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Alaska jumpers train as spring breaks

by webmaster |

As the plane flies 4,000 feet overhead, a small dot of red white and blue appears in its trail against the clear blue sky.

A few seconds later, another dot not much bigger than a bird shows up where the plane had been flying.

Then, over the course of a minute or so, the real picture comes into view.

That’s not a bird, or a plane and, despite the appearance of the red and blue canopy flying through the sky, it’s not a superhero either. It’s a smokejumper from the Alaska Fire Service on the first day of training.

The first jumper of the season Thursday afternoon overshot the target, an orange and white tarp in the middle of a field on Fort Wainwright, by a few feet. That’s all right though, said Dave Baumgartner, deputy base manager of the Bureau of Land Management’s smokejumping unit.

Because it’s the unit’s first time jumping in six months for more than 30 veteran Alaskan smokejumpers, they’re aiming more at having a safe jump than being right on target. Besides, the second jumper hit the mark without much trouble.

“You kind of lose the feeling you’re in an outdoor job after six months,” said Chris Silks, who is in his 18th year with the jumpers. “But once you’re in the plane looking down at the land, jumping just comes back to you.”

Smokejumpers are usually the first on the scene as they fly to remote areas of Alaska dozens of times each summer to combat wild fires. The majority come from ground crews who knock down the fires, but jumper spots are competitive. As many as 40 percent of those who get into training, drop out of the program.

And while jumping out of a plane into a raging inferno below might be dangerous, jumpers believe they have the best job a firefighter could have.

“I gravitated to what seemed like the funnest job in fire,” Silks said. “I get the chance to travel around remote areas of Alaska, and the seasonal lifestyle is nice.”

Jumping out of a plane with 50 pounds of gear strapped to your back definitely isn’t for everyone, but Rick Thompson, a smokejumper for the past 20 years who has made more than 350 jumps, says it’s just another benefit to a firefighter’s dream job.

“It’s actually quite quiet and nice coming down,” he said.