With only about 400 nationwide, Smokejumpers are an elite group of pros who parachute into forest fires to surround and attack them, fast. During fire season, California’s Smokejmpers live and train north of Sacramento, in Redding, next to city’s airport. It was there we met the newest recruits in the middle of an intense, 6-week training course that resembles basic training in the military.
By the time they’re accepted into the program, rookies have already spent years fighting fires, usually with Hot Shot crews or the U.S. Forest Service. What they learn at Smokejumper School is how to leap out of a fixed wing airplane at 1,000 feet, how to maneuver their parachute in shifting winds, and how to hit the ground without breaking a leg.
Once the jumpers land safely, the plane drops them their gear: cargo boxes of shovels, and chainsaws that are used to cut containment lines, which starve the fire of fuel and keep it from spreading. The boxes also contain enough food and water to last 3 days in the remote wilderness.
Once the fire is completely out, Smokejumpers must haul all their equipment and rigging out on their backs… that’s about 125 lbs. after nights of little or no sleep, and days of backbreaking work in the middle of nowhere.
Along with rigorous conditioning and classwork, the rookies practice exit jumps, landings, and rapelling, in case their chute gets caught in a tree. Since that does happen, Smokejumpers must also become skilled tailors. A long row of sewing machines is a surreal sight, as hardened firefighters patch up their torn parachutes and jumpsuits.
There are nearly 400 Smokejumpers in the US, including 40 in California. Of the 200 professional firefighters who applied to become California Smokejumpers last year, only five made the cut, including Jim Rebeneck, a former Hot Shot from Craig, Colorado.
“We’ve only been together a couple weeks, but you know, we’re already pretty tight and just relying on each other, keeping eachother in it mentally,” he says.
While leaping out of the airplane becomes fairly routine over time, experienced jumpers say the biggest challenge is hitting the “jump spot,” which might be a few hundred feet, or a mile away, from the flames. Sometimes they hit it exactly. Other times, they barely make it, on account of shifting winds, tall trees and big rocks. If they totally miss it, they’re in for a long hike with 80 lbs. of gear on their back.
They jump roughly 65 fires a year, usually fires sparked by lightning, and are often the first responders. Their quick arrival and fast action can literally save property, and lives.
“We take the risk of jumping into a fire so a lot of other people don’t have to, over time,” says veteran Josh Matheisen, who’s closing in on 300 jumps. He says it’s the most exciting, rewarding job in the world. The rookies we met say that’s why they’re here.
In California, fire season starts almost as soon as the winter rains subside– and by May 1st, these Smokejumpers will on duty and standing by 24/7.