Boise smokejumpers' year-round fight against wildfires

Posted at 10:25 PM, Sep 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-06 00:38:15-04

When a remote wildfire breaks out, the BLM will often call in their team of smokejumpers.

"Getting people on the ground to support the water and retardant is crucial,” Matt Bowers a crew supervisor and smokejumper says.

Bowers has made more than 430 jumps, so he knows a thing or two about parachuting toward an active fire.

"I think the more you do it the more confident you get," he says.

The gear Bowers wears as a smokejumper is heavy. The suit itself can weigh upwards of 90 lbs. When you factor in the gear jumpers need to camp and battle the flames, carry-out jump gear can weigh near 130 lbs.

Jumpers like Bowers often land in thick forest or rocky terrain to get as close as they can, safely, to the fire.

"We may be able to land right next to the fire if the fire behavior warrants and we have a safe place to get to,” Bowers says. “Or we may jump miles away.”

BLM policy permits smokejumpers to stay on the job for up to two weeks.

"Most of our fires are two to three days if we can get to them quick and get them contained and controlled or get more resources in to help," Bowers says.

If you visit the base during wildfire season, you’ll find it pretty empty.

"Right now we have a plane in Wyoming, Northern Utah, Southeast Idaho, East Oregon and Northern Nevada,” Bowers says.

Boise is home to one of two BLM Smokejumper bases in the country. The other is located in Alaska. About 75 jumpers are based in Boise.

Even when fire season isn’t in full force, the jumpers are hard at work. They have a fully-equipped sewing room on base to repair and make new gear.

"We manufacture everything we use with the exception of the parachute itself… but we do repair them,” Bowers says.

For those that are up to it, it’s a year-round job, making you part of a larger team all working toward the same goal.

"Whether we parachute, helicopter, hike, drive… ultimately, when we get on the fire line, we're all doing the same task and same mission: to try to control the fire," Bowers says.