How smokejumpers prepare for wildfire season

Photos of the rigorous training this special type of firefighter endures.

  • A rookie smokejumper organizes himself after a tower jump at the McCall, Idaho smokejumper base.

    Matt Mills McKnight
  • A smokejumper hangs from 'The Mutilator,' a mechanized pulley system that lifts the trainee into the air and drops them approximately 35 feet to the ground at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour.

    Matt Mills McKnight
  • Smokejumpers practice their technique on the let-down simulator at the smokejumper base in McCall, Idaho.

    Matt Mills McKnight
  • A smokejumper is dropped from 'The Mutilator.' The system is designed to help smokejumpers learn how to land in rough conditions during fire season.

    Matt Mills McKnight
  • A crew of veteran jumpers practice "Hit It" drills with training foreman Larry Wilson before boarding a Twin Otter plane for live jumps.

    Matt Mills McKnight
  • Brett Bittenbender stands in the equipment room doing laundry. Washing equipment and uniforms is one of the less-than-glamorous components of the smokejumper's profession, but is required to keep the operation running.

    Matt Mills McKnight
  • A smokejumper packs his emergency chute after a practice jump.

    Matt Mills McKnight
  • Smokejumpers are required to sustain themselves on little food, even in harsh conditions.

    Matt Mills McKnight
  • A chainsaw, with the blade under a protective cover and the chain removed, keeps new recruits motivated during an end-of-day obstacle course. "Run, Ned, Run!" shouts veteran jumper Matt Carroll, using a term for rookie smokejumpers to egg on recruit Nick Hasty.

    Matt Mills McKnight
  • "Let's go! You can do it! C'mon!" shouts a chorus of 'Neds' or rookie smokejumpers as Michael Kolb runs through the tires at the end of an obstacle course.

    Matt Mills McKnight
  • Forest Service smokejumpers throughout the United States have jumped with circular parachute canopies since 1939, although square canopies were developed in the 1960s and 1970s and are currently used by smokejumpers who work for the Bureau of Land Management.

    Matt Mills McKnight
  • A smokejumper lands with his parachute still billowing during a training exercise in an open field outside of McCall, Idaho.

    Matt Mills McKnight
  • Pete Dutchek, a veteran smokejumper, picks up his pack and begins the return hike back to his crew after getting pushed by the wind a few hundred yards away from his target zone. One of the biggest dangers for smokejumpers during fire season is landing in a tree, but rigorous training helps them prepare for and prevent accidents.

    Matt Mills McKnight

 

The job of the smokejumper is a dangerous one. They parachute out of planes to fight fires in difficult-to-access landscapes, especially here in the West. But it’s not a field that attracts firefighters with a death wish, says photographer Matt Mills McKnight, who spent two days with smokejumpers-in-training in McCall, Idaho in 2010. The Forest Service smokejumping program, which is over 70 years old, employs over 270 jumpers stationed across the West. The people who enter the field do so with a full understanding of the perils. “These men and women are very calculated in the risks they are taking and have trained extremely hard to ensure the utmost safety in any scenario they enter,” McKnight says. Every spring, before the summer fire season gets going, novice jumpers, like many of those depicted in McKnight’s photographs, undergo strenuous training in order to prepare them for the uncertain and rapidly changing conditions they will face in the field. Experienced jumpers also take refresher courses and help train the new recruits. Once the fires start burning and smokejumpers are called in, they have to be ready to go. -Kate Schimel