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Jumping Out Of A Perfectly Good Airplane To Fight A Fire

Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumpers Center
Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumpers Center

2015 was a record breaking year in the Northwestern part of the United States. Although some records are not always highly sought after. This record for 2015 was for worst recorded wildfire season since 2006. As of September 2015 8,821,040 acres of land had burned during the 2015 fire season. Fire season usually starts around April and ends around October each year for the Northwest.

In 2015 fires had burned all over the Northwest with the closest to my home being about 64 miles away (102 km). Although 64 miles is not overly close, the dry conditions, high winds and lighting strikes when a storm did roll through caused the fires to spread quickly. It was cause for concern.  So much so that I actually packed a bag of things I would be devastated to lose if a fire burned my house down while I was in Missoula.  It just dawned on me one of the things I took was Buddy’s ashes with me, so he finally went on that one last road trip I wanted to take him on 🙁

We were lucky that the fires did not reach our town, although I can not say the same for other towns in the Northwest. I remember watching on the news the residents of Winthrop and Twisp evacuating as the fire endangered their towns and homes. It was a sad moment and resulted in three firefighters being killed and four injured.

Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumpers Center
A display of what a smokejumper might wear

During the summer of 2015 while in Missoula I stopped by the Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumpers Center. It felt apropos as we were experiencing one of the worst fire seasons in my lifetime, so why not learn about the people who were protecting us? I had very little knowledge prior to my arrival to the center of what smokejumpers did other than they jumped out of airplanes to fight forest fires, which is a pretty simplified understanding.

The idea of smokejumping dates back to 1910, when one of the most devastating fires in the Northwest happened, burning 1.2 million acres of land.   History refers to this fire as “The Big Burn”. Most of the fires developed in remote locations and made it difficult to fight the fires.  By 1939 the first smokejumping outfit was developed in Winthrop Washington.  The inaugural smokejumping operation was commissioned on July 12th 1940 jumping into Martin Creek located in the Nez Perce National Forest. Missoula’s Aerial Fire Depot was built in 1952 and has been operational ever since. There are Smokejumping bases located in Missoula, Winthrop Washington, Grangeville Idaho, McCall Idaho, West Yellowstone Montana, Redding California and Redmond Oregon.

I arrived early on a sunny, yet smoky, day last summer and waited for the tour of the facility to start. I wondered around the visitor center where I got an up close view of the the clothing the smokejumpers wear as well as the tools they carry with them. And I mean that literally, they carry everything they bring to the fire with them after they land on the ground. Later on the tour I learned that the smokejumpers carry supply bags that weigh between 80 lbs to 120 lbs (36 kg /54 kg) and they pack out EVERYTHING in that bag after they have contained the fire. A smokejumper must have a minimum weight of 120 lbs (56.6 kg). Can you imagine possibly carrying a bag as heavy as you are? It is often said by the smokejumpers that the hike out is the hardest part of fighting the fire. Due to some of the remote locations of the fires the smokejumpers may have to hike several miles over mountainous terrain to be able to reach a road to be picked up and taken back to base.

Our tour leader gather up the group and walked us out to the smokejumper center. Along the way we passed by dormitories, where rookie jumpers live on base. The more seasoned jumpers live in town with their families. The guide then gave us some background on the jumpers and how a person becomes a smokejumper. Most of the jumpers have 5 to 10 years experience with wildfire fighting, although only two years experience is required. The job is most often held by former hotshot crew members. The position for smokejumper is highly sought after and there are few spots for this prestigious job.

Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumpers Center
The sewing room

The tour then led us into the smokejumper center taking a quick left to a room full of sewing machines. All the smokejumpers sew their own clothing and packs. The thought process is that they, as jumpers, know best what they need. Seasoned teammates help out the rookies with proper sewing techniques and make suggestions for things the rookies might want.

Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumpers Center
Rounds and Squares

The next room was filled with hanging parachutes, where the guide referred to them as “squares” and “rounds”, based on the shape of the shoot. Currently jumpers can choose their shoot shape based on what they are most comfortable with, however the government is starting to mandate only squares be used as they believe there is more control over the shoot. Shoots are used for about 10 years and then they are “retired” from use by the United States. Other countries, such as Canada, pick up a lot of the retired equipment and use it for several years longer.

We stepped next into the shoot packing room, where we found long tables to help aid the jumpers in packing their shoots properly. Retired jumpers come back to the center and help the current jumpers pack the shoots. Shoots are marked with a date and stored on a shelf until they are used or need to be repacked based on regulations of how long a shoot can stay packed.

Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumpers Center
Smokejumping planes

Our next stop was outside, taking a look at the planes used for smokejumping. It was here that we learned how the jumpers approach a fire prior to jumping out of a plane.  Wind currents are taken into consideration to help the jumper decide how they will safely land on the ground, without landing IN the actual fire. At this point the thought of pay popped into my head, which ironically before I could even ask the question someone pipped up and asked “how much do these guys make per hour”. The guide responded with a startling “$14 USD per hour”. I believe WTF? went though my head. She mentioned that jumpers do receive hazard pay while out on fires, but most of the jumpers have other jobs to supplement their income and some travel throughout the United States to other jumping centers during their fire seasons as fire seasons vary based on location.

Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumpers Center
the “get ready” room

The last stop on the tour was the “Get Ready Room”. It was basically a locker room for the jumpers to store their gear and be able to get ready in a hurry when the alarm sounds off. The guide told us to be prepared if the alarm went off while we were in this room as we would need to quickly move out of the way. The day before the tour was in the “Get Ready Room” when the alarm went off and while you would assume it would be chaotic, the guide said the jumpers appeared quite calm as they gathered up their gear and headed out. I imagine it was probably a little anticlimactic for the tour goers.

Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumpers Center
Clothing and tools that the smokejumpers carry

The tour ended back at the visitor center where we took another look at the tools used by the jumpers and the guide explained the use of the retardant that is dropped by the airplanes onto the fire. An interesting bit of trivia about the retardant is that in addition to the minerals and water in the retardant to help put out the fire there is fertilizer and seeds for trees to help regrow the burned areas. The tour definitely gave a new perspective to me regarding the smokejumpers along with a whole new amount of respect for them, although I already have much respect for firefighters in the first place.

Tours of the Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumper Center are offered Memorial Day through Labor Day and are by donation. The tour is about 45 minutes and is offered at 10 am, 11 am, 1,2,3 and 4pm mountain standard time. The visitor center is open 8:30 am to 5:00 pm and can be visited without taking the tour. The visitor center is located at 5765 W Broadway Street, near the airport.

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Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumpers Center

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