What it's really like to make a living as a smokejumper in Montana

Courtesy Dan Cottrell

Six to eight times each summer, Dan Cottrell, 45, jumps out of an airplane circling some remote region of the U.S. where a fire is burning nearby.

It takes less than two minutes to parachute to the ground, and once safely there, the most grueling aspects of the smokejumper's job are still ahead. Cottrell and other elite wildland firefighters might spend the next two weeks chopping down trees, clearing brush, and digging down to the soil in an effort to control the spread of whatever wildfire they've been dispatched to fight.

Cottrell is one of about 80 smokejumpers based out of Missoula, Montana. After nearly two decades on this crew, he's still excited by the prospect of "catching a fire" before it gets out of control — protecting people's property and ways of life, and in the process, saving the government a lot of money.

"I still love my job because of the cool stuff we get to do," says Cottrell, who serves as the training foreman at the Missoula Smokejumper Base. "We get to jump out of airplanes, we get to ride in helicopters, we get to work with heavy equipment, and we get to integrate with other firefighters from all over the country."

Cottrell's salary is higher because he's in a supervisory position and employed year-round, but rookie smokejumpers start out in the federally designated pay range of $14.06 to $18.28 per hour. Any portion of a day they're on a fire, they receive a 25% premium hazard pay, which bumps their hourly wage up to $17.58 to $22.85. They're also eligible for overtime on work days that last as long as 16 hours. By comparison, minimum wage in Montana currently is $8.50 an hour.

For Cottrell, it's never been about the money. He's inspired by making a difference in how the public views wildfires. Here's what he says it's really like to make a living as a smokejumper.

'Making fire my full-time career'

While attending college in Wisconsin, Cottrell decided he wanted to work on public lands, be it a national park, wildlife refuge, or something similar. "I was intrigued by the allure of going out West for the summer," he recalls.

The Chicago-area native received several offers to fight fires on seasonal crews and spent his first summer, in 1995, putting out wildland fires on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Montana.

Cottrell finished college, went on to pursue a master's degree in secondary education, and taught middle school. Through it all, he fought fires during the summers. Eventually, he decided "to make a run at making fire my full-time career." He was accepted as a smokejumper in 2001 for the same crew he's on today in Missoula.

I still love my job because of the cool stuff we get to do. We get to jump out of airplanes, we get to ride in helicopters, we get to work with heavy equipment, and we get to integrate with other firefighters from all over the country.
Dan Cottrell
training foreman at the Missoula Smokejumper Base

The idea of jumping out of airplanes to fight wildfires first came up in the 1930s and took off in the 1940s. The goal was to quickly deploy initial attack crews, first-responders tasked with helping to contain wildfires, and eliminate much of the strenuous work of trekking on foot to remote locations.

Today, approximately 400 smokejumpers work on nine crews nationwide. They're considered the most elite wildland firefighters. Applicants need about 4-6 years of experience fighting fires, and they must meet certain physical requirements, take fitness tests, complete a five-week training program, and pass a test carrying a 110-pound pack on flat terrain for 3 miles in less than 90 minutes.

A smokejumper in action

When an alarm goes off at the base, each jumper must suit up and get aboard an airplane so it's ready for takeoff within 10 minutes of that initial fire call. There's a lot of prep work done to achieve this; jumpers spend their off-time checking and packing parachutes, and maintaining equipment.

Each jumper carries a main parachute on their back with a reserve on the front, along with various tools and supplies attached to the suit or in pockets. They also have a bag with their personal gear strapped to them, which includes a change of clothes, fire shelter, food, and water. All told, Cottrell says, he packs on roughly 100 pounds before jumping out of the plane.

Courtesy Dan Cottrell

There are typically 10 smokejumpers aboard each plane, along with two pilots and two spotters tasked with finding the best point to release the jumpers — ideally an open area, like a meadow. After a briefing, the spotters slap each firefighter on the shoulder as a signal to jump. Finally, the plane will drop cargo containing the rest of the food and gear the crew will need while battling the blaze.

Between the plane door and ground below, "a ton of critical decision-making" takes place, Cottrell says. Beyond the safety aspects — ensuring the chute is deploying normally, monitoring where the other jumpers are, and checking for possible hazards — jumpers constantly monitor wind conditions, as well as the fire itself. "The 90 seconds between jump and landing goes by pretty fast," he says.

Once on the ground, the smokejumpers perform many of the same tasks as other wildland firefighters. They use chainsaws and other hand tools to create what's known as hand lines — clearing a swath of trees and brush, then digging down to the dirt — all in an effort to control the fire's spread.

The 90 seconds between jump and landing goes by pretty fast.
Dan Cottrell
training foreman at the Missoula Smokejumper Base

But the goal isn't always to snuff out all the flames. That's because fire is a natural part of the ecology vital to forest regrowth. The seeds from lodgepole pine cones, for example, are only released in extremely high temperatures like a fire. And fire can return other important nutrients to the forest, as well.

"Some people feel that we have the ability to put out, and should put out, every wildfire," Cottrell says. "I think if people looked at wildfires more like we look at other natural disasters, such as hurricanes, there would be a better understanding of why we don't put every fire out and why we can't put every fire out."

Handling unpredictability and the off-season: 'You can choose your own adventure'

Cottrell has spent over half his life fighting fires in more than half the U.S. states as well as remote areas, like near the Arctic Circle in Alaska. He's logged about 300 jumps — 100 of which were into fires and 200 training jumps.

But it's a boom-or-bust type of job, and it's difficult to predict just how busy a particular summer will be. A wet winter and spring have made for a less active fire season this year. And it's been "pretty slow" for Missoula's smokejumpers, Cottrell says, though they have been deployed to other states, especially Alaska, for support.

More than 37,000 reported fires have burned about 4.3 million acres so far this year, compared to a 10-year average of nearly 49,000 fires and 6 million acres, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center. And historically, the busiest period of fire season is coming to an end.

I think if people looked at wildfires more like we look at other natural disasters, such as hurricanes, there would be a better understanding of why we don't put every fire out and why we can't put every fire out.
Dan Cottrell
Smokejumper and training foreman at the Missoula Smokejumper Base

Cottrell is a permanent, year-round Forest Service employee. But about half the jumpers are only guaranteed six months of work. That means many supplement their firefighting with other work in the off-season. Cottrell did the same in his rookie years. "It was hard for me, especially those first few years, to really wrap my head around not actively working all year round," he says.

And the job has changed since the 1990s. Back then, Cottrell says people referred to fire season as "July and August, period." That's not so common anymore. "Fire season has definitely gotten longer due to climate change, as well as urban development patterns" that have resulted in more structures near fire-prone areas, he says.

The amount of money each jumper makes comes down to how busy the fire season is — and Cottrell's crew could be called upon to fight a fire any time of the year now. It helps that jumpers have the option to take assignments in the off-season, he says.

Courtesy Dan Cottrell

"One of the nice things about that insecurity is you can choose your own adventure in terms of your salary a little bit," Cottrell says. Now a father, Cottrell says he tries to manage the time he spends away from home — and prioritize those out-of-state assignments that are worth the sacrifice, either because of the potential to gain new skills or earn overtime pay.

"You have to be very vigilant and very careful with your spending because we typically get bigger paychecks in the summer," Cottrell says. Over time, most jumpers learn to "squirrel some money away" and live frugally in the off-season.

But money never was the reason Cottrell became a firefighter — nor is it the primary draw for most of his peers. "You also have to be motivated by either a love for the work or altruism," he says. "Helping to save peoples' property and saving our wildlands is definitely a motivating factor for a lot of people."

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