Smoke Jumpers | Fire Fighters From The Sky

By Richard Bauman, Guest Contributor

I saw the movie Red Skies of Montana, in living color in 1952. I was about 11 years old at the time. I remember wondering at the time, are there really smokejumpers? Are there really people who parachute from a plane into wildfires? One scene from that movie I vividly recall is the smokejumpers getting into protective clothing and putting on helmets akin to those worn by football players before they boarded the plane and then parachuting into a forest ablaze.

A few years ago, I heard about the Smokejumper Visitor Center in Missoula, Montana, and that movie popped into my mind. I knew I had to add it to our next trip’s itinerary. It was a good choice for an out-of-the-ordinary place to visit.

Smokejumpers are self-sufficient and self-contained crews of six or seven men and women trained to parachute to the edge of wildfires in remote areas and fight the raging fires with basic hand tools. They are frontline wildfire fighters. When they parachute into a fire area, they carry in some supplies and equipment, but most of their food and heavier equipment are airdropped after they are on scene.

Their job is to fight the fire, slow its progress until ground-based fire fighting crews can get on scene. It can take anywhere from several hours to several days for full fire-fighting crews to arrive. When the smokejumpers’ job is done, each packs his/her gear, which weighs roughly 100 pounds, and then they usually hike out to the nearest road—typically
several miles.

The Smokejumper Visitor Center
The Smokejumper Visitor Center is at the Aerial Fire Depot adjacent to the Missoula International Airport and is part of the Missoula Smokejumpers base and center. There are 85 smokejumpers at this facility. It’s the largest smokejumper base in the nation and a great place to learn firsthand about smokejumpers, the rigor of their job, its dangers and the equipment that helps keep them safe.

The center’s numerous exhibits display techniques for fighting wildfires, the history of smokejumpers and a close-up view of smokejumper garb and equipment. There’s even a replica of the interior of a fire lookout tower of the 1930s.

The day we visited the Smokejumper Visitor Center, a crew of smokejumpers was dispatched to a fire in eastern Montana. We were allowed to see the men and women don their jumpsuits, strap on their parachutes and gather their small gear bags and jog to the waiting aircraft that would fly them about 400 miles to the fire near Miles City, Montana. While those smokejumpers preparing to fight the fire were suiting up, other smokejumpers were loading cargo food, first aid materials and some tools into the plane. This equipment would be airdropped for the fire-fighting crew to use.

Smokejumper History
Smokejumping dates to the 1930s. The Russians formed the first formal smokejumper units in 1936. Even today, Russia has about one thousand smokejumpers, which is more than any other country. The U.S. has the second largest number of smokejumpers (about 280) and started using airborne firefighters in 1939. The country’s first permanent jump facilities were established in 1940 in Winthrop, Washington, and Ninemile Camp, Montana. Ninemile Camp was the predecessor to the Missoula Smokejumper Base.

No doubt, smokejumping is a dangerous job, but there have been surprisingly few fatalities in its 70-year history. The worst smokejumper disaster in the U.S. was in 1949 when 12 smokejumpers perished in the Mann Gulch fire near Helena, Montana. That disaster prompted the creation of modern safety standards used by wild land firefighters.

Thanks to those safety standards and advances in equipment, parachuting into a fire area is, at least statistically, no more dangerous than ground-based fire fighting. Of course, jump-related injuries do occur, though not as frequently as one might expect. This is because fire location, weather, wind and other factors go into the decision as to whether a particular fire is safe to jump.

Smokejumpers and Sewing Machines
Smokejumpers not only have to know how to fight fires, but they have to know how to sew, too. It was a surprise to learn the center has a sewing room with a half-dozen heavy-duty industrial sewing machines. To assure their jumpsuit jacket and pants fit properly, each smokejumper literally sews together his or her own garb. The jumpsuits are made from padded Kevlar, the same material as used in bulletproof vests.

Most smokejumper gear is distinctively oriented to their job and made by them. The small number of smokejumpers in the U.S. doesn’t generate enough demand for commercial manufacturers to produce such gear. Thus, besides jumpsuits, smokejumpers make and sew their own backpacks, parachute harnesses and all the other fabric based equipment. They don’t, however, make their own parachutes.

Most smokejumper gear is distinctively oriented to their job and made by them. The small number of smokejumpers in the U.S. doesn’t generate enough demand for commercial manufacturers to produce such gear. Thus, besides jumpsuits, smokejumpers make and sew their own backpacks, parachute harnesses and all the other fabric based equipment. They don’t, however, make their own parachutes.

A key difference between helmets used in sports activities and those used by smokejumpers is the steel mesh face cage. It’s designed to protect jumpers from tree branches and impact, yet it allows enough visibility for a smokejumper to maneuver his/her parachute during a jump.

Once the smokejumpers are on the ground, their jump helmets and jump suits come off, and they wear hardhats, gloves and normal fire-fighting attire. Their jump gear and parachutes are stowed in fire-resistant bags, which they make themselves.

Glowing embers can burn holes in a parachute canopy, and tree branches can snag them. Thus, smokejumpers become adept at repairing their chutes. As one smokejumper said, “It can be a bit disconcerting to look up and see all those patches on your chute. But at least you know who
patched them.”

Parachute Repair and Packing
Holes in parachutes and other jump-caused damage are found during inspection of the chutes in the center’s parachute loft. It’s a 30-foot-high room where each chute is suspended from the ceiling and inspected following a specific protocol. Any damage that may be found is noted and repaired before a chute can be repacked by a certified parachute rigger.

The parachutes are repacked in the rigging room. Then they are carefully laid out on long tables where the risers and lines can be aligned accurately and the parachute can be folded and properly packed.

 There can be a lot of downtime for a smokejumper, but that doesn’t mean he or she just idles away the hours. Smokejumpers are required to perform one to one-and-a-half hours of physical training most days during fire season. To meet this requirement, smokejumpers at Missoula have a weight room, an aerobic workout room and a two-mile running course.

Other duties can include packing cargo boxes for fires, checking parachutes, maintenance of equipment, sewing new equipment and numerous other miscellaneous jobs.

Smokejumping isn’t an easy job, and after visiting the Smokejumper Center, most people come away with not just a greater appreciation for the job’s dangerous nature, but also a greater appreciation for the service smokejumpers provide in preserving our wild lands.

Trackbacks & Pings

  • Happy Memories :

    […] more research and found another blog post on them that was interesting as well.  Check it out at- Blog on smoke jumpers (This blog also gets credit for the photo I have […]

    2 years ago

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