GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — The Pine Gulch Fire, Colorado’s largest wildfire in history, is now 139,000 acres and at 77% containment. The resources on the ground and in the air have been instrumental in containing the blaze. More specifically, from the air there is a special group of firefighters known as smokejumpers.
Smokejumpers are highly trained, skilled, and experienced firefighters who jump out of planes to battle the flames. They are the nation’s first line of defense against wildfires and provide the initial attack to remote fires.
Smokejumpers are an elite unit that need years of experience before they’re ready to parachute into forest fires. There are only 9 bases in the United States and about 400 professional smokejumpers. West of the Grand Junction Regional Airport there is a Fire Center that about 20 smokejumpers use to refuel and rehab for future fires.
Once alerted of a wildfire, smokejumpers can be dressed and in the air in about 10 minutes. Their jumpsuits are hot and heavy; they weigh about 100 lbs. In addition, smokejumpers have a helmet, wear two parachutes, and carry a backpack filled with survival equipment. Smokejumpers are prepared with enough food and water to last 3 days at a fire. Still, if they are at the fire for a longer duration, another plane or vehicle can drop extra supplies.
Smokejumpers parachute from 3,000 ft. Their spotter tells them when it is safe to jump, and in response, they form their body into a tight cannonball position and go, having complete trust in their equipment. Martha Schoope, a smokejumper, says shes isn’t ever scared of jumping, but there is an adrenaline aspect. She adds, “the most dangerous part is landing.”
Smokejumpers will do hundreds of jumps into forest fires in their career, mostly during wildfire season in the summer months. They work long hours rigorously fighting the flames, and fortunately, they do get a break if they work 21 consecutive days.