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Fully outfitted smokejumpers boarding a Short C-23 Sherpa aircraft in Missoula, Montana, en route to a fire in the Idaho panhandle, July 1994

Smokejumpers are specially trained wildland firefighters who provide an initial attack response on remote wildfires. They are inserted at the site of the fire by parachute. This allows firefighters to access remote fires in their early stages without needing to hike long distances carrying equipment and supplies.[1] Traditional terrestrial crews can use only what they can carry and often require hours and days to reach fire on foot. The benefits of smokejumping include the speed at which firefighters can reach a burn site, the broad range of fires a single crew can reach by aircraft, and the larger equipment payloads that can be delivered to a fire compared to pedestrian crews.[2]

Once arrived on site, smokejumpers utilize similar strategies to hotshot crews and terrestrial crews to extinguish fires. Primarily, firefighters use axes to dig trenches around the fire's perimeter to isolate the flames from further fuel sources - nearby trees and shrubs. By tilling the newly exposed soil, the firefighters limit available material for the fire and it slowly burns itself out. If necessary, crews will supervise the fire overnight, and churn the ash in the morning to effectively put out any remaining embers. Once the fires are deemed thoroughly extinguished, smokejumpers retrieve the equipment and hike to the nearest clearing to be collected by helicopter.[3]

Only three countries currently house smokejumpers: Russia, Canada, and the United States. These countries often coordinate exchange programs in which smokejumpers travel to aid in intense wildfire seasons.[3][4]

In addition to performing the initial attack on wildfires, they may also provide leadership for extended attacks on wildland fires. Shortly after smokejumpers touch ground, they are supplied by parachute with food, water, and firefighting tools, making them self-sufficient for 48 hours. Smokejumpers are usually on duty from early spring through late fall.


US Forest Service smokejumpers, based in Deming, New Mexico, 1948

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, aerial 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 the Methow Valley, Washington, where professional parachutists jumped into a variety of timbered and mountainous terrains, proving the feasibility of the idea.

Smokejumping was first proposed in 1934 in the Intermountain Region (Region 4), by Regional Forester T.V. Pearson. By 1939, the program began as an experiment in the Pacific Northwest Region (Region 6). The first official non-fire jump was made in the Nez Perce National Forest in the Northern Region (Region 1) in 1940 by John Furgurson and Lester Gohler. The McCall smokejumper program was established in 1943; their base is on the Idaho shores of Payette Lake. The base is near six national forests: Nez Perce / Clearwater, Sawtooth, the Boise, Payette, Salmon–Challis, and Wallowa-Whitman.[5]

In 1942, permanent jump operations were established at Winthrop, Washington, and Ninemile Camp, an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camp (Camp Menard) a mile north of the Forest Service's Ninemile Remount Depot (pack mule) at Huson, Montana, about 30 mi (48 km) northwest of Missoula. The first fire jumps 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 for about 70 years.

The first smokejumper training camp was at the Seeley Lake Ranger Station, over 60 mi (97 km) northeast of Missoula. The camp relocated to Camp Menard in July 1943. Here, when not fighting fires, the men spent much time putting up hay to feed the hundreds of pack mules that carried supplies and equipment to guard stations and fire locations. To work fires, the men, organized into squads of eight to fifteen, were stationed at six strategic points, also known as "spike camps": Seeley Lake, Big Prairie, and Ninemile in Montana; Moose Creek and McCall in Idaho; and Redwood Ranger Station in southwestern Oregon at the edge of Cave Junction. The men worked from other spike camps as well, including some in Washington.

Relations with the military[edit]

After observing smokejumper training methods at Seeley Lake in June 1940, then-Major William C. Lee of the United States Army went on to become a major general and establish the 101st Airborne Division.[6]

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 had conducted basic airborne training at various locations, it has since been consolidated at Fort Benning, (now called Fort Moore) Georgia.


