On the Frontlines of Wildfires, Smoke Jumpers Battle Blazes

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A rookie Smoke Jumper parachutes into Lake Lindbergh as part of Smoke Jumper training June 15, 2007 in Condon, Montana. (Justin Sullivan / Staff/Getty)

Parts of the west and northwest are navigating through the height of fire season with extra hot and dry conditions.

Wildfires have burned an estimated 500 acres of heavy brush and timber about 10 miles north of Leavenworth, Washington. At the center of the state, the Mills Canon blaze covers nearly 35 square miles with only 40 percent contained. And over in Oregon, hundreds of firefighters have arrived on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation to tackle a fire that is covering more than 10,000 acres.

The job of containing and putting out a fire is a massive undertaking. Fire fighters are the first line of defense, and park services are working with local officials, hotshots, and smoke jumpers.

Jeff Davis is a long time smoke jumper now living in Silver City, New Mexico. Fire fighting has changed a lot since he got his start in 1957. Jeff was a smoke jumper for 22 years, from 1957 to 1976, for the forest service based mostly in Missoula, Montana. Today he weighs in on the unpredictable nature of firestorms, and how smoke jumping has evolved over time. 


Jeff Davis

Produced by:

Allie Ferguson and Arwa Gunja


T.J. Raphael

Comments [3]

Dave Chevalier from Ogden, UT

Our folks who do this work are real heroes. They endanger themselves to preserve our watershed, protect the urban interface and keep people safe. We owe them so much for their sacrifices. Thanks for sharing this piece.

Jul. 17 2014 03:27 PM
Brian Campbell from Twin Cities, MN

The fires in Yellowstone in 1988 were not made particularly worse by excess fuel build up from fire suppression efforts. Most of Yellowstone Park is dominated by Lodgepole pine, a species that essentially requires fire to reproduce. As such, that forest type is a "low frequency--high intensity" fire regime. The area had burned extensively about 100 years prior and the mature forest was due for a fire in order to reproduce. The fire removes competition, enriches the soil and plants the seeds that are only released from the serotinous cones by fire.

For fire suppression to make things worse, the forest must have a shorter typical return interval than 100 years. In the case of Yellowstone, the length of fire suppression had only been a few decades--far shorter a time span than the natural fire cycle. Only fire suppression exceeding the natural fire return interval causes excess build up of fuels. Fires had been allowed to burn in Yellowstone since 1972 and only suppressed for about half of a natural fire cycle there before that.

I learned this in forestry school at Colorado State from forest ecologist Dr. Rick Laven and wildland fire scientist Dr. Phil Omi. I was a fire fighter in Yellowstone in 1988. It was a monumental event, but essentially natural.

Jul. 17 2014 03:26 PM
Rahul Puttagunta from Texas

I listened to this story and, Mr.Davis, thank you for caring for the wilderness.

I appreciate you giving your perspective on Smoke Jumping.

Jul. 17 2014 01:05 PM

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