A smokejumper is a wildland firefighter who parachute
A parachute is a device used to slow the motion of an object through an atmosphere by creating drag, or in the case of ram-air parachutes, aerodynamic lift. Parachutes are usually made out of light, strong cloth, originally silk, now most commonly nylon...

s into a remote area to combat wildfire
A wildfire is any uncontrolled fire in combustible vegetation that occurs in the countryside or a wilderness area. Other names such as brush fire, bushfire, forest fire, desert fire, grass fire, hill fire, squirrel fire, vegetation fire, veldfire, and wilkjjofire may be used to describe the same...


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 are a national resource and can be deployed throughout the U.S. Smokejumpers can be used outside of fire suppression when there is not significant fire activity. The smokejumpers are a highly skilled and easily trained workforce that can be quickly mobilized for a myriad of work assignments in forestry, disaster relief, and emergency management.

Smokejumpers worldwide

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
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

. 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
Winthrop, Washington
Winthrop is a town in Okanogan County, Washington, United States. It is east of Mazama and north of Twisp. The population of the Winthrop area was 1,916 at the 2000 census; however, the incorporated town had a population of 349. The 2010 census showed an increase to 394 within the town limits...

 and Ninemile Camp, Montana. The first actual fire jumps in the history of smokejumping were made by Rufus Robinson and Earl Cooley
Earl Cooley (smokejumper)
Earl Everett Cooley became one of the first smokejumpers for the United States Forest Service, when he and a colleague parachuted from a plane to fight a forest fire in July 1940....

 at Rock Pillar near Marten Creek in the Nez Perce National Forest
Nez Perce National Forest
The Nez Perce National Forest is located in Idaho County in central western Idaho in the northwestern United States. The forest is bounded on the east by the state of Montana, on the north by the Palouse region, and on the south and west by the Clearwater National Forest. It has a total area of...

 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

After observing smokejumper training methods at Ninemile Camp, Major General William C. Lee
William C. Lee
Major General William Carey "Bill" Lee was an American U.S. Army soldier and general. Lee is often referred to as the "Father of the U.S. Airborne".-Biography:...

, U.S. Army, went on to establish the 101st Airborne Division
101st Airborne Division (United States)
The 101st Airborne Division—the "Screaming Eagles"—is a U.S. Army modular light infantry division trained for air assault operations. During World War II, it was renowned for its role in Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944, in Normandy, France, Operation Market Garden, the...


In May 1978, members of the Army National Guard's 19th Special Forces Group
19th Special Forces Group (United States)
The 19th Special Forces Group is one of two National Guard groups of the United States Army Special Forces. Headquartered in Draper, Utah, with detachments in Washington, West Virginia, Ohio, Rhode Island, Colorado, California and Texas, the 19th SFG shares responsibility over Southwest Asia with...

 (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
Fort Benning
Fort Benning is a United States Army post located southeast of the city of Columbus in Muscogee and Chattahoochee counties in Georgia and Russell County, Alabama...

, Georgia.

During World War II

Approximately 240 workers from Civilian Public Service
Civilian Public Service
The Civilian Public Service provided conscientious objectors in the United States an alternative to military service during World War II...

 camps, mostly draftees from historic peace churches
Peace churches
Peace churches are Christian churches, groups or communities advocating Christian pacifism. The term historic peace churches refers specifically only to three church groups among pacifist churches: Church of the Brethren, Mennonites including the Amish, and Religious Society of Friends and has...

, worked as smokejumpers during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...


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
Empire of Japan
The Empire of Japan is the name of the state of Japan that existed from the Meiji Restoration on 3 January 1868 to the enactment of the post-World War II Constitution of...

Fire balloon
A , or Fu-Go, was a weapon launched by Japan during World War II. A hydrogen balloon with a load varying from a incendiary to one antipersonnel bomb and four incendiary devices attached, they were designed as a cheap weapon intended to make use of the jet stream over the Pacific Ocean and wreak...

 carrying incendiary device
Incendiary device
Incendiary weapons, incendiary devices or incendiary bombs are bombs designed to start fires or destroy sensitive equipment using materials such as napalm, thermite, chlorine trifluoride, or white phosphorus....

s, 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
Oregon is a state in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. It is located on the Pacific coast, with Washington to the north, California to the south, Nevada on the southeast and Idaho to the east. The Columbia and Snake rivers delineate much of Oregon's northern and eastern...