The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion gained fame as the only entirely black airborne unit in United States Army history. The 555th was allegedly not sent to combat because of segregation in the military during World War II. In May 1945, the unit was sent to the West Coast of the United States to combat forest fires ignited by incendiary balloons sent by the Japanese Empire, an operation named "Operation Firefly". Although this 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, 300 unit members participated in firefighting missions throughout the Pacific Northwest during the summer and fall of 1945, earning the nickname "Smoke Jumpers". The 555th made a total of 1,200 jumps to 36 fires, 19 from Pendleton and 17 from Chico. Only one member, PFC Malvin L. Brown, was killed on August 6, 1945, after falling during a let-down from a tree in the Umpqua National Forest near Roseburg, Oregon. His death is the first recorded smokejumper fatality during a fire jump.[citation needed]

Around 240 workers from Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps worked as smokejumpers during World War II. An initial group of 15 men began training in parachute rigging in May 1943 at Seeley Lake, and a total of 33 completed jump training in the middle of June, followed by two weeks of training in fire ground control and first aid. About 500 training jumps were made by the first 70 CPS smokejumpers in 1943, who went on to fight 31 fires that first season. Their number increased to 110 in 1944, and to 220 in 1945, as more equipment became available from the War Department. Twenty-nine jumpers battled the remote Bell Lake fire in September 1944, among 70 fires suppressed that year, and 179 were fought in the Missoula Region alone by September 1945, with other jumpers assigned to McCall and Cave Junction. The last CPS smokejumper left the service in January 1946.

The Smokejumper Project had become a permanent establishment of the USFS in 1944. In 1946, the Missoula Region had 164 smokejumpers, many of them recent military veterans, college students, or recent college graduates. New bases were opened in Grangeville, Idaho, and West Yellowstone, Montana.

Most smokejumpers of the era were not career professionals, but seasonal employees lured by the prospect of earning as much as $1,000 over a summer. They tended to be well-behaved, self-motivated, and responsible. Squad-sized and larger crews were supervised by foremen who were career wildland firefighters and experts in all types of wildfires.

Mann Gulch fire[edit]

The fire with the greatest toll of smokejumper deaths was the Mann Gulch fire in 1949, which occurred north of Helena, Montana, at the Gates of the Mountains area along the Missouri River. Thirteen firefighters died during the blowup, twelve of them smokejumpers. This disaster directly led to the establishment of modern safety standards used by all wildland firefighters. Author Norman Maclean described the incident in his book Young Men and Fire (1992).

Smokejumper crews worldwide[edit]

Smokejumpers are employed by the Russian Federation, United States (namely the United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management), and Canada (in British Columbia).[7]

In Canada, smokejumpers are employed by the BC Wildfire Service. Here, there are three classes of initial response firefighters; initial attack crews, rapattack crews (refers to firefighters who rappel from aircraft into wildfires), and parattack crews (smokejumpers). The BC Wildfire Service houses roughly 60 smokejumpers yearly[8] and operates the only smokejumper crews in Canada. There are two crews located in the northeast of the province.[9]

In Russia, smokejumpers are both firefighters who parachute or rappel, or both, into fires. They work for the Aerial Forest Protection Service, or Avialesookhrana. This agency represents the largest cohort of smokejumpers worldwide, employing up to 4,000 individuals who protect 2,000,000,000 acres (810,000,000 ha) of land across 11 different time zones. This makes the Avialsookhrana the primary defences for half of Russia's wildland. Smokejumpers are located at 340 Avialsookhrana bases and dispatched in groups of differing sizes according to the situation at hand. Rappelling crews consist of a maximum of 20 firefighters, while parachuting teams are usually made up of five or six.[4][1]

The United States Forest Services (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) house 320 smokejumpers yearly, across nine bases. These bases are located on the west coast of the country, namely California, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Alaska and Oregon.[10] In 2020, across all the bases, 1,130 jumps were executed, with a total of 5211 days spent on initial attack.[11] As of August, 2021, nine smokejumper crews operate in the United States. Seven are operated by the USFS, and two are operated by the BLM.

Operated by the United States Forest Service:

Operated by the Bureau of Land Management:

Equipment and gear[edit]


Smokejumping crews prefer the use of fixed wing aircraft rather than helicopters as they typically carry more passengers and larger payloads. At the Fort St. John base in British Columbia, Canada, modified DC-3 planes are used to carry thirteen jumpers and two spotters.[2]

CASA C-212 Aviocar airplanes are common for American crews as they possess rear ramps that are retractable as stated in a news article from 2023.[3] However, in 2020 the main aircraft used by the USFS smokejumpers were SD3-60, B model, Sherpas. These represented seven of the nine agency owned aircraft that season.[11]

Recently the United States have made advancements in paracargo technology that allows for supplies to be dropped with a high level of accuracy through low visibility settings such as night time and heavy smoke. This global positioning system (GPS) technology is called Joint Precision Air Drop System (JPADS).[11]

Firefighting gear[edit]

A single crew of five to six smokejumpers in Canada will carry 6,000 ft (1,800 m) of hose, four heavy water pumps, four chainsaws, hand tools (Pulaski axes) and enough water for all crew members for 48 hours. These are all dropped with bound in a separate parachute drop.[2] Additionally, tree climbing gear must be included in equipment drops as is possible for jumpers to become tangled in trees upon descent.[3]

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)[edit]

Smokejumper equipment on display, West Yellowstone, Montana.

