Smoke Jumpers: The Most Dangerous Job in America

Smokejumpers are skydiving firefighters. When lightning (or a careless camper) sparks a wildfire in a remote, roadless place, smokejumpers parachute in as the first line of defense to fight the fire.

A smokejumper is a firefighter who parachutes into remote areas to fight forest fires. We explore the heroism and camaraderie of fighting deadly blazes from above and below.

What are smoke jumpers?

Section 2: Is there life in the park?

Section 3: Going the extra mile

Section 4: The risks of a daredevil lifestyle

Section 5: Are there rookies out there?

Section 6: What’s the best advice for a new smokejumper?

Source: ESPN

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Joey Moskovitz, 35, was a surfing buddy and groomsman at my brother’s wedding two years ago. The three of us took a few surf trips together, and Joey taught me to scuba dive. He moved to Kailua, Hawaii in 2013 to become a photojournalist and found his way to the set of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series “Blue Ridge Rips.

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Why do they do it?

We’ll discover why they do it and find out the stories of the new ones who join this elite team each year.

We’ll also meet this year’s crop of “serious” candidates who have been through grueling training with the goal of earning the title of smokejumper, and we’ll find out how the job has changed since firefighting helicopters replaced handplanes as the smokejumpers’ tools of the trade.

We’ll talk to local authorities who set up camp for the smokejumpers in the wilderness, and we’ll watch footage of the training exercises. And we’ll learn the reasons why smokejumpers do it—in case there’s ever another fire in the sky.

This is “the most dangerous job in America.” And on top of that, each smokejumper is sworn to secrecy:

We’re working with a code that must not be broken.

The Dangerous Conditions

At the Bitterroot Valley, burning in a dome of high pressure called a fire whirl, smokejumpers plunged into a whiteout to protect the town of Seeley Lake. The wind was blowing up to 80 mph. The temperature was below zero. The flames burned uphill and shifted every couple of minutes. At times, all five smokejumpers carried radios. The light static indicated no reception, but they could hear what was going on above.

View Images Smokejumpers work on a wildfire near Seeley Lake, Montana, in August 2013. Photograph by John Moore, Getty Images

“It sounds like a hockey game, with all the static,” Jeff Taboada, one of the smokejumpers, says. “You never know which way it’s going to go.

How much danger is there to smokejumpers?

Owens: It’s more dangerous than jumping out of a plane.

The majority of smokejumpers’ deaths are not fatal. They don’t die in accidents; they die of exposure, particularly in frigid, high-altitude conditions. But there are some bad accidents, such as the seven who were killed when their plane crashed into an Alaska lake during a training exercise in 1989. It had broken loose from a tow plane, and it plummeted into the water.

What do they do once they’re in the air?

A lot of time is spent scouting ahead and looking for locations that are vulnerable to wildfires. They usually just jump from plane to plane and walk around to get an idea of where the flames are heading.

Do they have parachutes for emergencies?

Every skydiver wears a parachute, but not all of them land in the same place.

Dangers of Smoke Jumping

· Smokejumpers are exposed to all kinds of weather. Because of the risk of lightning and hostile environments, smokejumpers usually parachute with a second pilot for protection.

· Smokejumpers jump in the early morning, when the air is calm.

· Since a smokejumper’s parachutes are packed in sections, when one falls, it will have a distinct path, so a nearby pilot can see where the parachutist is going.

· Most smokejumpers jump from a “pop-up” rig, which resembles a racing car.

· Often, smokejumper drops are part of a larger force.

How Smokejumping Works

The goal is to get to a spot where you can get back up, then call for help.

The Approach

With all of the skydivers holding their breath, a jumper ascends from the plane.

The Smokejumper’s Gear

An equipment kit fits easily into a parachuting bag or backpack. Firefighter chest rigs are equipped with firefighting clothing and equipment, including rain gear, gloves, self-contained breathing apparatus, a hose, blanket, helmet, goggles, hiking boots, and an Air Force oxygen cylinder.

A Sub-$300 Carbon Fiber Flare

An $83-dollar add-on to the standard survival parachute deploys like a flare when in use. This flare can be used for navigation or for signaling for help.

A $120 Knife

The M400 Pocket Knife is perfect for the Everyday Survivorman. Hand made of stainless steel and carbon fiber and a full auto saw blade, the knife is the right tool for the everyday survivalist.

The Foldable Stove

The ExpeditionStove can be folded to fit into the pocket or dropped into a survival pack.

The Parachute

Smokejumpers wear a military-grade jumpsuit and armor, and carry a high-powered rifle in case of tree-climbing or snake encounters. A smokejumper’s toolbox is loaded with a tracer bullet (shot into the trees to make the fire stand out from the rest of the forest), a rescue blanket, a radio, and a bag of bandages.

What the Smokejumper Pockets

Recovery gear is often the first thing deployed, such as a dog that can sniff for the presence of the human or a satellite that can identify the fire’s location.

World’s Most Lethal

The smokejumper program is the only one that can simultaneously fight fires in over 50 countries and from inside aircraft.

The Wildfires

Fire season is coming and wildfire risk is high.

Every year in the US, more than 15,000 wildfires ignite on average.

More than one-third of all wildfires are started by humans.

Many large fires are human caused.

In response, the Forest Service has an ambitious plan to thin forests to reduce fuel loads that fuel large fires.

What Are Smokejumpers?

Diverting fire traffic off roads and limiting damage to people and property makes firefighting safer and more efficient.

More than 3,000 US firefighters are smokejumpers.

Men and women train for 12 months for a dangerous and often deadly job.

Their training includes paragliding, parachuting, rappelling and helicopters.

Do smokejumpers have any injuries?

Last year, 10 smokejumpers died in a fire in central Oregon.

Conclusion

Not every job is safe or a perfect match for everybody. Most jobs will have both positive and negative aspects. These seven jobs, however, are just so extreme that they are often held by only a handful of people. It’s hard to imagine what the world would be like if the modern world was dominated by someone else.

Journalists who cover crime or war often see or encounter things most of us would not want to see. Firefighters spend long hours working in the midst of dangerous situations. Shark fishermen have the odds stacked against them every time they fish. Runners can be shot at or attacked by animals on many occasions. Similarly, an astronomer would have to be brave and skillful to avoid falling out of space.

Why Tallerico’s book is excellent: Racing and death are tightly intertwined in the world of auto racing, and Tallerico’s book brings both subjects to vivid life. It tells the story of how, in the 1970s, both CART and IRL — the top two open-wheel racing leagues in America — required drivers to take a military parachute qualification course that included a final parachute jump from 17,000 feet.