As Wildfire Season Looms, Alaskan Smokejumpers Suit Up To Face It

Wildfire season is approaching, and smoke jumpers are refreshing their skills in preparation for what's expected to be a busy summer. These jumpers are a small, elite group of men and women who take to the air when a fire can't be fought on the ground alone. Emily Schwing of member station KUAC reports from a training camp in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Summer is approaching and so is wildfire season. That means roughly 400 smokejumpers in the western United States are refreshing their skills. They get the call when firefighters on the ground can't contain a fire. Emily Schwing of member station KUAC took a trip to the only smokejumping base in Alaska to find out how these elite firefighters train.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUMP SHACK)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Conway?

CONWAY: Yep.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Zabits? Nope. No. Lisa Allen?

LISA ALLEN: Yes.

EMILY SCHWING, BYLINE: Sixty-four smokejumpers crowd into what's known as the Jump Shack. It's the headquarters for the Alaska Smokejumpers. They're here for morning roll call.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUMP SHACK)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Bradley?

BRADLEY: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Morton?

SCHWING: They have to complete five refresher training jumps, before the wildfire season ramps up.

ROB ALLEN: It's still fun every time.

SCHWING: That's Operations Supervisor, Rob Allen. For more than two decades, he's made a career of fighting some of the most remote wildfires in the western U.S.

ALLEN: It's just fun to fly. Once the canopy opens up, it's really cool. Everything gets really quiet. All the airplane noise, the air rushing, everything, it's just really quiet, so you can hear things. You can see the Alaska Range on a day like today.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE)

SCHWING: Refresher jumps happen over a swampy field a few miles from the Jump Shack. The wind blows through last year's dead, dry grass. There are small patches of snow leftover from winter, but the sky is clear and the wind is calm as two firefighters jump from an airplane circling 3,000 feet overhead.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRASS CRUNCHING)

SCHWING: It takes a few minutes for them to steer their red, white and blue parachutes toward an orange target on the ground.

MARTY MEIEROTTO: Woo!

(LAUGHTER)

SCHWING: Marty Meierotto is one of the first smokejumpers to hit the ground.

MEIEROTTO: I don't particularly like fighting fire, but I love flying and being in the woods and this is about the best job you can have to do both.

SCHWING: His seven-year-old daughter, Noah, came to watch him practice.

NOAH MEIEROTTO: I want to be a smokejumper.

MEIEROTTO: I think maybe she'll go to school and do something else.

SCHWING: In addition to refining their skills, smokejumpers also have to stay physically fit. Among other things, they have to carry 110 pounds of gear for three miles in less than 90 minutes. Crew Supervisor Robert Jager says it's the most nerve-wracking part.

ROBER JAGER: Somebody is timing you and it's for your job. So it's pass or fail. If you don't pass, you don't have a job.

SCHWING: But Jager hasn't failed yet.

JAGER: It's always close.

(LAUGHTER)

JAGER: Even if you get it easy, it's still hard.

SCHWING: This line of work comes with lots of perks - mostly the outdoor adventure kind. Lisa Allen started fighting wildfires in 1998, eventually working her way to smokejumping. One of her best memories comes from Nevada's Great Basin. She calls it a thrill moment.

ALLEN: We got to jump, take care of the fire, hang out, and then get picked up by a helicopter, and go back, pack up our parachutes and do it again.

SCHWING: Allen admits she has run into trouble on the job, but she says it's extremely rare.

ALLEN: We had a thunder cell come over the fire and it just pretty much blew out and chased us out of our jump spot and made us run.

SCHWING: Smokejumpers don't like to talk about malfunctions and emergencies, but for the last three months they've been training for them not just here but at eight other smokejumping bases across the western United States. They're honing their skills to deal with whatever this year's fire season throws their way. For NPR News, I'm Emily Schwing in Fairbanks.

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