The main body of a Canadian smokejumpers PPE is a Kevlar suit to protect against the intense heat of fires, as well as sharp objects that may pierce the skin. Helmets are adorned with mesh face shields to maintain visibility while protecting the smokejumpers from branches and embers. Gear is designed to allow jumpers to free themselves if they become tangled in trees, and is designed to help firefighters to float up stream should they land in a body of water. These standard design features for Canadian parattack crews run a cost of roughly $12,000 per crew member. However, there is the opportunity for jumpers to edit, alter, and ultimately add to their collection of gear. Many Canadian jumpers are known to use motocross gear or hockey pads in order to help soften the blows associated with landing a parachute in deeply forested territory.[2]

American jumpsuits are fashioned using a blend of Kevlar and Nomex and serve similar functions to the aforementioned Canadian suits. These suits are crafted by the smokejumpers themselves using sewing supplies housed at each base. With only 400 suits needed yearly, it is not feasible to have them manufactured offshore or en masse. Just as with Canadian jumpers, Americans use hockey gear, motocross pads, and ski helmets to round out their kit. Each jumper dons roughly 85 lb (39 kg) of gear for a single jump.[3]

Survival gear[edit]

A significant portion of initial attack jumps take multiple days to control.[11] On account of this, the payload deposited by aircraft include survival gear such as dried fruit, canned soup and beef jerky. Crews are equipped with shelters for sleep and sleeping bags.[3]

Safety record[edit]

Despite the seemingly dangerous nature of the job, fatalities from jumping are infrequent, 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.

The Smokejumper Parachute Landing Injury Database and eSafety are the two databases used to record and collect data regarding smokejumper injuries in the United States. Serious and minor injuries are logged in this database depending on the many factors. Serious injuries are categorized as:

  • Requiring hospitalization for greater than 48 hours,
  • Bone fractures (excluding finger and toes),
  • Severe hemorrhaging,
  • Severe nerve, muscle or tendon damage,
  • Burns covering more than 5% of the body
  • Second and third degree burns

According to the 2020 National Smokejumper Program End of Year Summary published by the USFS, an American smokejumper in 2020 had a 99.75% of landing free of injury. This is attributed to the rigorous registry of injuries in the past 28 years, when these databases were created. By documenting the rate, severity, and cause of each incident, the USFS has been able to eliminate hazards and create better training.[11]

Jump injuries are infrequent. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) states injuries occur once for every 909 jumps - a rate of 0.11%.[12] 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 jumping the fire is safe. 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.[2] Many smokejumpers have previous experience as hotshots, who provide a strong foundation of wildland firefighting experience and physical conditioning.


Prior to employment at a smokejumper in the United states, applicants are required to have one year of wildland firefighting experience as a minimum. It is said that competitive applicants range closer to three years of experience.[3] Canadian recruitment errs towards a minimum of two years of prior wildland firefighting experience, with a preferred six to seven years.[2]

Team members[edit]

In order to execute a single jump, the number of smokejumpers involved may vary from fire to fire and from country to country. However, in each case teams require multiple jumpers, two spotters, jumpers-in-command, and two pilots'. Spotters are specialized smokejumpers who take make decisions prior to the jump. They assess fires from the air, determine the approximate landing site, and use paper streamers - dropped from the plane hatch - to measure wind speed. Jumpers-in-command are the initial jumpers. In a pair, they reach land first and report via radio the conditions of the landing site and authorize the secondary jump for remaining smokejumpers.[3]

Physical fitness[edit]

The minimum required physical fitness standards for smokejumpers set by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group are: packout 110 lb (50 kg) for 3 mi (4.8 km) within 90 minutes; run 1.5 mi (2.4 km) in 11 or fewer minutes; 25 push-ups in 60 seconds; 45 sit-ups in 60 seconds; and seven pull-ups.[13]

In popular culture (chronological)[edit]

