FORT ST. JOHN, British Columbia — (FloridaToday.news) — When James Bergen gets off the plane and falls into the fire below, he’s not afraid. Instead, he says, he takes pleasure in not knowing exactly what he’ll face when he skydive as one of the smoke jumpers battling the wildfires that have scorched Canada this spring and summer.
One call can mean falling and going to the meadow to put out a lonely burning tree. “The next day you go to the fire and it’s a giant snarling beast that threatens the community,” said Bergen, a heavily built 46-year-old with graying stubble. “It’s the expectation of what you’ll get, the uncertainty every time you get on a plane – that’s still a thrill for me.”
With more than 900 fires blazing in Canada during fire season, periodically sending dangerous smoke south into the US and even as far east as Europe, only one province—British Columbia—relies on smoke jumpers to fight the flames. Its history began in 1998.
Canada’s provinces organize their own fire resources, while others can use helicopters to take firefighters to remote areas, or planes to bring people and equipment to bases. British Columbia does the same. But Bergen, whose main job is to serve as a fire officer in the Fort St. John Fire Zone, cited British Columbia’s size, large population, and huge timber industry as reasons why he supports the smoke jumper program, which requires significant money and experience, but can help. burns out faster.
“It’s not like you can get up quickly,” Bergen said.
Bergen said this wildfire year will be the busiest he can remember since 2016.
WHERE SMOKEJUMPERS ARE USED
When fires are distant or there is a need to move resources from one place to another very quickly, it may be time to send out smoke jumpers that jump out of planes at altitudes ranging from 1,500 feet (458 meters) to 3,000 feet (914 meters).
“This is just one of the quickest and fastest delivery methods… to take fire fighting measures that may not be possible by other means,” Bergen said.
While helicopters are sometimes used to take firefighters to hard-to-reach areas, they don’t skydive like smoke jumpers do – helicopters land and unload them quickly, or they jump to the ground when the ship is hovering. And helicopters can’t carry nearly as many people or get to a fire as quickly as airplanes.
A modified DC-3, one of the aircraft used at Fort St. John’s Bergen base, can carry up to 13 paratroopers and two spotters.
GEAR THEY WEAR (AND WEAR)
A single skydiver’s outfit can cost about $12,000, Bergen said, including equipment that protects firefighters from being impaled by tree branches, allows them to rappel if they get stuck in a tree, and floats if they end up in a lake or river. Kevlar ballistic suits protect against sharp objects as well as the intense heat of a fire; helmets have mesh face shields.
Many smoke jumpers wear extra armor – hockey pads or motocross gear – for extra protection. The entire package, including the parachute, weighs between 70 and 90 pounds.
The plane also carries the firefighting equipment firefighters will need, Bergen said: four chainsaws, hand tools for everyone, four heavy pumps, a 6,000-foot hose and enough water for everyone for 48 hours. All this is reset separately.
Arriving at the scene of the fire and evaluating what they saw, firefighters develop a plan to combat it. Then it’s time to jump.
“It could be three or four, one crew, or it could be the entire bus — all 13 paratroopers are on fire,” Bergen said.
WHO WANTS TO BE A SMOOKJUMPER
Jumpers are experienced wildland firefighters — at least two years, and more often six to seven years of experience, before they become smoke jumpers, Bergen says.
But it takes more than experience. According to Bergen, not everyone wants to jump from planes. “Typically, these are people who are very passionate about putting out fires in the wild,” he said. “This is a very specific person who wants to do this.”
He said that the ranks included people who were enthusiastic and extremely healthy, but also more ordinary people. He said that many forest firefighters are people who started making summer money while in college, but then fell in love with the job and eventually decided to become smoke jumpers. The lure, he says, is being part of a team “focused on being the best at smoke jumping as well as firefighting.”
There are 67 smoke jumpers in the province. There are currently about 120 paratroopers operating in the region, with the rest made up of American firefighters sent by the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
GUY WITH 100 JUMPS
Dan Frittenburg, one of the Northern World rescuers at the Fort St. John base, started fighting fires in 2005 and became a jumper in 2008.
Earlier this summer, he set a Canadian record with his 100th jump, he and Bergen said.
“I have always been a thrill seeker,” said Frittenburg, 41. “But the reason I do it is because of my love for nature, working with people who are attracted to this program, and also just challenging myself. I think it’s definitely a job that keeps you young.”
Frittenburg said it took him some time to learn the ins and outs of jumping and became more comfortable doing it over the years.
“But that feeling (nerves) never leaves your stomach,” he said. — I think it’s good because it supports your game. Once you get the hang of it, you will realize very quickly that you can make mistakes.”
Glass reported from Minneapolis.
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