Smokejumpers prepare for wildfire season with new technology

Apr 4, 2016 2:07 PM by News Staff

Smokejumpers from all over the country are in Shasta County, preparing for the upcoming wildfire season.

“It's a lot of fun... it's about the most fun you can have in an airplane without doing the aerobatics and all the other crazy things," Alan Baum, smokejumper pilot, said.

Baum flies smokejumper airplanes out of McCall, Idaho and he loves the challenge and excitement of the job.

"You're constantly flying back, reloading, grabbing more jumpers, refueling, getting more cargo and turning around, going back to the same fire or a different fire," he said.

The job requires a high level of skill and continuous training and right now representatives of all seven smoke jumper units are in Redding conducting pilot training exercises but it's not just the pilots on hand.

"I came down to help the bigger cause and help the pilots but every jump we get is training for us as well," said Todd Johnson, smoke jumper out of Boise, Idaho.

Baum’s job is to fly specialized firefighters into remote areas where fire engines can't go dropping them from altitudes as low as 1,500 feet. It’s dangerous work but something every one of them truly loves to do.

"Flying in beautiful terrain, working with the jumpers, they're great, very broad spectrum of guys young guys to guys who've done it 25-30 years, you've got guys who have a high school education, we have guys who have a master's degree from Yale in forestry," Baum said. "We're definitely highly competitive, have a drive for adventure and a drive to succeed."

Some smoke jumper units are still using round parachutes, technology that's nearly 80 years old.

"It's been around a long time, they've made some advances since 1939 but the concept is pretty much the same," he said.

Now, they are transitioning now to rectangular or "ram" parachutes which offer several advantages. Advantages that Court Wallace, a smokejumper based in Missouri said will give them a great competitive edge in fighting wild fires.

"It gives us more forward speed than the round canopy did, and we can often soften up the landing a little more, prevent injuries by getting a softer landing," he said.

But the jumpers know they couldn't do the job without great pilots.

"Their patterns and their accuracy communicating with the spotters in the back of the airplane is where it all starts," Johnson said.

For the smokejumpers, the trip to the ground is just the beginning of their work.

"Jumping, obviously, is a lot of fun, once you get on the ground the work starts, its satisfying work, at the end of the day you feel like you've done something," Johnson said.

Safety and training are critical from the beginning of the mission until the end but in between is where they reap the reward.

"Flying around low levels, in the mountains, seeing things, dropping stuff out the back of an airplane, it's a fun job," Baum said.


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