  • Smokejumpers are featured in the 1985 novel Wildfire[14] by Richard Martin Stern
  • The 1996 film Smoke Jumpers is loosely based on Don Mackey's life. Mackey was a smokejumper and one of the 14 fatalities of the 1994 South Canyon fire. In the movie, he pursues job-related accolades while his marriage disintegrates.[15]
  • In the 2002 made-for-television movie SuperFire, a disgraced pilot joins a group of smokejumpers as they attempt to save a town from a raging wildfire.[16] This film is recognised for its inaccurate description of smokejumper practices.
  • In the television show Entourage, Vincent Chase lands a lead role in an action film called Smokejumpers in an episode airing in 2008.[17]
  • Smokejumpers are described in Philip Connor's 2011 book Fire Season.[18]
  • Author Nora Roberts's 2011 novel Chasing Fire details the lives and loves of a group of smokejumpers at Missoula Smokejumper Base.[19]
  • Author M. L. Buchman's Firehawks Smokejumpers Trilogy, published in 2014 and 2015, follows a team of fictitious Oregon-based smokejumpers.[20]
  • The 2019 American family comedy film Playing with Fire follows a group of smokejumpers who must watch over three children who have been separated from their parents following an accident. The film stars John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo, Brianna Hildebrand, Dennis Haysbert, and Judy Greer.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Smokejumpers" (PDF). Heritage. 4 (9): 44–47 – via Fire and Rescue International.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "For some remote Canadian wildfires, best and fastest option is sending in the smokejumpers". AP News. 2023-07-14. Retrieved 2024-04-04.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "Washington State Smokejumpers Prepare for Wildfire Season". Governing. 2023-07-10. Retrieved 2024-04-07.
  4. ^ a b "Russian Smokejumpers, Wildfires, Article, Photos -- National Geographic". Environment. 2009-10-09. Retrieved 2024-03-21.
  5. ^ "History of Smokejumping | US Forest Service". www.fs.fed.us. 5 May 2017. Retrieved 2019-05-03.
  6. ^ "These are the airborne firefighters that handle the most intense wildfires". 15 April 2021.
  7. ^ "The Canadian Smokejumper". smokejumper.ca. Retrieved 2020-05-22.
  8. ^ Service, BC Wildfire. "Initial attack crews - Province of British Columbia". www2.gov.bc.ca. Retrieved 2024-03-21.
  9. ^ "Location | The Canadian Smokejumper". smokejumper.ca. Retrieved 2020-05-22.
  10. ^ "Smokejumpers". US Forest Service. 2016-12-28. Retrieved 2024-03-27.
  11. ^ a b c d e "National Smokejumper Program 2020 Fire Season Summary" (PDF). U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. December 9, 2020. Retrieved March 6th 2024.
  12. ^ "United States Forest Service Smokejumper National User Guide".
  13. ^ Brian J. Sharkey, Ph.D.; Steven E. Gaskill, Ph.D. "Ch. 6". Fitness and Work Capacity (PDF) (2009 ed.). National Interagency Fire Center, Boise, I D.: National Wildfire Coordinating Group. p. 27. Smokejumpers: Pack Test: Req.; 3-Mile Packout Weight: Rec-110; 1.5-Mile Run time: Rec-11:00; 10 RM Leg Press: 2.5xBW; 10 RM Bench Press: 1.0xBW; Pullups: 7; Pushups: 25; Situps 45
  14. ^ "Wildfire". Goodreads. Retrieved 2024-04-09.
  15. ^ Lowry, Dick (1996-02-11), Smoke Jumpers (Action, Drama), Adam Baldwin, Lindsay Frost, Timothy Carhart, Patchett Kaufman Entertainment, World International Network (WIN), retrieved 2024-04-09
  16. ^ Quale, Steven (2002-04-20), Superfire (Action, Thriller), D. B. Sweeney, Diane Farr, Chad Donella, American Broadcasting Company (ABC), Epsilon TV Production, KirchMedia, retrieved 2024-04-09
  17. ^ Mylod, Mark (2008-11-16), Play'n with Fire, Entourage, Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, retrieved 2024-04-09
  18. ^ BBC Radio 4 - Book of the Week, Fire Season, Episode 1
  19. ^ "Chasing Fire by Nora Roberts". Penguin Random House Canada. Retrieved 2024-04-09.
  20. ^ "Firehawks Smokejumpers Trilogy by M.L. Buchman". www.goodreads.com. Retrieved 2024-04-09.
  21. ^ Playing with Fire, 8 November 2019, retrieved 2020-02-06

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