By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Kael Donley.
There’s a constant unearthly roar in the brush. Trees split and fall, disintegrating into a wall of smoke and flames that’s nearly 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat presses on your face so hard it seems solid. You’re trying to fight the forest fire before it eats up enough fuel to power it over another few thousand acres. There’s 16 of you (at most) and you haven’t slept for days. If worst comes to worst, you can call in more reserves, but that costs money and time. Instead you take deep stinging breaths through your nose and focus on your years of training.
Sound a little stressful? That’s the reality for a small group of elite firefighters called smokejumpers. Their job is to parachute into wilderness fires and stop them before they get out of control. Yes, that’s what we said, parachute in.
The smokejumping program began as an experiment in 1939, created under the assumption that firefighters who had parachuted into a fire would be at peak physical condition to fight it, having not had to hike. Today, there are seven smokejumping bases throughout the mountainous areas of the States, plus two Bureau of Land Management bases; one in Alaska and one in Idaho.
Much of the training program is secretive, lest new recruits have a leg up from prior research, but firefighting techniques, emergency procedures, parachuting landing rolls, tree climbing, and parachute maneuvering are among the skills learned through years of practice. A kind of virtual jump simulator is even used at a few bases for on-the-ground practice.
There are only about 400 smokejumpers nationwide, and Kael Donley, of Fort Collins, CO, is one of them. He’s stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, and he sat down with BTR to give us a day in the life of these (possibly insane) “keepers of the flame.”
BreakThru Radio (BTR): So how did you get into the smokejumping business?
Kael Donley (KD): I guess eight years ago I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do as far as work goes, but [I] knew firefighting had always interested me–all my uncles are firefighters, but I wasn’t quite ready to commit to a long-term career so I thought I’d try wildfires, which is seasonal. Submitted an application, got really lucky, and took a job in Wyoming, and that opened my eyes to all the potential there was in wildfires. That first season I decided I wanted to get into a hot shot program and work towards becoming a smokejumper. I spent seven seasons working towards that goal, and then finally got the opportunity this year.
BTR: What’s it like being in that kind of elite group?
KD: [laughs] It can kind of feel like a club in some ways. Y’know, there’s a lot of pride that goes along with it. There’s a lot of camaraderie that goes along with it, and it’s pretty nomadic so you meet a lot of jumpers from all over the country who all work well together and have a mutual respect for what we do. There’s a stigma with being a smokejumper, too, because it is a very coveted job and hard to get. They’re very selective, and even if you are selected, it’s very difficult to make it through the training; Alaska in particular will wash maybe 40 to 50 percent of their candidates… so you’re given the opportunity and then you have to follow through.
BTR: Can you share some of the more intensive parts of the training?
KD: The training that they put on is in some ways secretive, because they don’t want potential candidates having an upper edge… though, I really don’t think it would even help, to be honest, even if they knew exactly what the training was. Every program is different, but Alaska… is extremely hard. I feel like, arguably for sure, we have one of the hardest rookie programs. It sets really high standards and I was just really happy to make it through. There’s a lot of running, a lot of hiking… the physical part of it is hard, but the psychological part of it is just as tough because they just keep the stress level so high. Everything you do has a point during the training, a goal for what they’re trying to accomplish, but really what it comes down to is they’re gonna put you under as much stress as possible and make sure that you still make the sound, quick, and correct decision in an emergency. Lots of things can go wrong when you’re under the canopy or on a fire line, so when you’re physically exhausted they want to make sure you can still go through the right procedures and save your life or save someone else’s life.
BTR: Do you always parachute in?
KD: Well it depends, but that’s our primary function. It’s called initial attack, meaning it’s a new start, it’s a fire that’s just been identified. So we try and get to them while they’re still small, and in Alaska we have the ability to jump with eight smokejumpers on one plane. So eight of us can exit the plane and try to fight the fire or make the decision to call in others. If the fire gets larger and becomes too much for eight–or even 16–smokejumpers to handle, we’ll start ordering more resources and we’ll go into an extended attack fire where we end up ordering crews of 20 people.
I did do a drive to a fire in Alaska, it was about two hours away and it was a larger one. It would have been faster to jump it, but the weather wasn’t there–the ceiling of clouds was too low. Once the clouds cleared up we jumped in a helicopter and went in and stayed for about two weeks.
BTR: You’re talking very casually, but this all sounds really awesome and exciting!
KD: Yeah it is! It’s all really fun, and I love it. I mean, for me in Alaska, they do things differently up there, you get to see a lot of cool things and the feel is just very different up there. You get to go places that nobody has likely been and meet all kinds of amazing people and… I’d say that’s why most of us do this, the amazing individuals you get to work with.
BTR: Do you ever get scared?
KD: I wouldn’t say I’m ever scared, but I definitely have anxiety about certain situations. But you evaluate things and try and recognize them for what they are, recognize the hazards and try to mitigate them and so it makes things safer and puts your mind at ease. I’ve been in situations when I’ve been like “ok we should leave because things are gonna go bad soon,” and I think that’s where our training comes in, so that as an individual and as a team you can recognize it and take care of each other and get out of those situations before they become scary.
But as far as jumping out of a plane goes… yeah I’m always nervous. I had one trainer tell me “10 years from now if you’re not nervous there’s something wrong with you.” I think a certain level of nerves and anxiety helps keep me charged as well, and keep me from being complacent. I’m always going through all the steps I was trained to do and practicing the safety procedures and trying to be as prepared as possible if something were to go wrong.
BTR: What do you think about after you’re done fighting the fire?
KD: It depends, it’s usually not a huge finale because it’s a long drawn out process. It’s a lot of adrenaline and a lot of hard work that go in initially, then if you start to get a hold in, the fire behavior starts to decrease as you make headway so your nerves go down and your adrenaline goes down–the whole pace slows down. So as you wrap things up and the fire goes out you’re pretty relaxed and ready to get out of there and go in again. I would say most of the excitement comes when you first arrive at the fire and are coming up with the plan and you see jumpers looking out the plane and thinking about how you’re going to jump and where you’re going to fly your canopy and all the hazards that are associated with flying and you’re landing spot and the fire behavior. We’ll work up to 36 to 40 hours on a fire straight before we’ll take some rest, so you can be in there for the long haul… the beginning is definitely the excitement.
BTR: Do you have a pre-jump ritual?
KD: [Laughs] I mean, I wouldn’t say I have a ritual for myself. The training they put us through is just super important, so really all my ritual is probably the same as most of the guys–visualization of the plan and practicing what we call malfunctions, in case something were to go wrong, and taking the right actions. I guess I do get a little bit airsick, ironically, [laughs] so I do some deep breathing. I guess that would be something I do that I have to do that other people don’t.
BTR: What’s it like to be so physically exhausted and still have to keep going?
KD: I mean, it’s exhausting and I think that’s why it’s so important that you’re working with such great people. Because people react to stress in different ways. Myself, I just really try to keep myself focused and motivated, and keep others motivated, and remember that everything I’m feeling they’re all there and they’re all feeling it too. Managing stress is really difficult, but having a common goal with everybody else is what makes it work… for me that sense of accomplishment or anticipation of accomplishment is what keeps me awake.
BTR: Do you feel like smokejumping skills translate to your outside life?
KD: Yeah absolutely. I would say that a lot of the things that I’ve experienced in my job have made me a better person in just day-to-day things. I get worked up about a lot less than I did when I was younger. Some things just don’t really shake me, that might have bothered me in the past or bother other people. I don’t get worked up so easily these days.