Smokejumpers; An Endangered Species by Jennifer DeShon

 

WeymullerSmokejumper

Photograph courtesy of Weymuller Photography

 

I can see the burn scar left on the forested hillsides as I drive my gutless rented Chevy Impala into Washington’s breathtaking Methow Valley. The 2014 Carlton Complex wildfires left their mark. But it’s May and the hills are now covered in yellow arrowroot and purple lupine. The Cascades are a snowcapped backdrop so stunning it’s hard to concentrate on the road.

 

But, despite the lush carpets of wildflowers, and rivers swollen with snowmelt crisscrossing the valley floor, I have already noticed the crisp brown pine needles at the end of every branch. Obviously the area still hasn’t gotten enough rain and snow to make up for years of drought. The big trees are still stressed and dry. In fact, it seems there has been just enough precipitation to increase the fuel load. As a firefighter, I find this a very ominous sign.

 

I follow the navigation app on my phone as it tells me to turn off the tiny highway onto an unassuming strip of blacktop where a faded street sign marks the intersection. Soon, I get my first glimpse of the North Cascade Smokejumper Base. The metal skeleton, that looks a bit like the bottom half of a high tension power tower, is where these airborne firefighters practice exiting the aircraft and landing safely when parachuting into the backcountry near a wildfire.

 

It’s early in the season and it seems the base is still waking up. Jumpers trickle in from wherever they spent the winter; cleaning, packing chutes, doing projects, developing and evaluating new gear.

 

I have come here to tour the 1939 birthplace of smokejumping and find out what smokejumping has to offer the modern fire service. And I’m lucky enough to have veteran Smokejumper Jason Ramos as my guide. Ramos’ 2015 memoir Smokejumper has inspired many to pursue careers in wildland firefighting.

 

Smokejumpers have an amazing safety record considering the conditions they work under.

 

BOOK_SOLO_FotorI learn that not only can smokejumpers put out fires, they are capable of filling ICS positions, falling trees, cutting line, building heli-spots and safety zones, working with local search and rescue teams to locate lost hikers and downed planes, resupplying hungry, thirsty, tired firefighters who have no logistical support, and pretty much any other task you might throw them.

 

By parachuting out of planes that are capable of carrying them into the backcountry at around 200 MPH, smokejumpers can often get to fires faster than helitack crews, rappellers and hotshots, and therefore have a better chance of catching small fires and putting them out before they become big, dangerous fires that suck resources like a vacuum cleaner eating up Cheerios. Every year they save money and acreage by being highly trained and rapidly deployed.

 

Most of these people were members of hotshot and helitack crews before becoming smokejumpers. A few were even military parajumpers. They are experts at navigating in the backcountry. They are self-sufficient for 48 hours after a jump, and trained to stay on the fire line for 14 days straight if necessary, before packing out all of their gear.

 

Smokejumpers have an amazing safety record considering the conditions they work under.

 

They are one of the fire service’s most capable and least used resources.

 

Approximately 500 Smokejumpers work in the United States, scattered across nine bases from Alaska to Montana. They protect some of the most remote and fire-prone areas in the country.

 

  • Alaska Smokejumpers, Fort Wainwright, Alaska
  • North Cascades Smokejumpers, Winthrop, Washington
  • Redmond Smokejumpers, Redmond, Oregon
  • Redding Smokejumpers, Redding, California
  • Grangeville Smokejumpers, Grangeville, Idaho
  • McCall Smokejumpers, McCall, Idaho
  • Boise Smokejumpers, Boise, Idaho
  • Missoula Smokejumpers, Missoula, Montana
  • West Yellowstone Smokejumpers, West Yellowstone, Montana

 

smokejumperparachutThe North Cascades Smokejumper Base alone responded to 36 fires last season, the vast majority of which the jumpers were able to extinguish without needing to call any additional resources.

 

As I head across the rugged and remote Northern Cascades at the end of the day, I think about the fires I’ve fought during my own career, and I can’t help but wonder why this amazing resource isn’t used more often. Maybe it’s just a matter of educating ourselves on the capabilities of these versatile firefighters.

 

So the next time you need a little help out there, whether it’s a fire or a search and rescue assignment, who are you going to call? Try a smokejumper!

 

 

Look for more about smokejumpers in my upcoming FireRescue article in the spring of 2017.

 

You can read Gea Leigh Haff’s review of Smokejumper; A Memoir by One of America’s Most Select Airborne Firefighters here.

 

Jenn's biopic
Jennifer DeShon currently serves as a Engineer/Paramedic with San Bernardino 
County Fire in southern California. 
She has been in the fire service for 22 years and a Paramedic for 19. 
She's a Special Operations Flight Paramedic,trained in Urban Search and Rescue,and Tactical Combat Casualty Care. 
She holds an AS degree in Paramedicine.

6 Comments

  • Wade says:

    So where’s the part about being endangered species? I don’t think the fire service is planning to ax the smoke jumpers anytime soon.

  • Jennifer DeShon says:

    As the article says, there are only about 500 jumpers in the United States. The number of smokejumpers has declined over the years, while our wildfire threat has increased tremendously.

    The link below will take you The National Smokejumper Association’s quarterly magazine. If you read the Message From the President you will see that declining numbers, budget cuts, and lack of support from the Forest Service are daily realities for smokejumpers.

    https://smokejumpers.com/documents/magazine_pdfs/smokejumper-2012-04-1.51MB.pdf

  • Drew says:

    Good article Jennifer. There is always a need to spread the word about what we do in the front and back country, no matter the patch. I also enjoyed the book by Jason Ramos and it turns out he has a place near my Uncle and Aunt in Bahia de Los Angeles. What station do you work out of?

  • Jennifer DeShon says:

    Such a small world, isn’t it!

    I’m currently assigned to Station 26 in Twin Peaks. Been therre for a couple months. You?

  • Hi Jennifer, we fully support the smokejumpers and are indebted to them since we live in wildfire country. That image was taken 100 ft from our driveway by my husband E.A. Weymuller when our good friends and neighbor (in the yellow- Patrick Button) were finished with a fire on the hillside behind our home. They were heading back from a fire they didn’t jump on and were alerted to a lightning strike on our hill that had started a small fire. We are thankful for their swift action and the fact that there were in the right place at the right time. Smokejumpers have a tough job and without them, we would see more wildfires spread instead of being dealt with early on and if not for the fantastic work they do on fires they also are wonderful mentors to our local kids who enjoy watching them practice jumping out of planes.

  • Jennifer DeShon says:

    Thank you so much for letting us use the photo, Mrs. Wuymeller. It’s a great photo, and I love hearing the backstory! I wish you and your husband all the best. Stay safe this fire season!

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