Missoula Smokejumpers

Missoula, Montana, was about the halfway point in our trip, and we knew we needed a pit stop there to visit both Walmart and REI. After our snow storm hike in the Tetons, we didn’t want the kids to get stuck out on a hike again without the proper footwear, so it was decided that we’d stay in Missoula for a couple of days to run these errands.  

We weren’t really sure what to expect from Missoula, but I will say this:  we didn’t expect it to be so big or busy.  Even if we hadn’t been acclimated to sparser populations, the size would have surprised us.  Still, we wanted to make the most of our time there and see something interesting, so I hopped on over to TripAdvisor just to see what came up. 

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One of the top hits was the Missoula Smokejumpers Visitors Center.  Having grown up in an aviation family, and always being fascinated with this type of occupation, I told Kyle that I really wanted to visit, and really wanted the kids to experience this.  To be honest, I’m not even sure if the kids even knew what a smokejumper was until we discussed it with them on the drive over.  In our area of the country (the southeast), we don’t worry about forest fires nearly as much as we worry about tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods.  

The Missoula Smokejumper Visitor Center is on the actual smokejumper base. The base is located at the Aerial Fire Depot, adjacent to the Missoula International Airport.  We parked at the visitor center and gift shop parking lot and went in the first building we saw.  Inside was a small, but well curated, museum, a tiny gift shop, and a lady behind the counter who told me that not only did a tour start in 10 minutes, but it was free.  WHAT?!?!  SCORE.  

She started in the museum, showing us the different gear and suits the smokejumpers wear, and where and how the land in the forests.  We then walked over to the building that houses the parachutes, along with an area where the smokejumpers make their own gear. I am not making this up.  These (mostly) guys not only fight forest fires by literally jumping out of planes to get to them, but they also learn how to make, sew, and repair their own gear, including harnesses.  They also patch and repair their own chutes. Another area in this building showed us the long tables they use to carefully fold up their chutes, after they’ve been inspected (in another really cool room).  The tour guide told us that rookies are required to fold 20 parachutes, then when they fold the 21st, they are required to use that one to jump.  

Y’all.  These people are completely and totally bad. ass.  Pardon my French. (Just kidding.  That’s not French, and I’m not even a little sorry for saying that. It’s completely true.)  Smokejumpers literally jump out of planes into forest fires and then fight them.  They are truly unsung heroes. I was really impressed with the entire facility.  It was really humbling seeing where these brave men and women train and work.

We then headed over to the Ready Room, which is pretty self explanatory.  This is where the smokejumpers store all their gear in their open lockers, and where they can get suited up, buddy checked, and ready to go in 2 minutes, then be on the plane ready for takeoff in 10.  They are not joking around.  The Ready Room is also adjacent to a room dedicated to communications: each jumpers name is on a board, either on one side meaning they are deployed, or another side meaning they are ready to go and next in line. There are about 65 smokejumpers at this base, and they continue to rotate their names—once you get back from a mission, your name gets put on the bottom the list and you work your way back up in shifts. 

The very cool parachute packing room.

The beginning of forest fire season doesn’t start until July, but we were told that they had already been called out on a fire during the first week of June.  Further, there were people training and getting ready for the season to start.  We saw one guy working on repairing some gear, and a group of guys having a logistics meeting.  The tour guide told us that every year a jumper has to qualify (or re-qualify, as the case may be) in order to continue jumping and fighting fires. It is never assumed that just because you could last year you are able to this year.  Personally, I think that is really smart—it’s not only for the protection of the jumpers, but for all those working with him or her. Speaking of “her,” I asked the tour guide if any women are jumpers, and she said yes. On this base, there are five, and nationally, about 10-15% of all smokejumpers are female.  As a small female who once contemplated flight nursing, I can immediately see some of the advantages of women smokejumpers (woman are typically smaller than men, and you can fit more in a plane), but also some of the disadvantages (you jump out of a plane with 100 pounds of gear!  That’s almost my entire body weight!).  

The planes are kept ready to go, cargo loaded and stowed, well before the first call comes in.  The logistics of loading both people and cargo at the same time, and in under 10 minutes, is impossible, so they keep their camp gear, food, water, and other supplies boxed up with their own little parachutes ready to go. `

The planes are pretty cool. The U.S. Forest Service utilizes several types of aircraft to fight fires: the DH-6 300 series Twin Otter, the Shorts Sherpa C-23, the Dornier, and the Casa.  The Twin Otter is a STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) aircraft, which makes it ideal for the demands for forest fire fighting.  They do not keep water bombers on this particular base, but do have access to them.  Because the smokejumpers are employed by the US government, they go wherever they are needed/sent, and additional supplies, such as water bombers, will meet them at their destination. 

The entire tour was about only 30 minutes long and was a really neat experience not just for the kids, but for all of us.  It was long enough to be meaningful, but not so long that the kids got bored or restless.  If you’re ever in Missoula, even just passing through like we were, I highly recommend stopping by and taking the short tour.  If you don’t think you’ll be able to make it out to Montana any time soon, there was a movie, In the Line of Duty: Smoke Jumpers, that was based on a true story. There is also a memoir, Smoke Jumper, by Jason A. Ramos and Julian Smith.

Have you been to Missoula?  Have you toured the Smokejumpers Center?  What were your favorite parts of the town?  Let me know in the comments section!

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