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Jeff Flock: Smoke jumpers prepare for summer fire season

Jeff Flock  

Jeff Flock is CNN's Chicago bureau chief and correspondent.

Q: Who are the "smoke jumpers"? How many jumpers are there?

FLOCK: Smoke jumpers are first and foremost fire fighters. They are often the first firefighters to reach the scene of wild fires. That is because they parachute in to terrain that is inaccessible by other means.

CNN's Jeff Flock shows what the smokejumpers wear on the way down to the fire (May 3)

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There are currently nine smoke-jumper bases in the United States and there are about 450 smoke jumpers in the country. Smoke jumping began back in the late 1930's in the state of Washington. The idea of smoke jumping came because of fires that were in inaccessible areas and the only means of getting firefighters to the scene was by the air.

Smoke jumpers usually jump out of the plane at about 3,000 feet above the fire. It takes them about two or three minutes to get to the ground. In a busy fire season, smoke jumpers make about 20 or 25 jumps. The Bureau of Land Management, the organization that most smoke jumpers work for, says that smoke jumpers successfully control about 97 percent of the fires they jump into. For them to be successful, they need to get to fires when they are small. And so, they can be suited up and in the air within eight minutes of getting a call and headed to the fire.

About five percent of smoke jumpers are female.

Q: What kind of training are they undergoing?

FLOCK: First of all, the physical requirements for smoke jumpers is that they be able to do 25 push-ups, 45 sit-ups, 7 pull-ups and run a mile and a half in under 11 minutes. They undergo extensive parachute training so that they are able to steer on the way down where they need to go because they are jumping in areas with a lot of trees. They need to learn to move around the trees or learn how to land in the trees.

In addition to the parachute training they undergo, all of the other typical training that fire fighters would undergo, everything from running hoses, chopping down trees, creating a fire line and other skills. About a third of smoke jumpers are certified emergency medical technicians also because, obviously, if they have any sort of medical problems out there, they need to be able to treat themselves because the are in such a remote area.

Smoke jumpers earn typically between $12 and $17 an hour.

Q: What are the predictions for summer fires this year?

FLOCK: Last year the states that were most hard hit by wild fires were Idaho, Montana and Alaska. This year the states that are targeted are parts of California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming, primarily the Pacific northwest as well as Florida have dry conditions. They are preparing for an even worse fire season than they had last year. They have increased the number of smoke jumpers by 30 percent.

Q: Has fire suppression in previous years made the wildfire risk higher, because of accumulated underbrush and dry vegetation?

FLOCK: Some environmentalists argue that fire is a natural occurrence and needs to take place in order to keep the timberland vibrant and keep the fuel from building up to dangerous levels. While smoke jumpers would agree, often times wildfires occur in areas that jeopardize people's homes and other structures and population centers. These are the areas that they focus most of their attention on.

Just to put it in perspective, last year in the 2000 wildfire season there were 90,674 fires. The 10-year average for a typical year's number of fires is 106,393. So last year there was a below average number of fires, but many more acres were destroyed. Last year about 7.2 million acres were burned. In a typical year about 3.8 million are burned.

Some would argue because of the fuel build up in the better job of suppressing fires, it has made for larger and more difficult to fight fires.

Q: Do you have any final thoughts to share?

FLOCK: Smoke jumpers truly are an elite corp. They are all in incredibly good physical condition. Many of them have put aside personal relationships and other aspects of their lives to focus intensely during the fire season on fighting fires. These are the kinds of people that would be the true winners of the "Survivor" contest.

Dry weather fuels record wildfires in U.S.
August 2, 2000

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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