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Idaho's Smoke Jumpers Getting the Jump on Potentially Dangerous Fires - 2002-08-16


The wildfires that have ravaged parts of the western United States this summer are all in a day's work for the thousands of people who work at the National Interagency Fire Center in the northwestern state of Idaho. The Center, located in the state capital of Boise, is a campus that includes eight federal agencies devoted to fighting wild-land fires. It is here that firefighters, communicators, weather experts and the military are positioned to attack a fire on a moment's notice, whether nearby or anywhere in the country. The firefighters most often on the front lines of attack are an elite group of men and women who do their jobs by parachuting out of airplanes into the burning flames. They are called "smoke jumpers."

The old adage that "lightening never strikes twice" might be challenged by smoke-jumper Grant Beebe, who says lightening is the most common source of wild-land fires. Combine that with hot dry weather and careless campers, he says, it is not unusual for hundreds of fires to break out on any given day.

"We have 85 jumpers who work out of this place, but as is typical in the summer, none of them are here we have four airplanes and we marry them up with our jumpers and they go out and chase the lightening storms around," Mr. Beebe said.

Grant Beebe says smoke-jumpers are responsible for "initial aggressive attacks," a term for chasing a fire while it is still small. That means they must get "suited up" and in the air in under 10 minutes of receiving the call. ". . . And when we get the call, we get to the plane as quickly as we can and then we don't really know where we're going to end up. We could be flying ten miles (16 kilometers) from the airport or we could be flying five hundred miles (800 kilometers) from the airport. So that's the beauty of the job it's uncertain, but the uncertainty is fun because you never know where you're going to end up," Mr. Beebe said.

What's not so much fun, says Mr. Beebe, is the burden of carrying a 50-kilogram backpack of fire-fighting gear once they are on the ground including a chain saw, shovel, an ax, sleeping bag, fire extinguisher, back-up parachute and other essentials.

Smoke jumpers must be in top physical condition; they typically work 6-8 months a year and are traveling on the road 75% of the time. This can sometimes be difficult for those with families at home. But Mr. Beebe says the comraderie among the crew is strong.

Beebe: "There is nothing like being terrified to bring a group together. And that's what smoke-jumping is all about. It's just like warfare day after day of extreme boredom, punctuated by some terror. The jump itself, is sometimes frightening and sometimes it's easy. But a group of four people working on a fire together for four days really does pull together tight."
Rupli: "Do you ever look down at a fire from up there and say, 'No, we're not jumping into that?'"
Beebe: "Absolutely. That happens often. It's usually not because the fire itself looks too scary. We might not jump into a fire because the jump conditions aren't good, the weather's bad, the wind's are too strong. We can jump into about 25-mile-an-hour (40 kilometer) winds or 30,(48 kilometer) if we have a big open spot. But if we get a scary spot and the winds are high, we won't jump. We'll wait and come back later. If it's too cloudy, we won't jump, sometimes the fire might be big going over the hill and we might decide it's not a good use of resources."
Rupli: "What do you remember about your first jump?"
Beebe: "That's a good question. The thing I remember most about the very first jump and it still pertains to this day is that everything is very rushed and frantic until you get out under canopy (floating in open parachute) and once you're out, you're just there it's peaceful and it's much calmer, once you're out and floating around. It's quiet, you don't feel like throwing up anymore, your air sickness goes away and you just fly around and look for a good approach into the jump spot and everything settles down."

According to the Bureau of Land Management statistics, smoke-jumpers successfully control 97% of the fires they jump into and have a surprisingly low fatality and injury record. The most common injuries reported are broken or twisted legs and ankles from the jump itself or from landing in trees. However, like any profession that depends on physical strength, the career span of a smoke jumper is relatively short, with the average age ranging from the 20's to '30's. After that, most jumpers begin to look for other career transitions.

"Personally I think this is a job for younger people. It's very demanding, requires quite a bit of stamina, exceptional good luck to survive all these years without injuries and there are some people who do this in their fifties but time takes its toll. But I think what you lose in stamina, you make up for in smarts and wiles. The people we look for in this job are the people who have been in charge and who know how to run a fire. So we look for a little more than brute strength or stamina. We actually look for intelligence and inventiveness, the ability to innovate. And so that stays with you. What you lose in stamina, you make up for in experience," Mr. Beebe said.

Grant Beebe is a smoke-jumper and base manager for the Bureau of Land Management based at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

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