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Smokejumpers are most often deployed to fires that are extremely remote. The risks associated with this method of personnel deployment are mitigated by an extremely well developed training program that has evolved over the course of more than 70 years. Smokejumpers are capable of reaching a wildfire shortly after ignition when it is still relatively small and extinguishing the blaze before it becomes a problem to land managers and the public. Smokejumpers can be used outside fire suppression when there is not significant fire activity. The smokejumpers are a highly skilled and intensely trained workforce that can be quickly mobilized for a myriad of work assignments in forestry, disaster relief, and emergency management.
Smokejumpers are employed in large numbers by the Russian Federation and the United States of America. Russia maintains more smokejumpers than any other nation in the world (several thousand) and has the longest history of established smokejumping of any nation (reportedly established in 1936; smokejumping was established in 1939 in the United States). Smokejumpers are also employed by Mongolia and Canada.
Prior to the full establishment of smokejumping, experiments with parachute insertion of firefighters were conducted in 1934 in Utah and in the Soviet Union. Earlier aviation firefighting experiments had been conducted with air delivery of equipment and "water bombs." Although this first experiment was not pursued, another began in 1939 in Washington's Methow Valley, where professional parachutists jumped into a variety of timber and mountainous terrain, proving the feasibility of the idea. This also saw the first Forest Service employee jumper, Francis Lufkin, who was originally hired as a climber to extract the professional parachutists from the trees. It is believed that he made this first jump on a dare from the parachutists.
The following year, in 1940, permanent jump operations were established at Winthrop, Washington and Ninemile Camp, Montana. The first actual fire jumps in the history of smokejumping were made by Rufus Robinson and Earl Cooley at Rock Pillar near Marten Creek in the Nez Perce National Forest on July 12, 1940, out of Ninemile, followed shortly by a two-man fire jump out of Winthrop. In subsequent years, the Ninemile Camp operation moved to Missoula, where it became the Missoula Smokejumper Base. The Winthrop operation remained at its original location, as North Cascades Smokejumper Base. The "birthplace" of smokejumping continues to be debated between these two bases, the argument having persisted at this time for approximately 70 years.
Relations with the military
In May 1978, members of the Army National Guard's 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and other Western military units briefly began airborne training at the Missoula Smokejumper School. Although in years past the Army has conducted basic Airborne training at various locations, it has since been consolidated at Fort Benning, Georgia.
During World War II
The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion gained fame as the only entirely black airborne unit in United States Army history. The 555th was purportedly not sent to combat because of racism within the military during World War II; however, in May 1945, it was sent to the west coast of the United States to combat forest fires ignited by Japanese balloons carrying incendiary devices, an operation designated Operation Firefly. Although this potentially serious threat did not fully materialize, the 555th fought numerous other forest fires while there. Stationed at Pendleton Field, Oregon, with a detachment in Chico, California, unit members participated in dangerous firefighting missions throughout the Pacific Northwest during the summer and fall of 1945, earning the nickname "Smoke Jumpers".
Mann Gulch Fire
The largest disaster involving smokejumper deaths on the job was the Mann Gulch fire blowup of 1949 which occurred north of Helena, Montana at the Gates of the Mountains area along the Missouri River. Thirteen firefighters died during the blowup, 12 of them jumpers. This disaster directly led to the establishment of modern safety standards used by all wildland firefighters. Noted author Norman MacLean, described the incident in Young Men and Fire (1992). Maclean is also the author of the well known A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (1976).
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Despite the seemingly dangerous nature of the job, fatalities from jumping are rare. The best known fatalities in the United States being those that occurred at the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949, and the South Canyon Fire in 1994.
Statistically, smokejumping remains as safe as ground-based wildland firefighting as a whole. Although jump injuries do occur, they are not frequent, and smokejumper personnel take deliberate precautions before deciding whether to jump a particular fire. Multiple factors are analyzed, and then a decision is made as to whether it is safe to jump the fire or it is unsafe. Bases tend to look for highly motivated individuals who are in superior shape and have the ability to think independently and react to changing environments rapidly. Because of their fire experience and physical conditioning, most Hotshots make good smokejumpers. Smokejumping is not a crew-based firefighting tactic, and it takes time for firefighters who have been entrenched within the "crew mentality" to break free and think independently.
It is argued that smokejumper operations are expensive to maintain and marginally effective; however, the comparable cost is that of many more helicopter deployments. The range of smokejumper aircraft is greater than a helicopter, the speed is greater than a helicopter, and the payload is greater also. In a realistic assessment, the two delivery systems bring different advantages and disadvantages, as both the primary vehicles and delivery method (fast-roping vs. parachute) are so different in capability. A typical smokejumper mantra is "Speed, Range, Payload." Advocates of smokejumping[who?] believe that, due to their extreme initial-attack function, smokejumping is one of the most — if not the most – cost-effective wildland firefighting method employed in the U.S. today.
The 1952 film Red Skies of Montana is based on the 1949 Mann Gulch disaster.
Author Nora Roberts' April 2011 novel Chasing Fire is set among the "Zulies" of the Missoula Smokejumper Base.
They are also featured in the 1985 novel Wildfire by Richard Martin Stern, the 1989 Steven Spielberg film Always, the 2002 made-for-television movie SuperFire, and the 1998 film Firestorm, the latter two of which were critically panned for their wild inaccuracies in depicting the profession. Smokejumpers are described in Philip Connor's 2011 book Fire Season. Author Nora Roberts' 2011 novel "Chasing Fire" also details the lives and loves of a group of smokejumpers.
In the 2008 movie Trial By Fire, Kristin Scott attempts to join the Smokejumpers after her father's death in a house fire a day before he retired from duty.
The 2001 novel by Nicholas Evans, 'The Smoke Jumper'.
- California Smokejumpers Official Site.
- National Smokejumper Association (USA), including history
- US Forest Service - National Interagency Smokejumper Training Guide, including history (in PDF format)
- Smokejumpers and Smokejumping: Information and Photos
- Spotfire Images: Quality Smokejumper and Fire Photos.
- Earl Cooley - Daily Telegraph obituary