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From Wildland Firefighter to Smokejumper

An Up Close Look at the Life of a Redmond Smokejumper

Article by Lynette Confer

Photography by Miguel Edwards

Originally published in Bend Lifestyle

Since 1964, a local team of elite wildland firefighters has called Redmond home. The Redmond Smokejumpers have a long history of serving our region and our country with their unique skill set, jumping from airplanes to safely and quickly parachute in as close as possible to fires in remote, often rough terrain, with a goal of early containment to these potentially high-risk fires. Located just east of Redmond at the Roberts Field Airport, the Redmond Air Center (RAC) serves as the base for this group of highly skilled wildland firefighters.

The Smokejumper program has been in existence since 1940, when the first jump was made on the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho. Since that time, this program and the highly trained wildland firefighters typically serve as the initial attack resource for wildfires in remote areas. Although the total number of smokejumpers varies year to year, the Redmond Smokejumper Base is a medium size base with funding for 50 smokejumpers.

Although their base is local, the Redmond Smokejumpers are part of the national program and a shared resource across the nation. They can be called at a moment’s notice to fires in Alaska, California, Nevada and elsewhere across the nation. “Each region has a different fire season, and some, like California, are at risk year round,” explains Redmond Smokejumper Program Manager Josh Cantrell. “Our fire season in Central Oregon is generally June through the end of September.”

In April each year, new recruits are brought on for a 6-7 week training program. “The attrition rate with rookie training varies, but averages about 40 percent,” states Cantrell. “If we bring on eight recruits, I hope to have five make it through training.” Requirements for entry into the rookie smokejumper program are physical, medical and at least 90 days of wildland firefighting experience. “We are purely teaching the rookie how to work as a smokejumper, and that largely is how to jump out of a plane. Training ensures that the individual is proficient under canopy so that they can safely land a jump out of that plane in a remote area and get to the primary job, which is fighting that fire.”

There are smokejumpers who return year after year. The seasoned smokejumpers have to pass physical testing that includes push-ups, sit-ups, and a run in a determined amount of time. “The other essential requirement is body weight,” explains Cantrell. “We jump out of the plane with about 90 pounds of gear.” Body weight requirements are 120 lb. minimum and 210 lb. maximum. The body weight limit is driven largely by the limitations of the equipment.

Once a recruit becomes a rookie smokejumper, their training prepares them for their first fire jump of the year. “That first jump is their first jump in a non-controlled setting,” states Cantrell. “Something that is unique to a parachutist is that, once you are out of that airplane, you are entirely on your own. That can be in Alaska, on a ridge in Nevada, some remote rocky slope or deep in timber. A smokejumper needs the confidence and skills to get themselves safely to the ground, where they need to be.” The intense training a smokejumper goes through gives them the tools to handle what they will encounter in the completely variable, and mostly unpredictable and unknown nature of their job.

This job of a smokejumper is inherently full of challenges on many levels. “There’s an ongoing battle of quality of life,” notes Cantrell. “During the summertime, we are here, from early morning until after dark. We have to balance family life and work. And, this is an arduous job – physically demanding, long hours, mentally taxing and we work within a huge organization with huge wheels that have to turn to get things done.” But along with the challenges, you can see there is a deep love and gratitude for the job Cantrell is charged with. “I love the adventure and the people I work with. It’s a very rewarding job,” Cantrell says. Throughout his 25 plus year career as a USFS Smokejumper, Cantrell has had the opportunity to travel to 48 states.

“The biggest challenge is absolutely being away from loved ones and the unexpected nature of the job. It’s certainly not lost on us that it’s really hard on our loved ones back at home,” agrees Joe Madden, a Redmond Smokejumper veteran. “You come here in the morning and don’t know where you are going to sleep that night. One of my favorite things in the whole world is to jump on a fire where you fly into the wilderness and it requires team problem solving to identify the jump site. That adventure is the pinnacle of the job for me.”

Smokejumpers serve our country and communities doing a job that few are prepared or qualified to do. “Finding people who want to do this, can do it and want to return is a challenge,” admits Cantrell. “For me this started as a way to pay for school, and yet, here I am. That’s not an uncommon story for those who find something they love to do.”

Joe Madden, Redmond Smokejumper

A Redmond Smokejumper for the past 10 years, firefighting was always a summer job for Madden until he started smokejumping. “It began to feel more like a career path after that.” Madden has been helping with Smokejumper rookie training for the past few years. “I love building everyone up. We want them to demonstrate proficiency so that at the end of training they can look back and have confidence in themselves and the program, so that no matter where they go, the smokejumper program is functioning at that higher level.”

Layers of Gear Protect Smokejumpers

●     Helmet (usually downhill ski helmet with metal grill attached)

●     Knee Pads/Shin Pads (hockey or motocross)

●     Jump Suit/Girdle - protects lower body (kevlar with hockey padding)

●     Jump Jacket (kevlar with padding)

●     Jump Harness

●     Parachute Packs (main on back, reserve on front)

●     Personal Gear (PG) Bag (holds firefighting gear for ground)

●     Pack Out Bag (jump gear is stored in here after arrival at wildfire jump site)

Preparation for fire season happens year-round so that when the first siren sounds, smokejumpers are ready to respond. All jump gear, except for parachutes, is manufactured at the RAC. Along sewing gear, supply boxes are built, tools are serviced, and other such tasks are completed during the off season. 

Smokejumper training ensures that the individual is proficient under canopy so that they can safely land a jump out of that plane in a remote area and get to the primary job, which is to fight that fire.

–Josh Cantrell, Redmond Smokejumper Program Manager

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