SmokejumperCredit: Smokejumper VisitorS Center

 

One of the many fire fighter jobs is that of firefighters who parachute to get to fires (smokejumpers). A qualification for the fire jumpers is a minimum of 2 years of wildland fire fighting experience. The term wildland means an undeveloped, uninhabited area, like a national forest. These brave souls usually work from June through October which is the typical fire season in the U.S. Around 100,000 wildland fires keep them busy.

They are highly skilled, trained men and women who become airborne fire fighters. They must have great physical endurance and mental alertness to control fires, save forests, save lives, save homes, and be a safe member of the crew because the crews safety is everyone's concern.
Endurance tests are part of the 6 week training program. One must be able to; haul gear and equipment up to 110 lbs, learn how to exit a plane, learn how to use a parachute (practice jumps included), work under pressure, do what is expected, know what to do if land in a tree or in water, and at times serve as a fire manager (let the fire burn without getting out of control). Many of those skills must be performed in a short timed period for the endurance test. Of course there is much more knowledge and detail to the training than I have mentioned.

Part of the physical demand is because landings aren't always smooth. Picture jumping out of a plane, your parachute releases fine and you are headed for your jump spot. This term means the selected site where the smokejumpers will land. All seems well until the wind shifts, and, oops, you land poorly. Broken bones, unconsciousness, and long exposure to heat with limited supplies could be in your future. If you are in top physical fitness you are more likely to handle the possible land on unexpected terrain better. During off season smokejumpers continue training and take refresher courses, too.

A wildland firefighter outfit (the jumpsuit) is state-of-the-art fire resistant material that is heavily padded in the hips, knees, ribs, shoulders, and back areas for protection from rocks, twigs, and branches when landing. It covers a yellow shirt and green pants (also made of fire resistant material). The yellow shirt is colored so to have better visibility amidst the smoke. A hard hat with a headlamp, work gloves, a personal gear (PG) bag, fire retardant leather boots and a kerchief are also part of the outfit. A parachute harness goes over the jumpsuit. There are two parachutes - one is worn over the chest (the emergency parachute) and the main one is worn over the back. Usually a smokejumper exits the plane with about 80 extra pounds with the gear and suit weight.


Who fiForest FireImageCredit: Smokejumper VisitorS Centergures out where the jumpers should land? Why, the spotter, of course. That would be the smokejumper supervisor who plots the fire location on a map and helps select the jump spot site. The spotter knows it is important to know where the fire has begun so he and the crew boss (leader of the smokejumpers) can develop a strategy to attack the fire. They can survey the fire from the plane to collect helpful information for when they land. Once the jump spot is chosen the spotter tosses weighted paper streamers out of the airplane. This helps the crew to know the wind speed and direction over the jump spot.
The plane circles the jump spot while the spotter and crew leader radio the dispatcher. It is crucial to keep in touch in case more supplies are needed or more help. The radio is considered a life saving tool as it is also used by the crew members to stay in touch. One to three smokejumpers exit on each pass around the jump site. After all the crew has exited, then the tools and supplies are dropped with cargo parachutes.

On the ground the crew leader determines if everything is okay for them to begin work. If so, the aircraft leaves and the crew is on their own. A most important rule is then followed: a safety zone is identified by the crew boss. This term means an area for the crew to go to if the fire gets out of hand and their lives are at risk. Since weather conditions can shift quickly, fires can become unpredictable, and having more than one escape route to the safety zone is essential. Lookouts are strategically placed to alert the firefighters via radio when it is time to retreat to the safety zone.

To steal the wildfire of forest growth and control it, a fireline is built. That means the crew clears a wide strip of land encircling the fire. They remove trees, logs, brush and dry leaves within the strip. This denies the fire the food it needs to continue. The size of the fireline actually depends on the intensity of the fire. Sometimes a backfire is set to to burn timber in the space between the advancing fire and the actual fireline. The exhausting work it takes to fighting fire calls for skilled people. It is a grueling job hampered by wind and spot fires. Sometimes windblown debris can cause spot fires that the fire fighters put out before it can spread.


When the fireline has been established and the fire appears to be contained the crew begins the mop-up phase. They cut down dead trees or parts of dead trees (snags). They douse any remaining burning material near the firelFuel Air Heat = FireCredit: National Archives and Records Administrationine. Then they may rest for awhile. Their job finishes when they are rested. Then they crawl along the wildland floor to feel for any hot spots with their bare hands. Every bit of ground in the burn area is touched, a process called cold trailing. If the zone is cool, then the crew heads back to base.

This relatively short article about smokejumpers does not cover all the heroic acts and incredible training, gear, and safety measures these people must know and perform. They deserve great tribute.

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