When a fire starts in a remote location, it’s up to airborne daredevils to kill it before it spreads. Smokejumpers load up into fixed-wing aircraft and dive into the hot zone. It’s quite possibly the most elite, specialized job in the entire fire service. And as a result, there’s only about 270 of them in active duty. Take a look at some facts about these upper echelon skydiving fire chasers.
- They’re the Special Forces of the fire service. The smoke jumper community only accepts the best. Candidates must be stellar wildland firefighters, and be in top physical condition and meet the height and weight requirements—you must be this tall to jump out of the airplane—and, as you might expect, there are psychological tests to determine mental stability. We can’t have these folks losing their cool in the field.
- It’s basically the most badass camping trip ever. A jumper has about five minutes to suit up in all their protective gear when the air horn calls for them. As their job calls for them to be self-sufficient and isolated, they drop with 48 hours’ worth of food and water and supplies.
- They’ve got eyes in the sky. Smoke jumpers always have a spotter on board the plane which circles above, relaying vital information about wind speed, fire activity, and terrain data.
- Well, this is awkward. In addition to all the tools, equipment, parachute, and other essential gear, all jumpers wear heavy padded clothing, just in case they land in a tree.
- Heavy duty, hardcore equipment. The most common firefighting tactic is a constructing a direct fire line with chainsaws, crosscut saws, and hand tools. This creates a fuel break to stop the spread of the fire. After the jump team contains the fire, they cool down the remaining heat by stirring hot ash with mineral soil. After all visible smokes are gone, the team gets down and dirty and feels the soil by hand to make sure there’s no chance of a rekindle.
- They’ve been at it for over 70 years. The first smoke jump was made in the summer of 1940 in Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest. The idea and concept dates back as early as the 30s when people were still thinking of creative ways to use airplanes.
- They inspired one of the most iconic Army units in history. The 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division was partially inspired by smoke jumpers. Major William C. Lee witnessed smoker jumpers training at Seeley Lake, and went on to establish the 101st, calling them a “division that will crush its enemies by falling upon them like a thunderbolt from the skies.”
- They kinda-sorta served in World War II. The Pacific Northwest states used smoke jumpers to extinguish fires caused by Japanese balloon bombs sent over on the jet stream.
- America did it first. Though the concept was pioneered in the United States, the Russian Federation also employs smoke jumpers in their expansive forest regions. We did it first, Vladimir.
- MVPs, even in the off season. When fire activity nationwide is low, smoke jumpers participate in disaster relief, emergency management, and act as advisors for other fire suppression work.
Anyone of our readers ever serve as a smoke jumper? Know anyone who has? Leave a comment below and let us know your story!