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for people who care about the West

How smokejumpers prepare for wildfire season

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


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