Smokejumpers: Badass Firefighting

Smokejumpers: Badass Firefighting
May 3, 2016 Sarah Dubowski

Walking into the station the sound of rock and roll overpowers the sound of the airplane engine roaring.   The crew was getting ready to go.

The Alaska Smokejumpers are an elite group of wildland fire fighters who specialize in parachuting into remote areas to combat flames.

“The primary initial attack resource for the state,” a third-year jumper, Kael Donley, 33, says.  “There is very little infrastructure here.  Fire engines aren’t very effective, we are the best go-to resource  for up here as far as getting to a new start.”

The crew usually works the Alaska fire season from April when they begin training until the end of fire season which is usually September.  

Smokejumpers started their spring training this week.  Before ever setting foot in a plane, each crew member learns to shoulder over a 100  pounds of gear.  That weight can go up after landing, as firefighters gear up for demands of the the job at hand, a second-year jumper, Andrew Gavin, 27, says.

“When we jump we carry about an average of 110 pounds.  That would be just with our packs and our parachutes,” he explained.  “When we get (into the fire) we request a chainsaw, we request a pump or a hose, so we are hiking that in as well.”

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Smokejumper plane: CASA 212

Crew members are hand-selected out of hundreds of applications.  Only 10 rookies are chosen each year and seven or less will make it to the end of training.  In total The Alaska Smokejumpers employs around 70 jumpers.  Candidates need firefighting experience and good recommendations.

Those selected for further training, learn to exit a plane flying at around 118 mph.  “The jumpers jump out of the side door,” says Donley pointing to the left of the plane.  

The medium-sized aircraft looked like a mini cargo plane and opening was like your standard emergency exit door.

“When we (fly over) the fire we start looking at the jump spot, picking one out,”  Donley says.  “Then the spotter will come back and remove this door and then they start checking the winds, looking at our jump spot making sure it’s clear of hazards.”  

The spotter is a member of the crew who is responsible for checking the winds, directing the jumps and releasing the cargo.  Each load is full of enough food, water and supplies to last the team about three days.  

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While some of us would be screaming our heads off this crew is cool and collected.  It’s all business as the team leaves the plane.  

“For me,” Donley says, “I’m hyper focused on having a good exit out of the airplane, a good opening, and checking my parachute and getting to the ground.”

Once the firefighters land their parachute; the hard work begins.

“As soon as we hit the ground,” Gavin says, “ we will start scouting.”

By scouting Gavin means checking out the fire and deciding how to distinguish or control it.

Smokejumpers can’t always land with parachutes near a fire.  A good landing spot is in the open, never on a lake or a river.  Jumpers are known to have to trek up to 13 miles to their destination.

“We do a lot of hiking,” Gavin laughs.  “Some guys will take the right flank and some will take the left flank.”

Hiking isn’t the only physically exhausting things these firefighters do.  They also don’t stop.

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 11.23.10 AM“Depending on the fire behavior we can be working up to 36 hours straight,”  Donley  explained.  “Then switch over to working 16-hour days, we will go three days before needing to be re-supplied with food and water.”
Smokejumpers stay on location camping near the forest fire for up to two weeks before they are picked back up and given a day off.

Life for Alaska Smokejumpers isn’t an easy.  The job is not only  dangerous, it’s extremely stressful and crew members are away from friends and family all summer long.

 If you ask Donley, it’s worth it.

“It’s fun, jumping out of airplanes, it’s super fun. that was the main lure to me, just to get a smokejump and have that experienc

 

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