than worrying about whether they'll be able to replenish frequently during the effort. Mobility, flexibility and self-sufficiency are some of the biggest assets smokejumpers offer.

When parachuting in isn't necessary, smokejumpers may also serve as backups to ground crews that are low in numbers or in need of some additional technical expertise. When fire activity is low, smokejumpers step into other positions. They might coordinate a variety of natural resource projects, such as prescribed burns and trail maintenance, or they might work as fire-safety specialists or fire-management officials. But come June, it's back in the air.

Get more information about the fascinating -- and thrilling -- world of firefighting on the next page.