The Great Basin Smokejumpers team is based at the Boise National Interagency Fire Center.

Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management, National Interagency Fire Center

This story was originally published on on May 19, 2023.

When dispatch is called for a new wildfire, Cole Simeon and the other Great Basin smokejumpers are trained to suit up and be ready to board a plane in two minutes.

Smokejumpers are highly trained wildland firefighters who parachute from airplanes 3,000 feet off the ground to reach a fire.

Click to resize

Their goals are safety and speed, and the work is difficult and dangerous.

What makes smokejumpers unique and specialized is how they get to fires. Skydiving into wildfires allows them to reach the most remote and rugged terrain miles from any road or trail.

“Our primary mission is an aggressive initial attack,” Simeon told the Idaho Capital Sun. “In most cases, we are expected to fight the fire until it goes out. This may mean working all night. That might mean working until 4 a.m., getting a few hours’ sleep, and starting again the next day.”

There are 65 members of the Great Basin Smokejumpers — or Boise Smokejumpers — based at the National Interagency Fire Center, located near the Boise Airport. They are training and preparing to spend the late spring, summer and fall fighting wildfires across the West and as far away as Alaska.

After a snowy spring, the fire season isn’t particularly active right now in Idaho and the West, but officials expect the risk of wildfires to rise as temperatures rise. When this happens, Siemion and smokejumpers will often be the first to respond to the many fires they jump into.

The Boise Smokejumpers are part of the Bureau of Land Management and are based at NIFC. Between the BLM and the US Forest Service, there are nine smokejumper bases across the United States. Three bases are in Idaho (Boise, McCall, and Grangeville), and other bases are in Montana, California, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.

What is a smokejumper?

Smokejumping is not an entry-level firefighting position, and candidates must have previous fire experience, experience using chainsaws and hand tools, and must be able to pass a rigorous physical fitness test, according to the McCall Smokejumpers website.

Smokejumper candidates must also complete a multi-week training program during which they spend time in the field and in classrooms. Training includes mock exits and jumps, leadership skills, parachute landing techniques, tree climbing, navigation exercises, tool and chainsaw operations, and skydiving practice.

Like many smokejumpers, Simeon gained experience as a member of the Hotshot crew. According to information on the Interior Department’s wildfire response website, the Hotshot crew is a mobile, specialized firefighting team that works on the ground in rugged terrain in active and severe wildfire areas.

Simon has been working as a smokejumper since 2015 when he started working at McCall Smokejumpers as a rookie.

Before that, he had never jumped out of a plane.

“Of course I was nervous standing in the plane door, but I’m still nervous even today after jumping for seven years,” Semyon said.

“The training is designed to instill safe habits, and I think our experience shows that the training works. Of course, jumping is exciting. It’s fun. It’s exciting. But it’s also based on good, safe habits, and I always refer to that.”

To date, Semyon said he has parachuted into wildfires 55 times and completed 191 jumps in total, including training jumps.

Even as an experienced smokejumper, Simeon said the training is extensive and continuous. Each year, returning smokejumpers undergo refresher training, which includes clothing, equipment checks, jump site selection, landing procedures, and failure procedures.

Great Basin smokejumpers make their own parachutes and must demonstrate their chute packing skills over and over again before jumping for real. They also track and document who tampered with each chute, including the date and location. As of Thursday, Semyon had spawned 184 parachutes.

“The expectation is that once we rig a chute, we have to have a system of accountability for who rigged that chute and record keeping,” Simeon said.

Along with learning to pack parachutes and jump from airplanes, Great Basin Smokejumpers also learn to sew so they can make, modify, repair, and customize their gear.

Outside of the active fire season, smoke jumpers can be found in the attic at their base working with a sewing machine to make their own jackets, pants and gear bags. They also customize their own parachute helmets, combining a ski helmet with a wire cage face mask. Smokejumpers who are qualified by the Federal Aviation Administration also learn to repair and patch their own parachutes if one is damaged in the field.

