top of page

How to Get a Jump on Forest Fires



Todd Jinkins knows exactly how long it takes to get ready for a work trip: “When we get a fire call, we try to be suited up on the plane with all our equipment within six minutes,” he says. He’s a smokejumper, a member of an elite crew of firefighters dispatched to remote areas of the American wilderness to suppress or contain wildfires. He’s been commuting to work by parachute for 18 years.

Based in Boise, Idaho, the 45-year-old is the deputy chief of the Great Basin Smokejumpers, part of the Bureau of Land Management.

When a call comes in, up to eight smokejumpers pile into a Twin Otter aircraft and head out to the fire, which could be anywhere from Idaho to Nevada, Utah, Colorado or Arizona.

The plane is doorless and flies in low, at about 300 feet, so they can scout the terrain and pick a landing spot. It climbs back up to 3,000 feet, and they jump.

Mr. Jinkins has to carry almost everything he’ll need—he could be at the site for two days or two weeks—so he jumps with an extra 100 pounds of gear attached to him.

He has a personal gear bag, a parachute pack and a reserve chute. The Boise smokejumpers make their equipment by hand. The base has a small manufacturing operation with about two dozen sewing machines. Learning to use them is part of rookie training. Wildfire season lasts from May through September. During the off-season, they churn out bags, parachute packs and jumpsuits.

“In the winter, we’re busy sewing,” Mr. Jinkins says. “You’ll have a bunch of young 20-, 30-, 40-year-old guys sitting at sewing machines all day.” He says it took him years to get proficient.

The jumpsuit is made of puncture-resistant Kevlar and Nomex material for parachuting into wooded areas. Motocross-style shin guards and a ski helmet with a face mask protect against branches. He wears heavy-duty leather boots by White’s Boots, which have an extra thick sole for walking on smoldering ash.

His pants have a carabiner sewn into them and a side pocket with 150 feet of rappelling rope, in case he lands in a tree.

Smokejumpers don’t fight fire with water. “The only water we have, we drink,” Mr. Jinkins says. Instead they dig fire breaks, cutting a line of vegetation around a fire and digging down to mineral soil to create a dirt barrier that, hopefully, the fire won’t cross.

They use a Pulaski ax, which looks like a combination ax and hoe, and a short-handled shovel. Sometimes, they use a chain saw. The heavy tools get packed into a crate, along with enough food for two men for two days. The boxes get tossed out of the plane after the firefighters.

Inside his jumpsuit, Mr. Jinkins also fits a small tent and sleeping pad. His gear bag holds a radio, GPS unit and fire shelter, which looks like an aluminum foil sleeping bag. He’s never had to use it. He says, “If you have ever had to climb into one to save your life, you’ve had one really, really bad day.” He might have an extra pair of socks and underwear stuffed into a pocket.

Sometimes, jumpers will finish one fire only to be told to pack up and get back on the plane to get dropped off at another one. “We call that ‘jumping a dirty,’ ’’ Mr. Jinkins says, because there’s no hope of, nor any point in, cleaning up in between jumps.

“A toothbrush, toothpaste and floss is about the extent of our personal hygiene equipment,” he says.

He also carries a spoon, a bottle of hot sauce and a small multi-tool. His first-aid kit always has an epinephrine shot, because digging occasionally disturbs nests of ground bees. A good headlamp is another must. “The best time to fight fire is at night, because the humidity goes up and the temperature goes down, so the fire diminishes,” he says.

He keeps his iPhone in his pocket, even while fighting fires.

Mr. Jinkins grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and joined the Marines at 18, serving four years, including in the first Gulf War. He was on the rowing team at the University of Wisconsin, and when some crewmates moved out West in the mid-1990s to fight wildland fires, he tagged along.

There are about 400 active smokejumpers in the U.S., spread around nine bases. Sometimes a few of Boise’s 75 smokejumpers will help the Alaska Fire Service base in Fairbanks. On those jumps, Mr. Jinkins brings a collapsible fishing rod, because Alaska’s unpredictable weather means he could get stranded for days.

Mr. Jinkins says he loves the job, but there’s one aspect he’ll never get used to: turbulence. “I get airsick,” he admits. Above a fire, hot air currents and smoke plumes bounce their small plane around. “In the inside of my jump jacket, I always carry a few puke sacks. It happens every flight. I just consider it a job hazard now.”

bottom of page