Smokejumpers: They're not your grandma's firefighter...though they have been around awhile.

Lighting a backfire
Lighting a backfireCourtesy LouAngeli2008

As fires continue to rage in the forests of California, I thought I would introduce you to some of the people trying to control them. Smokejumpers are the logical people to start with as they are usually the first on the ground.

Smokejumpers are the elite forces of the US forestry department. Many fires begin in locations inaccessible to the standard means of transportation (trucks, helicopters, or by foot). These firefighters arrive by plane and parachute into remote areas. Often their landing site is the top of a tree or a boulder field. Their kevlar suits provide some protection but their skill set includes tree climbing, practiced falling and general hardiness.

In the beginning, jumpers were required to be unmarried without dependents. They had to be a bit reckless to be able to agree to jump out of a plane into a fire area! Despite the inherent danger of jumping, there have been relatively few fatalities in their long history. Jumping began in the late 1930s as flight technology and airplanes became more sophisticated. During the war, many of the jumpers were conscientious objectors to WWII. In 1981 the first women were allowed into the program. Today there are 9 active bases in the West but they serve fires from Alaska to the North East.

The physical requirements... 7 pull ups, 25 push-ups, 45 sit-ups, and a 1.5 mile run completed in under 11 minutes---all done in one session with a 5 minute break between each activity. So, I am pretty much disqualified right off the bat with the pull ups and even if I were to manage, the running would definitely eliminate me. I view running as a self destructive behavior (who would put themselves through that? sorry El). You must also be mentally and emotionally stable--that is a requirement! A smokejumper’s pack often weighs upwards of 100 pounds...and you have no ride out, you must hike or hitchhike in (after landing) and out of the fire. To see a complete list of physical requirements (including height and weight) check out the West Yellowstone smokejumper website.

What they do : After landing and recovering their gear (which is dropped from the plane in (hopefully) a relatively similar location to where they land) the crew sets out towards the fire. They carry no water save for their thermoses. They control the fire by either creating a fireline/firebreak, a swath of land around the edge of the fire cleared of any brush or fuel that could feed the fire, or they light a backfire . Backfires act much like a fireline/firebreak in that they burn towards the oncoming fire. By doing so, they remove the fuel the fire needs to continue burning. Only if the jumpers are unable to contain the fire are reinforcements called to the scene. Jumpers direct helicopters to drop water on hot spots and systematically work their way through the burn site feeling the ground to make sure that there will be no flare-ups. They can leave when the fire is controlled or fresh firefighters take-over, often times many hours after they first jumped from the plane.

Be sure to check out the links below. Jumpers work from June-Oct so those of you looking for adventure with an extremely selective and tight-knit group, smokejumping could be for you.


Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

"7 pull ups, 25 push-ups, 45 sit-ups, and a 1.5 mile run completed in under 11 minutes"
I think I could do that! And I fit the size requirements!

Except, you know, I'm a total coward. And all that smoke would make me sneeze. I'll stick to kool-aid and television, I guess.

posted on Tue, 07/08/2008 - 3:14pm
Corrin's picture
Corrin says:

Haha, Im deffinately disqualified for it too!
maybe i could do the mile..but not the pull-ups.
Its great that they have this group. It is really helping out with the fire and everything. Im glad people do this. They are saving lives of people, animals and the plant life. Its great.

posted on Mon, 12/08/2008 - 12:02pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Smokejumpers are even today issued one of my favorite handtools: the pulaski.

I probably can't do 7 pull ups, 25 push ups, 45 sit ups, and a 1.5 mile run in under 11 minutes, but I would definitely feel much tougher if I carried one of those around!

posted on Tue, 07/08/2008 - 3:47pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I think I would attack the fire directly with my pulaski.

Also, I take back what I said about being able to do all those exercises. Maybe with some training...but even then, I'd probably be crying too much for the instructor to pass me.

posted on Tue, 07/08/2008 - 4:03pm
bryan kennedy's picture

Here's a website that sells the Pulaski and features a picture. The wikipedia description left me hankering for a visual.

The Pulaski was invented* by Edward C. Pulaski a forest ranger who saved 45 men during the Great Idaho fire of 1910. Interestingly, he saved the men by leading them into a mine and threatening to shoot anyone who tried to escape.

* - there is some debate as to whether Pulaski invented the tool or just perfected and popularized a common tool of the time.

posted on Tue, 07/08/2008 - 6:52pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

yah right nobody can do that but i know a guy who can run the mile in 5 mins

posted on Wed, 07/09/2008 - 9:15am
ES's picture
ES says:

You do not have to perform all of the exercises in under 11 minutes, just the run. And yes, it is possible to do everything--if you are in very good shape! The point is to select only the most fit.

posted on Wed, 07/09/2008 - 10:05am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Rookie smokejumpers make about $12/hour. And they're not necessarily employed year-round. It's a wicked cool job, for sure, but for that money and those risks, maybe I'd rather be a ski bunny or a river guide...As long as I can carry a Pulaski!

posted on Tue, 07/08/2008 - 4:12pm
ES's picture
ES says:

I think I would have to go with the drip torch as my tool of choice. The pulaski is pretty cool but the pyro in me loves the idea of sanctioned burning.

posted on Wed, 07/09/2008 - 8:25am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

When I worked for a state park, there were drip torches all over the place. But I wasn't cool enough to use them.
They did give me a bright yellow, flame-retardant Devo suit. That was pretty cool. I wasn't important enough to burn anything, but at least they didn't want me to get burned either.

posted on Wed, 07/09/2008 - 10:01am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

CNN's iReporters have been sending in photos of the California wildfires. Doesn't directly relate to smokejumpers, but pretty darn amazing...

posted on Wed, 07/09/2008 - 8:16pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

And firefighters are stretched so thin in California that many of the blazes are being fought by volunteers.

posted on Thu, 07/10/2008 - 9:50am
Omar's picture
Omar says:

There are two different types of smokejumpers: Bureau of Land Managment and US Forest Service. BLM jumps Ram Air parachutes and the Forest Service jumps round parachutes. The standards mentioned above are for the Forest Service. The BLM standards are as follows: 10 pullups, 25 push ups, 60 situps and 1.5 miles under 9:30. There's also the 110 pound pack test: 3 miles in under 90 minutes. These are considered the minimums. And we definitely carry more than a "thermos of water."

posted on Thu, 08/07/2008 - 11:02am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

a water bacpac? i wod cary a fome bac pac to smother the flames copy ritse my ida

posted on Thu, 02/19/2009 - 10:42am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Like Omar said there those are the "minimum requirements" most jumpers Forest Service and BLM alike try to max out on the numbers. The average at our base is about 15-20 pull ups, 100 sit ups, about 60 push ups, and most of the crew run the mile and a half in under 9 minutes. Generally if a person shows up and can only do the minimum requirements of calistentics, they will not make it through the first week of the 5 week training program. The rookie training is very physically demanding and when you are finished it was the best thing that you never want to do again. However, the result is the best job in the world.

posted on Mon, 07/27/2009 - 10:01pm
SGT's picture
SGT says:

So basically I am wondered what is the excat pay??? becuz I called one place and they start out as a GS-5 which is crap!!! People who clean bathrooms make more than that. My point is I think the job is awsome, yet the money is not there. My friend who is going to school for this, told me he is planning on making 80,000 for only a few months work, but planning on being on call 24.7 ... I am in the Army and I was planning on doing this after getting home from overseas. I served hard long hours to make crap, I just want a job where I can work hard and get paid what I deserve ( hence why i think smokejumping would be kewl and rewarding job )

posted on Mon, 04/05/2010 - 12:52pm

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