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On the Job: Becoming a Forest Fire Smokejumper

Shannon Orr, Jerry Spence, and John Mathienson are smokejumpers stationed in Shasta-Trinity National Forest. We caught up with them as they were rigging their chutes before a practice jump.

What would you say would be a typical day on the job?

SO: Well, it varies so much as a smokejumper. If we bomb fires, it's pretty exciting because we're parachuting in the wilderness.

One minute we'll be in here reading, and the next minute we'll be on our way somewhere to fight a fire. So there's really no typical day. When there's no activity we do project work around here, rigging parachutes, fixing tools, and other such things.

JM: That's what I like about this job, there's no such thing as a typical day, actually. You can be sitting in the storage room wrapping water containers for freight and within fifteen minutes you could be on a plane going to Fairbanks, Alaska...You really don't know what's going to happen next.

What are some of the pros and cons of this kind of work?

JM: The pros are you get to work with good people. Everyone who works here really wants to be here - even if it's only for the summer - and is highly motivated. They're physically fit, good people. That's definitely a plus, same with the travel and the money. The cons are you're gone a lot, and it's not the best as far as getting a social life.

SO: I'd say the pro is all the travel; it's a lot of fun, we see a lot of the country. There's a lot of camaraderie with other smokejumpers. There are about 300 of us nationwide, and it's very interactive.

JS: The worst thing about this job is there's not enough time to look for a permanent job once the summer is over.

What would you say to someone who's trying to boost their qualifications for this kind of work?

SO: They need fire experience in the western United States. Get hotshot experience. It's a twenty-person hand crew for the Forest Service, and they travel all around going primarily to major fires.

JM: Yes, the best way to get your foot in the door is to get some seasons fighting on a hotshot crew. Pretty much that's [working on a hotshot crew] what we do, our mode of travel is by parachute though, but once we're on the ground, we're just like the hotshot crew.

We cut a fire line and everything else. Once you get experience, be persistent. Send applications in, visit the bases and show interest. If you want to be here, you'll get in.

JS: Additionally, I'd say put down everything you can do on your application. A lot of people don't think about some of the small things they do in everyday life. I think that helped me out a lot. I went and talked to a counselor before I got hired. I grew up in a small town learning chainsaws and stuff, and that's how I got in, with my chainsaw experience.

Why do you like working outdoors and this job in particular?

SO: For me it's the sunshine and the environment. I don't like being inside, it's just not my deal.

JS: I have a problem with just sitting around all day. I'm an active person and this job is active.

JM: Yeah, that's the good part. I'm 22 years old right now and in college, and this helps me get through school. Also, I'm not one of those people who wants to sit in a cubicle with 150 other cubicles surrounding me. Smokejumping is unique, and that's what we're here for. If you don't like the outdoors, you don't want to be a smokejumper.