WINTHROP, Wash. (AP) - Red-faced and sweating, 10 recruits at
the North Cascades Smokejumper Base gasp for breath as they drop
for push-ups in the middle of a country road, just midway through
their morning 6-mile run.
More push-ups follow, along with sit-ups and pull-ups and a
two-minute drill for getting into their firefighting gear. Gear on,
the recruits climb a 45-foot tower and launch themselves off,
coasting to the ground by high-wire as they practice jumping out of
an airplane.
It's only 11 a.m., and as fire experts tweak their predictions
for a potentially damaging fire season ahead, eager firefighters
battle for one of the few spots available each year on the nation's
smokejumping roster.
Increasing fire danger - and the ensuing demand for firefighters
- means more smokejumpers are staying on the job longer. Positions
are scarce, and competition for them is fierce.
"People are staying longer and doing this job, making more of a
career. We need to retain these people for their knowledge and
expertise," said John Button, acting manager of the smokejumper
base.
And added pressures for the coming fire season - a years-long
drought, the potential loss of heavy air tankers due to safety
concerns, and the mobilization of National Guard troops overseas -
make additional resources even more important, Button said.
That includes the roughly 400 smokejumpers at nine bases run by
the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
In the Northwest, the North Cascades and Redmond, Ore., bases
had hoped to hire a total of 20 more smokejumpers for the summer
season. The 33-plane fleet, which was grounded due to safety
concerns, is key for initial attack on wildfires.
Smokejumpers, too, are essential for initial attack on small or
remote fires, but the Forest Service so far has chosen only to
bring in more equipment, including smaller single-engine tankers
and helicopters, said Mike Fitzpatrick, predictive services
coordinator for the Northwest Coordination Center.
The request for additional smokejumpers was last made in 1992,
when the Northwest was facing some serious fire danger, Fitzpatrick
said. An additional 20 smokejumpers were hired in the region, which
usually kept about 50 smokejumpers on hand.
But by 1994, the fire danger had dropped and valuable employees,
now with two years' experience, were laid off, he said.
"You probably could make a case for having more smokejumpers,
but it's a very expensive program, and I think one of the things
people don't see is more money coming to this program," he said.
Typically, smokejumpers used to cover specific regions near
their home base. Today, the North Cascades smokejumpers can travel
from their home base in Winthrop to Montana, New Mexico or Colorado
in a heartbeat, Button said.
Smokejumpers usually respond as the initial attack for small
fires ranging in size from a quarter-acre to 10 acres or for fires
in very remote areas. The need for such mobility could increase
dramatically if air tankers are not returned to service, Button
said.
"We can pick our spots and get equipment and crews in, and
those crews are more rested than those who have to hike a mile or
two in to the fire," Button said.
The average age of an American smokejumper is 35, while the
average age of recruits is 22. The 10 recruits trying to fill the
few slots opening through attrition in Washington and Oregon this
year ranged in age from 21 to 37.
"We try to hire good firefighters and then turn them into
smokejumpers," said Matt Woosley, a 20-year veteran smokejumper
who leads the training for recruits. "There's nothing you would do
in your normal life that would make sense in this job."
The first two weeks of training consist of heavy physical
training - not to get the recruits into shape, but rather to get a
sense of their character and induce stress to see how they react in
difficult situations.
"It's the safest way we can do that controlled, rather than
under a canopy (of trees) or when a fire is about to blow up,"
Woosley said. "We just induce as much reasonable stress as we
can."
Andrew Mattox, 27, knows that all too well. After three seasons
with a Hotshot crew, Mattox got his tryout with the smokejumpers.
"Since it is inherently hazardous, I'd rather sweat a lot here
and learn how to do it the right way," he said. "We all have
psychological challenges, or academic or physical challenges. Here,
it challenges multiple aspects at once. The standards are high and
I like that."
Growing up in the fire world, the smokejumpers were considered
the top of the pyramid for initial wildfire attack, Woosley said.
"It still is. But we're just firefighters," Woosley said. "We
just get there a different way, but when we hit the ground, we're
all just firefighters."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)