, with a detachment in Chico, California
Chico, California
Chico is the most populous city in Butte County, California, United States. The population was 86,187 at the 2010 census, up from 59,954 at the time of the 2000 census...

, 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
Mann Gulch fire
The Mann Gulch fire of 1949 was a wildfire in the Helena National Forest, Montana, United States, which claimed the lives of 13 firefighters including 12 smoke jumpers who were parachuted into the area to fight the fire, but were unable to control it....

 blowup of 1949 which occurred north of Helena, Montana
Helena, Montana
Helena is the capital city of the U.S. state of Montana and the county seat of Lewis and Clark County. The 2010 census put the population at 28,180. The local daily newspaper is the Independent Record. The Helena Brewers minor league baseball and Helena Bighorns minor league hockey team call the...

 at the Gates of the Mountains
Gates of the Mountains Wilderness
The Gates of the Mountains Wilderness is located in the U.S. state of Montana. Created by an act of Congress in 1964, the wilderness is managed by Helena National Forest...

 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
Norman Maclean
Norman Fitzroy Maclean was an American author and scholar noted for his books A River Runs Through It and Other Stories and Young Men and Fire .-Biography:...

, described the incident in Young Men and Fire
Young Men and Fire
Young Men and Fire is a non-fiction book written by Norman Maclean. It is an account of Norman Maclean's research of the Mann Gulch fire of 1949 and the 13 men who died there. The fire occurred in Mann Gulch in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness on August 5...

(1992). Maclean is also the author of the well known A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (1976).

Safety record

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
South Canyon Fire
The South Canyon Fire was a 1994 wildfire that took the lives of 14 wildland firefighters on Storm King Mountain, near Glenwood Springs, Colorado on July 6th, 1994...

 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
Hotshot crew
In the United States, an interagency hotshot crew , or simply hotshot crew, is a Type 1 handcrew of 20 firefighters specially trained in wildfire suppression tactics...

 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 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.

Popular Culture

The 1952 film Red Skies of Montana
Red Skies of Montana
Red Skies of Montana is a 1952 adventure drama in which smoke jumper Cliff Mason, Richard Widmark, attempts to save his crew while being over-run by a forest fire, not only to save his men, but to redeem himself after his last fire when he was the only survivor.The film was very loosely based on...

is based on the 1949 Mann Gulch disaster.

In the Television Show Entourage
Entourage (TV series)
Entourage is an American comedy-drama television series that premiered on HBO on July 18, 2004 and concluded on September 11, 2011, after eight seasons...

, Vincent Chase
Vincent Chase
Vincent "Vince" Chase is a fictional character on the comedy-drama television series Entourage. He is played by Adrian Grenier.-Personal life:...

 lands a lead role in an action film called Smokejumpers.

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
Richard Martin Stern
Richard Martin Stern was an American novelist. Stern began his writing career in the 1950s with mystery tales of private investigators, winning a 1959 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, for The Bright Road to Fear.He was most notable for his 1973 novel The Tower, in which a fire engulfs a new...

, the 1989 Stephen Spielberg film Always, the 2002 made-for-television movie SuperFire, and the 1998 film Firestorm
Firestorm (film)
Firestorm is a 1998 action thriller film directed by Dean Semler, and starring Howie Long, Scott Glenn, William Forsythe and Suzy Amis.-Plot summary:...

, 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.

See also

  • Wildland fire suppression
    Wildland fire suppression
    Wildfire suppression refers to the firefighting tactics used to suppress wildfires. Firefighting efforts in wildland areas requires different techniques, equipment, and training from the more familiar structure fire fighting found in populated areas...

  • Fire Use Module
    Fire Use Module
    A Fire use module is a 7–10 person team of US national parks service personnel dedicated to planning, monitoring and starting fires. They may be deployed anywhere in the United States for resource benefits , prescribed fire and hazard fuel reduction projects.As inter-agency national resource...

  • Helitack
    Helitack refers to "helicopter-delivered fire resources", and is the system of managing and using helicopters and their crews to perform aerial firefighting and other firefighting duties, primarily initial attack on wildfires...

  • National Smokejumper Association
    National Smokejumper Association
    The National Smokejumper Association, or NSA, is a non-profit , American organization that preserves the history of aerial fire management, or smokejumping, through interviews, rosters, photographs, films, letters, reports and publications...

External links

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