Some fire service personnel specialize in equipment manufacturing and the FAA Senior Fitter Qualification, which Siemion is currently working toward. He said all Great Basin Smokejumpers develop some level of skill in sewing and repairing gear.

“We know best what our needs are, and we’re always trying to make improvements,” Simeon said. “We may not be the fastest sewer in the world. But if we want to make adjustments, maybe it’s finding a more comfortable jacket with better lining or lighter materials. By having some tailoring skills, we can adapt much faster and more nimbly than if we were to rely solely on contracts with external suppliers.”

A photo from the Payette National Forest shows flames from the Rainbow Fire, which burned last September on Brundage Mountain and required a response from smoke jumpers. Payette National Forest via Facebook

What happens when the mic jumpers are called to a fire?

When the Great Basin Smoke Jumpers are called to a fire from Boise’s National Interagency Fire Center, they can head anywhere in the West or Alaska.

Eight smokejumpers load into the plane and assess the fire from the air as they approach. If the fire is small, at least two smoke jumpers will parachute in. If the fire is bigger, they can send all eight.

Working with a supervisor, smokejumpers select a landing zone and jump from the plane wearing a jacket and pants they may have made themselves and a helmet they customized. They carry a pack of personal gear including water, food, a radio and a fire shelter.

After the smoke jumpers land safely, the plane’s crew will drop them a load that may include fire packs designed to sustain two firefighters for 48 hours, hand tools, sleeping bags, more water or chainsaws.

After working all day and night to fight the fire, the job won’t be done until the fire is out or the smoke jumpers pass the spreading fire to a larger team.

Smokejumpers must then pack up to 130 pounds of gear and head to a road, trail or helicopter landing site to be picked up. Sometimes that means hiking one mile. Other times, packing up might involve an 8-mile hike up a trail through rugged mountains to get to the nearest suitable helicopter landing spot.

For Semyon it becomes a career.

He likes the different experiences each campfire provides and enjoys working with other smokejumpers.

“Being a public servant working to protect people’s property and our shared natural resources gives me satisfaction,” Siamien said. “Most of all, it’s a pleasure to work with a group of such highly motivated, hard-working, intelligent problem-solvers. That’s what it all comes down to, and that’s what Boise Smokejumpers is all about, as well as the greater wildland fire community, too.”

What are the predictions for this year’s fire season?

Because of the record snowpack in parts of Idaho and the West, there is not much fire activity in the United States right now, said Nick Nauslar, forecast service meteorologist at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

“We now expect a slower or even delayed start to the fire season in parts of the Southwest, the mountains, Utah and Nevada, and much of California,” Nauslar said in a telephone interview. “However, one or two heat waves can quickly change things, as we’ve seen before.”

While snowpack and melting snow provide moisture on the ground that can delay the start of the fire season, that moisture also promotes the growth of fuels like grass and brush, increasing the risk of wildfires, especially at mid-elevations like this the fuel will dry up, Nauslar said. As a result, Nauslar said grass fires could start in Idaho and parts of the West in the next month or so.

Nauslar and other meteorologists and officials will continue to monitor fire risk and activity as temperatures rise and risk levels change.

“One thing to warn people about is that just because we may have a delayed start to the fire season doesn’t mean there won’t be fires,” Nauslar said. “When large fires happen in your yard or near you, it can have a big impact on you, even though it may not be a ‘bigger’ fire season on a larger scale. No matter the year, we always have fires and we almost always have big fires in the West at some point.”

Requirements for Smokejumper

According to the McCall Smokejumpers website, the minimum physical requirements a smokejumper candidate must meet on the first day of training are:

Seven pull-ups

Twenty-five push-ups

Forty-five sit-ups

Run 1.5 miles in under 11 minutes (that’s a 7:20 per mile pace)

According to McCall Smokejumpers, in smokejumper training, candidates must also demonstrate packing 110 pounds of gear for a distance of 3 miles in 90 minutes or less.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *