Firefighters make leap to smokejumping

Fri Aug 12, 2016 1:37pm EDT
 
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By Melissa Fares

WINTHROP, Wash. (Reuters) - On a 100-degree day in early June, Matt Mueller did sit-ups in a semicircle with seven other experienced firefighters training to parachute into a wildfire.

Better known as "rookie candidates," they were determined to make it through the five-week program at North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, where the first experimental jumps occurred in 1939.

"It's sort of the spiritual home of smokejumping," said David Ryder, who photographed the latest group of rookies for Reuters. "These guys are the elite of the elite."

The 32-year-old freelance photographer said covering the record-setting wildfires in his home state of Washington over the past two years made him want to learn more about the people behind the acts of courage he had captured.

These rookie candidates were required to have basic firefighting skills; two seasons of forestry experience, one being a main fire position; be 5 feet to 6 feet 5 inches (1.52 to 1.96 meters) tall; and weigh between 120 and 200 pounds (54.4 to 90.7 kg), according to the base.

"It can be dangerous work," said Inaki Baraibar, North Cascades' training supervisor. "It's dirty work; you're away from your family a lot."

Mueller and his fellow trainees, who were almost completely covered in dirt and sweat, packed their parachutes, always anticipating two loud blasts of an air horn alerting them to a fire.

After the horn sounds, jumpers have two minutes to suit up in their protective gear.   Continued...

 
A smokejumper leaps from an airplane during a training flight above Winthrop, Washington, U.S.,  June 30, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder