Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fighting Forest Fires in Montana

Naw, we didn't fight any fires, however, there are a couple of them raging in Montana right now. But thankfully, not near us. We did hear about the Smokejumpers Training facility, the largest forest fire training facility in the country being located here in Missoula. So Sparky (always interested in fires and stuff) wanted to go see it. It's located on Broadway, in Missoula, and it's about 10 minutes from the RV park where we are staying... just past the Missoula International Airport on the same side.
This was a very interesting place! The FREE tour is about a 45 minutes. You get to see a film (aged but still relevant), the latest equipment used, the latest in firefighter suit technology, and a tour of the areas where the firefighters pack their chutes, what their supplies look like, and we happened to get a bonus on our tour--more about that in a moment.

The firefighters MAKE their own suits and in they SEW them themselves. I had a hard time believing that until I saw all the industrial sewing machines and then when the guide told us that a couple of the smokejumpers (Montana talk for the Missoula Training facility's trainees) have started their own clothing and bag lines to sell, I was a believer! They custom make their own tote bags and they were really really cool! Cooler than any backpacks out there on the market....

Women are part of the smokejumping trainees team, which was great to hear....(Sparky is a feminist, dontcha know) It was cool to see all the equipment that they pack with the precision needed, interesting to see the documentation required for safety checks and double checks, and the room where all chutes hang as they dry. I was really interested in the fire tent/shelter that they use. It's a little on man tent with foil completely covering the outside. The smokejumper lays face down inside the tent, face as close to the ground as they can get. While the temperatures of the inferno over the tent get to be around 1600 degrees, inside the foil wrapped tent, the temps are only around 115 degrees--amazing! The smokejumpers have special flame retardant clothing they use nowadays...When they jump, they wear special suits with all their gear weighing over a hundred pounds. When they land, they take off the suit and unpack their gear. They wear Nomex (sp?) clothing which is flame retardant.  You should have seen the macrame knotted rope they have to learn to knot as part of their training! I had a fascination for that as I use to do macrame many years ago.

Foil tent gets set up and firefighter inside in less than 25 seconds
The smoke jumpers range in age from the early twenties to late fifties! You have to have previous years of firefighting experience before becoming a member of this team. They work out a couple of hours a day to stay in shape for this rigorous, physically demanding job....
one of the transport planes for carrying the jumpers
The bonus on the tour---not sure if this happens for everyone or not---we went out on the tarmac to look at the planes, and one of the smokejumpers, a handsome veteran of 20 plus years was loading one of the planes. He was 45, and didn't look a day over 30, nor did he have an ounce of fat on him.  He proceeded to let us get inside the plane, sit where the jumpers sit and then he sat and informally talked and answered questions from the group. It was great! Sparky asked if he liked to play with fire as a kid, and he answered with a big grin, "Oh, YEAH!" He almost got sent to military school, he was so ornery about that, he said. The group asked if he ever saw bears, and the interesting thing about that was, when he first started over 20 years ago, he seldom saw a bear, now he sees them all the time--which is a problem for the firefighters. They can't pack out their garbage, so bears are attracted to their camp. They carry bear spray.....Another thing he shared was how rough it was to land when parachuting in--rocks everywhere, trees---they wear head masks like hockey players to prevent them from being hurt and gouged by tree branches. It's a rough job, but he LOVES it, that was obvious to see. Someone asked if the firefighters ever get lost, and he said that it's possible, but in his case, he once had to walk out 23 miles carrying 122 pounds on his back...guess that meant he could have gotten "misplaced" for a bit!

Eldy asked about the pay...get this--for every six months fighting forest fires, they get 4 1/2 YEARS of retirement benefits!!!!!!! Wow! Talk about great hazardous pay benefits!  Apparently, navy SEALS and other highly qualified military guys and gals are applying for forest service fire fighting duties because the pay is so good. In my humble opinion, that's a really really tough, dirty, hazardous job and they deserve it. They  had something like 6 openings this year and over 200 applicants applied.

We really enjoyed the tour today and appreciate the forest service working so hard and training the firefighters with the latest and best equipment.  We recommend this tour if you are in the Missoula area....Tomorrow, we leave for the Yellowstone area. Not sure if we will be able to use our air card, so if "Where's Eldo?" drops off the face of the blogging world, you'll know that we are too isolated to blog! Rest assured, we WILL be back!  See you later!


  1. Very interesting stuff! Aren't we lucky they like to put their lives on the line like that?

    But WHAT, no close up of Mr. Handsome? Serious omission! :-)

  2. Great post! Thank goodness for the bravery of those fire fighters.

  3. Very interesting post. Not a job I'd like to do, however.

  4. It is great that there folks willing to take that risk for the rest of us.