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Missoula’s most underrated attraction

Did you know that Missoula, Montana holds the largest training base for smokejumpers? You probably also didn’t know that its available for a visit, the tours are free (though donations are encouraged) and sometimes a smokejumper himself/herself will guide the tour!

So who are smokejumpers? (I also didn’t know before I visited this informative center).

Smokejumpers are highly trained specialists, usually with 2 or more years of fire fighting experience. They jump with a parachute into fire-ridden areas of national forests and do their best to prevent fires from spreading any further. Intriguing, huh? Just wait until you hear of their physical requirements…

Are fire jumpers all that necessary in this day and age?

You betcha! Summer season is always very dry in and around Montana. Currently, fire danger remains high as there are numerous fires burning across the Big Sky State. The danger is real and smokejumpers are just a few of the personnel that courageously risk their lives in order to contain wild fires.

So tell me more about their occupation.

You got it! While only 5% of the entire smokejumper crew is made up of women, they have to abide by the same rules and requirements as the other dudes.

The first outfit above is what smokejumpers use to jump out of the airplane. The second – is what they wear while they work. The materials used are Kevlar and Nomex, which are very durable, thick and fire resistant.

If you think smokejumping is popular, think again. With only 9 centers around the country, this profession is so uncommon that most smokejumpers have to sew their own clothing and gear. Some pick up their sewing skills while on the job and apparently, even brag about being better than their wives.

Of course the outfit would not be complete without some thick boots and very messy lockers!

What kind of supplies are they given while they work?

The supply amount is what contributes to the physical requirements of smokejumpers. Imagine packing a chain saw or two, food, water, sleeping bag, 2 parachutes and more for a 3-4 days of work ALL ON YOUR PERSON? The backpack reaches the likes of 100-120lbs and all rookies are required to hike with such pack for 3-5 miles during their training.

Above, are some of the items that smokejumpers take with them. Taking into consideration 16 hour working days, highly coloric snacks and food is a must. Some have even been known to bring a cooked frozen steak as their first meal on the job.

What are the sleeping arrangements like?

This sleeping back, packs into a small box when unused but can withstand 1600 degree temperatures. Inside heats up to toasty 200 degrees.

Of course a large part of the smokejumper training is dealing with their parachutes. A very tall room in the Visitor Center illustrates how parachutes are dried, checked for safety and eventually repacked. Repacking takes 45 minutes -1hr 30mins, depending on who is packing it. And rookies are required to pack about 20 parachutes before they are allowed to pack for themselves. Talk about safety in numbers.

Jumping with a parachute is not like riding a bicycle, instead they are required to complete a practice jump every two weeks. With each jump being documented, those who excel get noticed with some having done over 500 jumps!

So are you ready to sign up for smokejumper training?

Not so fast, as there’s only 4% passing rate and starting pay is just $16/hr.

Benefits? Camaraderie among the members, constant requirements for staying physically fit, $100/month dorm room living, only 6 months working schedule and possibly living in a city full of this. 

If you get fortunate, at the end of the tour, a guide may even take you inside one of their airplanes. The first time we visited, I got to sit in the cockpit and ask the pilot some questions, but the secondary visit, our guide wasn’t instructed in doing so. Either way, you get to hang out, albeit briefly, in the runway, which is connected to MSO (Missoula Airport).

Lastly, why don’t you bring your kids over and enjoy what smokejumpers visitor center has to offer.

 

If you’re interested in taking a tour, they are available 6 days a week at 10 and 11am as well as at 1, 2, 3 and 4pm. The tours are 45 min – 1 hour. Click here for more information. 


Location:5765 West Broadway Street
Missoula, MT 59808Located in Missoula, take Airway Boulevard Exit and follow signs to the Smokejumper Base located 1/2 mile west of the airport.
Phone:406 329-4934
Fax:406-329-4955

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14 comments

  1. Kids would enjoy this kind of tour. Those packs they have to carry are a punishment to their backs and to their physical strength! But they must be very fit to get into that kind of profession. What amuses me is their sewing skills, hahaha! Hurray to those men.. and women!

  2. I had no idea this was even a job! I had to come back and comment because I was immediately distracted by the love project: bodybuilding… thank you for that. Back to smokejumping! The sheer size of the balls and ovaries these guys and gals must have to do this is way beyond me! Why isn’t there some movie about this? I can practically see Colin Farell, Will Smith, and Brie Larson parachuting into flames!

  3. Oh man, first fires are such a problem so it’s nice to see these brave people get some attention. I had no idea this museum existed. But it’s definitely cool! You seen like your having a cool time in Montana as well.

  4. I didn’t know what smokejumpers were until reading this. Very interesting. With such a need, such few of them, and the physical requirements let alone the danger involved, I’m surprised they are only payed 16$ an hour, seems rather low. But super interesting stuff.

  5. Whaaaaaat! I never even heard of smokejumpers before. I would have to say that this is one of the most interesting occupations I’ve heard of in recent memory. You definitely have to be quite the person to decide to do this job. Such low pay for a difficult, time-consuming gig. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Whoa, who knew!! Love that you provided so much context and background. Great post! I actually have been to Missoula and I basically went to a local resto/pub and spent my time there while I waited for my greyhound bus hhaha. Is this where you are originally from?

  7. Yep, looks like the kinda scene that would be fun to take a child to. I think I would have loved this kinda tour as a kid. Now, the parachute jumping, that would be of interest to me! Nice photos

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