Smokejumpers prepare for Alaska fire season

Daredevils drop hundreds of feet to suppress wildland fires with minimal tools

Posted: Wednesday, April 28, 2010

FORT WAINWRIGHT - Bob Schober hears the same question a lot.

John Wagner / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
John Wagner / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

"Why would you jump out of a perfectly good airplane?"

Schober, a 16-year smokejumper with the Alaska Fire Service, has a standard response: The plane isn't perfect. It's missing a door - the open hatch for parachuting.

Schober is one of the 70 Alaska Smokejumpers who began training this month in preparation for summer fires. The federally funded daredevils drop hundreds of feet to suppress wildland fires with minimal tools.

On Monday morning, three planeloads of smokejumpers parachuted from a cloudy sky onto a open patch of dead grass on Birch Hill. It was the second practice for this year's second training group.

By smokejumpers' standards, the landing spot was fairly easy to hit. There was about a half a football field of space surrounded by leafless trees, and the slope was gradual.

As the week goes on, they will face increasingly tough landing spots that feature steep slopes and plenty of ways to get "treed up."

Though it is based on Fort Wainwright, the Bureau of Land Management operation is staffed entirely by nonmilitary personnel and its only connections with the Army are its location and an agreement to fight fires on post.

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