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These heroic smokejumper crews leap toward danger to stop wildfires

Smokejumper crews leap from airplanes to confront wildfires from the sky, encountering danger before even reaching the flames.
These heroic smokejumper crews leap toward danger to stop wildfires
Posted at 4:48 PM, Oct 02, 2023

Big wildfires like the York fire in California and the blaze in Lahaina, Hawaii, have been big news stories recently. But there are many more fires that never make the headlines, and that's sometimes due to the quick-reacting smokejumper crews.

Some 300 men and women firefighters for the U.S. Forest Service are smokejumpers, meaning they leap out of airplanes toward these wildfires.

"It takes a village," said Daniel Hottle of the U.S. Forest Service, northern region. "As far as the Forest Service and the Wildland Firefighting community goes, it takes planners, it takes environmental planners, it takes fire managers to look at a landscape and find out exactly what it needs. And then it boils down, all the way down, to the individual firefighter, so smokejumpers play a big role in that."

The Forest Service started the smokejumper program in 1939 to protect timber. Today, the U.S. Forest Service operates out of seven bases in the West, including Missoula, Montana, where the Associated Press was recently allowed an inside look.

"Smokejumping was created to be able to insert wildland firefighters into areas of the forest that are remote and either unable to be accessed by foot or vehicle or would be untimely to do so. So let's say there's lightning that comes through the area and there's remote wildfires, we can get there quickly," said smokejumper Madison Whittemore.

Most smokejumpers are between the ages of 20 and 40, though some are in their 50s.

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Hundreds apply every year for only a few slots. Rookies must have at least two years of firefighting experience. 

Their jumpsuits are made of Kevlar to protect them from being scraped by trees and brush, and under the suits are pants and shirts made of flame-resistant Nomex. 

Their firefighting tools and food and water are dropped after they land, enough for 48 hours.

"When we initially fly to the fire, we are looking at how we can safely get in, but we're also already looking at potential ways for us to get out," said smokejumper Steven Gerard. "If the fire stays at the same footprint that it is, potentially we can walk that ridge out to a road that maybe we saw, or there's a river down at the bottom. Can a jet boat get to us? Is the jump spot feasible to get a helicopter in to pick us up?"

Though some may think smokejumping is all chills and thrills, much of their time is actually spent preparing for jumps — and, of course, there's the danger.

According to the National Smokejumper Association, of the more than 6,000 parachutists in the program's history, at least 30 have been killed in the line of duty.

And each August, the Forest Service remembers the 12 smokejumpers and a local firefighter killed in 1949 battling Montana's Mann-Gulch fire.


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