Stop by the Smokejumper Visitor Center in Missoula, Montana, to learn about the men and women who risk their lives to put out blazes in remote locations.
By Richard Bauman
It was Red Skies of Montana that first piqued my interest in smokejumpers. I was 11 years old in 1952 when I saw that movie in living Technicolor. One scene that I’ve never forgotten is the sight of smokejumpers, clad in protective clothing and headgear akin to football helmets, parachuting from a plane into a forest of orange flame.
When I learned about the Smokejumper Visitor Center in Missoula, Montana, that scene popped into my mind, and I had to add it to our next trip’s itinerary. It was a good choice for an out-of-the-ordinary place to visit.
Smokejumpers are specially trained firefighters who parachute to the edge of wildfires in remote areas and fight the raging flames with basic hand tools. These self-sufficient and self-contained crews of six or seven men and women are frontline wildfire fighters. When they parachute into an area, they carry some supplies and equipment, but most of their food and heavier equipment is air-dropped after they are on the ground.
When the job is done, smokejumpers pack up their gear, which weighs roughly 100 pounds per person, and hike out to the nearest road, which can be several miles away.
The Smokejumper Visitor Center
The Smokejumper Visitor Center is at the Aerial Fire Depot, adjacent to the Missoula International Airport. It is part of the Missoula Smokejumpers’ Base and Center. As the largest smokejumper base in the United States, with 85 smokejumpers, it’s a great place to learn firsthand about smokejumpers, the rigors and dangers of their job, and the equipment that helps keep them safe.
The center’s numerous exhibits display techniques for fighting wildfires, the history of smokejumpers, and smokejumper garb and equipment. One exhibit features a replica of the interior of a 1930s fire lookout tower.
The day we visited, a crew of smokejumpers was being dispatched to a fire in eastern Montana. We were allowed to see the men and women don their jumpsuits, strap on their parachutes, gather their small gear bags, and jog to the waiting aircraft that would fly them about 400 miles to a fire near Miles City, Montana. While the smokejumpers were suiting up, others were loading cargo into the plane, which included food, first-aid materials, and some tools that later would be dropped for the firefighting crew.
Smokejumping dates to the 1930s. Russians are credited with having formed the first formal smokejumper units in 1936. Even today, Russia has thousands of smokejumpers, which is more than any other country. The United States has the second-largest number of smokejumpers (approximately 400), and started using airborne firefighters in 1939. The country’s first permanent jump facilities were established in 1940 in Winthrop, Washington, and Ninemile Camp, Montana. Ninemile Camp was the predecessor to the Missoula Smokejumper Base.
No doubt smokejumping is a dangerous job, but surprisingly few fatalities have been recorded in its 70-year history. The worst smokejumper disaster in the United States occurred in 1949 when 12 smokejumpers perished in the Mann Gulch fire near Helena, Montana. That disaster prompted the creation of modern safety standards used by wildland firefighters.
Thanks to those safety standards and advances in equipment, parachuting into a fire area is, at least statistically, no more dangerous than ground-based firefighting. Of course, jump-related injuries do occur, though not as frequently as one might expect. This is because fire location, weather, wind, and other factors go into the decision as to whether a particular fire is safe to jump.
Smokejumpers And Sewing Machines
Smokejumpers not only have to know how to fight fires, but they also have to know how to sew. The center in Missoula has a sewing room with a half-dozen heavy-duty industrial sewing machines. To assure his or her jumpsuit jacket and pants fit properly, each smokejumper at the Missoula base literally sews together his or her own garb. The jumpsuits are made from padded Kevlar, the same material used in bulletproof vests.
Most of the gear the 85 firefighters at this base use is distinctively smokejumper-oriented and made by them. The small number of smokejumpers in the United States doesn’t generate enough demand for commercial manufacturers to produce it. So, besides jumpsuits, smokejumpers make and sew their own backpacks, parachute harnesses, and all the other fabric-based equipment. They don’t make their own parachutes, however.
Smokejumpers have always used protective helmets, which have changed somewhat through the years. At one time they used modified football helmets, starting with leather headgear in the 1940s. Then, for a while, the head protectors were similar to those used by modern professional football players. Today their helmets are more like those worn by skiers and snowboarders.
Another difference between helmets used in sports activities and those used by smokejumpers is the steel mesh face cage. It’s designed to protect jumpers from tree branches and impact, but to also allow enough visibility to maneuver during the jump.
Once the smokejumpers are on the ground, their jump helmets and jumpsuits come off, and they wear hardhats, gloves, and normal firefighting attire. Their jump gear and parachutes are stowed in fire-resistant bags, which they make themselves.
Glowing embers can burn holes in a parachute canopy, and tree branches can snag them. Smokejumpers become adept at repairing their chutes. As one smokejumper said, “It can be a bit disconcerting to look up and see all those patches on your chute. But at least you know who patched them.”
Parachute Repair And Packing
Holes in parachutes and other jump-caused damage are found during inspection of the chutes in the center’s parachute loft. It’s a 30-foot-high room where each chute is suspended from the ceiling and examined following a specific protocol. Damage is noted and repaired before a chute can be repacked by a certified parachute rigger.
The parachutes are repacked in the rigging room. They are laid out on long tables where the risers and lines can be aligned accurately and the chute can be folded and properly packed.
There can be quite a bit of downtime for a smokejumper, but that doesn’t mean he or she just idles away the hours. Smokejumpers are required to perform 60 to 90 minutes of physical training most days during fire season. To meet this requirement, smokejumpers at Missoula have a weight room, an aerobic workout room, and a 2-mile running course.
Other duties can include packing cargo boxes for fires, checking parachutes, maintaining equipment, sewing new equipment, and performing numerous other miscellaneous jobs.
Smokejumping isn’t easy, and after visiting the Smokejumper Visitor Center in Missoula, most people come away with not just a greater appreciation for the job’s dangerous nature, but also a greater appreciation for the service that smokejumpers provide in preserving our wildlands.
Missoula Smokejumper Visitor Center
Aerial Fire Depot
5765 W. Broadway St.
Missoula, MT 59808
45-minute tours conducted several times each day during the summer months.
Other Smokejumper Bases
The United States has two Bureau of Land Management bases and seven U.S.D.A. Forest Service smokejumper bases, all in the western and northwestern United States. In addition to the U.S. Forest Service base in Montana, you may wish to consider visiting other bases during your travels. Below are the locations and contact phone numbers for each base.
These bases have varying degrees of availability to visitors, depending on the facility and time of year. Please call before you visit a base to verify visiting hours and if and when tours will be available.
Bureau of Land Management Bases
1513 Gaffney Road
Fort Wainwright, AK 99703
3833 S. Development Ave.
Boise, ID 83705
U.S.D.A. Forest Service Bases
605 S. Mission St.
McCall, ID 83638
Grangeville Air Center
Route 2, Box 475
Grangeville, ID 83530
West Yellowstone Smokejumpers
West Yellowstone, MT 59758
6101 Airport Road
Redding, CA 96002
North Cascades Smokejumpers
23 Intercity Airport Road
Winthrop, WA 98862
Redmond Air Center
1740 S.E. Ochoco Way
Redmond, OR 97756