When you think about the emergency responders who devote themselves to fighting wildfires, there are few that risk more than smokejumpers. In addition to being exposed to potentially hazardous concentrations of pollutants that put them at increased risk for lung disease, these elite firefighters are trained to quickly respond to a wildfire threat by parachuting into hot zones. This is particularly important for fighting fires that are in remote and isolated areas, far from roads and access to emergency vehicles. These brave individuals then spend the next 72 hours trying to stop the fire spread before it reaches residential areas and clear paths to allow ground crews to join them.
How it Works
Once the jumpers are on the ground, planes circle and drop supplies, food and water nearby. Many times, the parachutes can get caught in trees, so it is important for all smokejumpers to be trained in tree climbing so they can retrieve the packages.
Without access to fire hydrants or water hoses, jumpers instead focus on creating a “firebreak” in a zone that interrupts the fire’s source of fuel. They do this by using chainsaws and pulaskis (a tool that is a combination of a hoe and an axe) to remove trees and bushes and dig trenches. This process can slow the spread until the groundcrew arrives and finishes the fire off.
How Jumping Began
It was U.S. Forest Service employee T.V. Pearson who first suggested that skydiving firefighters may be able to make a difference in the fight against wildfires. But it took about five years for the idea to catch on. The smokejumpers program officially began in 1939 and became fully operational by July 1940, when Rufus Robinson and Earl Cooley made the first jumps in the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho. Eight more fires were jumped in the Northwest before the 1940 fire season ended.
Since then, more than 2,500 fires have had aerial smokejumper teams’ part of the wildfire team. Today about 500 smokejumpers work out of the seven U.S. Forest Service (USFS) bases and two Bureau of Land Management (BLM) bases.
Though the job is considered one of the most dangerous in the world, the extensive training has yielded good results, with very infrequent fatalities and jump injuries. Smokejumpers start their careers fighting wildfires on the ground. Rookie smokejumpers are put through rigorous training that is both physically and mentally demanding. They need to become experts in aircraft, parachuting, tree climbing, aerially delivered cargo, tree cutting, parachute equipment manufacturing and prescribed burns.
To be allowed in the field, they need to pass a physical fitness test set by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. The test requires them to pack out 110 pounds (50 kg) for three miles (4.8 km) within 90 minutes; run 1.5 miles (2.4 km) in 11 or fewer minutes; 25 push-ups in 60 seconds; 45 sit-ups in 60 seconds; and seven pull-ups.
The Wildfire Problem
Since 1983, the National Interagency Fire Center has reported an average of about 70,000 wildfires each year. Fueled by changing climate patterns, wildfire season has become longer and more destructive throughout the western U.S. As wildfires becoming more prevalent, the work that firefighters and smokejumpers do is more important than ever. However, there are things that everyone can do to prepare for wildfire season. Learn more about how we are all affected, creating a clean room, and other ways to protect yourself on lung.org/wildfires.
Blog last updated: May 18, 2023