Smokejumpers descending
Smokejumpers descending.  (BLM)

BLM Smokejumpers:  Firefighters with a Unique Commute

By BLM’s National Interagency Fire Center Staff

BLM’s smokejumpers will tell you their job isn’t much different than that of many other firefighters.  Their primary mission is to put out fires quickly and safely. 

What sets them apart is how they get to work.  Not many people commute to the jobsite via airplane, then parachute out of it before beginning the bulk of their day’s work.  Yet that’s what smokejumpers do when fire season heats up.

Through the years, the mission of smokejumpers has expanded beyond fire suppression.  Smokejumpers also work to reduce hazardous fuels, serve on incident management teams, write fire plans, and take on other assorted assignments.

BLM has about 150 smokejumpers stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, and Boise, Idaho.  They’re one of the four basic components of BLM’s fire and aviation program, along with engines, helitack, and hotshot crews.

Smokejumping exemplifies how much fire suppression has progressed in the United States.  Prior to World War I, firefighters, then usually called “smokechasers,” would hike for hours or days to arrive at a fire, which had often grown to a size that made suppression difficult.  In 1939, the U.S. Forest Service funded a project to test whether firefighters could parachute close to active fires, shaving hours or days off their travel time.  Encouraged by the results, smokejumping was born.

A smokejumper over a gorge
A smokejumper over a gorge.  (BLM)
The first jumps in the history of fire were made by Rufus Robinson and Earl Cooley on the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho on July 12, 1940.  Pleased with the results, the Forest Service then established the Pacific Northwest, Northern Rockies, and Intermountain West smokejumper bases.  Today, the Forest Service has seven smokejumper bases.

Fire suppression was important to the BLM as well.  In Alaska, the BLM Division of Forestry was established in 1959, and the agency’s smokejumper program soon followed.  On June 2, 1959, Hans Trankle, quickly followed by seven other BLM firefighters, became the agency’s first smokejumper when he landed near the Moose Creek #1 fire.  From that modest beginning, the Alaska program expanded from 16 smokejumpers to about 100 smokejumpers at its peak.  The Alaska smokejumpers continue to be the primary initial attack resource for federal protection areas and provide structure protection and extended attack capability to users throughout the state.

In 1986, 26 Alaska smokejumpers transferred to what was then the Boise Interagency Fire Center and established the Great Basin smokejumper base.  In recent years, the Boise base has employed up to 85 smokejumpers.  As its name indicates, the Boise-based smokejumpers work primarily in the Great Basin, but they’ve also jumped fires in Texas, the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, California, and the Northern Rockies.

BLM smokejumpers use a “ram-air parachute,” which is a rectangular, pressurized fabric airfoil, rather than the traditional round parachute used by the Forest Service.  The ram-air parachute provides better control in the often-windy conditions typical of the country that BLM smokejumpers often encounter.  In the early 1980s, Alaska smokejumper manager Alan Dunton, smokejumper Jim Veitch, and parachute expert Ron Lund pioneered the effort to develop a ram-air parachute system.  On June 21, 1982, the first fire jump with a ram-air parachute was made.  Serving as the spotter, Veitch directed smokejumpers Matt Kelly, Ed Strong, Eric Brundige, Craig Irvine, Jerry Waters, Jack Firestone, Bob Mauck, and Lynn Flock to a fire near Selawik Lake in Alaska, and the ram-air parachute has been a signature component of BLM smokejumping ever since.

Mixing two perceived risky activities—parachuting and firefighting—might seem like a recipe for trouble or tragedy.  But the BLM smokejumpers have an impressive safety record, something that they attribute to their intensive training, physical fitness, and commitment to the job.

Smokejumpers cite many reasons for their choice of careers, but one in particular is often quickly mentioned.  Teamwork is essential to their success.  Smokejumpers train together, work together, and rely on one another, sometimes in difficult situations.

BLM smokejumpers generally have 10 to 15 years of firefighting experience.  Some of them continue to jump fires well into their fifties.  Others take a different career path and end up in fire and aviation management positions.  Whether they remain a smokejumper or move to related jobs, they all take pride in the time they spent jumping.

“We’re a professional firefighting group.  This is the job we have chosen,” says one veteran smokejumper.  “What’s there not to like about it?”