by Sandra Fu

Attention thrill seekers, if you hate your desk job and often daydream of zooming down a mountain or jumping out of a plane, then becoming a smokejumper may be the job for you.

What is a smokejumper you may ask? Smokejumpers are the fire-fighting elite, like the Navy Seals in the military. When a fire starts in a city, accessibility is not usually a dire issue. Fire trucks can typically navigate their way on paved roads to the location and firefighters have ladders, hoses, etc. to get the job done. Now imagine a wildfire blazing out of control, the flames too hot and dangerous to approach, and even if you could the remote location or treacherous terrain would stop any vehicle dead in its tracks. Sound scary? You bet! A place where only the truly fearless (or truly insane) would dare to tread? Well, that is the typical environment of a smokejumper.

Now I may be taking too light of a tone, making the job sound exciting and almost a twisted sort of glamorous, but rest assured that being a smokejumper is extremely dangerous and you really have to love it to do it.

The profession actually began as somewhat of an experiment in 1939, when a man named David Godwin, the national forest-fire officer of the U.S. at the time, decided there needed to be different methods of fighting fires, especially fires that are difficult to get to. They gathered men together and worked on training, rigging, parachuting and some experimental trial jumps. The first official jump was made on July 15, 1940 in northern Idaho, and it was successful.

Many changes have occurred since then. For example -- as with many professions during that time period -- back then women were not allowed to participate. In fact, it was only in 1981 that the first female smokejumper, Deanne Shulman, broke the gender barrier. And it was not easy. As with most male-dominated professions, females were not exactly welcomed and the qualifications were geared towards men. In 1979, Shulman did not make the cut for rookie training. Even though she passed the extremely difficult and rigorous fitness test, weighing in at 125, she did not pass the weight requirement -- which was then 130 to 190 pounds. The ranks were only opened to women after a formal Equal Employment Opportunity complaint was filed. Shulman finally made it through in 1981 and the current weight requirements are 120 to 200 pounds.

To give you a taste of what Shulman had to go through let’s go over what the training program is like at the Grangeville Smokejumper station. First of all, one can only participate in the five-week program if s/he has a minimum of three years experience in the firefighting industry. Secondly, it is a grueling session consisting of intense physical conditioning and mental endurance tests. Rookies must demonstrate proficiency in handling a parachute and landing, plus pass tests such as an all-night line dig -- a typical strategy where they dig and use natural barriers such as rocks so they disturb the soil as little as possible -- after a fifteen mile run. Another strength and endurance test requires participants to carry a 110-pound pack three miles within 90 minutes. Many drop out after the first week -- also known as “hell-week” -- of the program, men and women alike.

La-ona De Wilde brings hose to a hot spot

While women definitely remain a minority -- among the more that 400 smokejumpers in U.S., only 27 are female -- they must pass all the same qualifications as men do because a blazing fire knows no gender. Smokejumpers must be able to combat high winds, steep terrain, heavy fuel loads, and drought conditions, regardless of gender. And when a smokejumper enters a fire they must carry enough food and water to be self-sustaining for two days, in addition to their equipment. Women carry packs that weigh the same as the ones men carry and they work just as hard, because if they don’t take the job seriously enough they won’t be welcomed or respected.

When one female smokejumper named Michelle Barger is asked - as she frequently is - if she ever feels insecure in a male-dominated field, she replies, “If you can do the work you are respected like anyone else.” She expressed that she shares the same sentiments as her co-workers, who all believe that no one -- male or female -- should be there if they can’t do the work.

Edmund Ward, who is the base manager of the Missoula, Montana smokejumper station, says that he doesn’t take into account gender. He estimates that among the 70 plus smokejumpers at his station approximately ten of them are women and none of the them are given preferential treatment. Ward explains that when the requests come in -- if they are answered, as some fires are just too dangerous -- assignments are determined by the jump list, which is established at the beginning of the season using the tried and true method of pulling names out of a hat. Then it simply becomes an issue of rotation.

And while Ward concedes that some of the top younger men, who are all excellent athletes, may go into the training program feeling a certain way about the women, they usually don’t come out feeling the same way. Ward has seen many men exit the program with a new attitude and has heard them acknowledge that the women are their equals. He says they are all one big happy family.

Fire photos by Mike McMillan ©

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© Melt Magazine 2004