In the Air and on the Ground With Alaskan Smokejumpers

Matt Oakleaf, camera mounted on his gear bag, drops behind the rest of his team to a landing site near smoldering boreal forest. Jumpers can put on 100 pounds of gear and get on a plane in minutes. Their mission: extinguish fires before they rage out of control. (Photograph by Mark Thiessen / National Geographic)
Mark Thiessen / National Geographic


Being an Alaskan smokejumper might be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Like firefighters, smokejumpers are brought in to battle wildfires and other fire-related incidents—except they’re not coming in on a siren-blaring truck. They’re jumping out of planes.

“Smokejumpers parachute in to remote places to quickly put out fires while they’re still small,” says photographer Mark Thiessen, who recently embedded with a team of smokejumpers in Alaska for the May 2019 issue of National Geographic. “In the lower 48 states, most of the smokejumper fires are an acre or less.”

But Alaska’s a different story. It’s vast with little to no roads in some areas, meaning smokejumpers have to squelch small fires and large conflagrations.

A Fire Boss plane dumps water to aid a ground crew fighting Fire 320 in the Brooks Range in June 2016. The single-engine plane is fitted with pontoons that can slurp up and disgorge 800 gallons every few minutes-here from nearby Iniakuk Lake. (Photograph by Mark Thiessen / National Geographic)
Mark Thiessen / National Geographic

The training process to become an Alaskan smokejumper is extremely grueling. Thiessen says around 200 people apply each year for the job, and among that group, maybe 10 are selected for the training program. Usually, the applicants will have at least five to 10 years of wildland firefighting experience.

“Every Alaskan smokejumper must pass a rigorous physical fitness test,” Thiessen says. “You have to do 60 situps, 35 pushups, 10 pullups, run 1.5 miles in 9:30 or three miles in less than 22:30, and you have to carry a 110-pound pack for three miles in less than 55 minutes.”

And that’s just scratching the surface. Thiessen spoke with Men’s Journal about what it was like to capture photos of the Alaskan smokejumpers for National Geographic, what he learned from embedding with the team, and why smokejumpers are so important for preserving wildlife.

(Read the full story on the Alaskan smokejumpers from the May 2019 issue of National Geographic at the National Geographic website here.)

Men’s Journal: What was your overall experience like working with the smokejumpers?

Mark Thiessen: I’ve shot a lot of wildfires over the years. This was very difficult, because I had to follow smokejumpers who parachute out of a helicopter to fires in remote places. You could be the most experienced skydiver in the world and they wouldn’t let you jump with them. Smokejumping is a very specific kind of parachuting that requires training you can’t get anywhere else. If you end up in a tree and they have to get you down, then you’ve impacted their operation. There’s no room for that. That said, we received very special access to a government aircraft to get where we needed to go to get the story. I’m grateful for what the Alaska Fire Service did for us.

What type of equipment do smokejumpers use in their work?

Smokejumpers often make their own jumpsuits, heavily padded and with plenty of pockets to hold gear. A reserve chute is worn on the chest. Kneepads fit inside the suit. Heavy leather gloves and boots offer extra protection. A unique piece of equipment is the beater, which is used to pound flames into the moist layer of moss beneath the burning surface.

Smokejumpers use beaters-strips of hard rubber on flexible shafts-to pound burning moss and tussock grass into the moss below, damp from melted permafrost. Such swampy coniferous forest, or taiga, is typical of high northern latitudes. (Photograph by Mark Thiessen / National Geographic)
Smokejumpers use beaters-strips of hard rubber on flexible shafts-to pound burning moss and tussock grass into the moss below, damp from melted permafrost. Such swampy coniferous forest, or taiga, is typical of high northern latitudes. Mark Thiessen / National Geographic

Why are smokejumpers so important?

Smokejumpers put out fires in places so remote they can only be reached by air. Some fires they let burn if there’s no threat to people or property. But other times their goal is to get on the ground quickly and keep a small lightning fire from getting big.

What were the smokejumpers like personally?  

Smokejumper culture is a little insular—like a fraternity. They can be standoffish at first to outsiders. But once you get to know them, they’re funny, jovial, crass—and you can tell they absolutely love what they do. They’re also very professional. That describes all the wildland firefighters I’ve worked with. What separates smokejumpers from the rest is an enormous sense of responsibility for each other. They inspect and pack each other’s parachutes and their name goes on it. Imagine what could happen if you didn’t pack a parachute correctly and it’s used by one of your friends on the next fire. There’s a huge emphasis on safety because of that.

What was most challenging part for you?

This is the hardest fire story I’ve ever worked on. [Even though] I had unprecedented cooperation from the Alaska Fire Service (AFS) to give me the access I needed for this story, it was difficult to get to fires in time to shoot smokejumpers during the dramatic initial attack phase. I couldn’t get to the fires the same way they do.

You previously trained to become a firefighter to better work on projects like this. What was that process like?

I’ve been shooting wildfire for over 25 years. In the late 90’s I went through fire school so I could be safe and not be a liability to any other firefighters on the ground. It’s the same basic training that wildland firefighters take. I put that training in practice over the last 25 years photographing wildfires. There is nothing like on-the-job training, so I’ve gained lots of fire experience over the years. To stay on that level, for the last 20 years I’ve done cardio and weight training nearly every morning at 5 a.m. I want to be prepared for any assignment that might come my way, whether it be fire or something else. Every other day I run three miles and alternate with weight lifting days of upper body and lower body. My knees are giving me trouble, so I’m cutting back the running some.

Matt Oakleaf, camera mounted on his gear bag, drops behind the rest of his team to a landing site near smoldering boreal forest. Jumpers can put on 100 pounds of gear and get on a plane in minutes. Their mission: extinguish fires before they rage out of control. (Photograph by Mark Thiessen / National Geographic)
Mark Thiessen / National Geographic cover

What was the most surprising thing you learned about the smokejumpers?

Smokejumping is a lifestyle. There’s a trust and camaraderie that can only be gained by being a fellow smokejumper. It’s a tight fraternity that takes rigorous training to gain the skills that few know. The extreme experiences they have together forge lifelong bonds.

Can you tell us the story behind one of these images?

This photo below is the view from between the legs of smokejumper Matt Oakleaf as he parachutes to a fire. This picture was taken with a GoPro and it wasn’t easy to get—so many things have to line up just right: The only way to attach it was on straps that go under his personal gear (PG) bag that hangs at his waist. Only a few jumpers use a configuration that has a compatible PG bag setup. Each morning we would look at the list of first-out jumpers and see whose PG bag setup would work for us, then ask if they were willing to help. The GoPro was placed in a custom-fitted nylon canvas pouch that slid onto their PG bag straps.

Now with the camera ready, we needed a fire. Then, of course, the jumper would have to remember to turn on the GoPro before they jumped out of the plane, which is easy to forget to do. Once the jumper is under canopy we needed the right situation were you could see the smoke and fire below the jumper’s legs. They jump away from the fire, not into it, so we needed several tries to find the right situation. It could be a week or longer before we could see the results when the jumper returned from the fire. The best way to improve our odds was to have three GoPros in pouches there were constantly in use. It was a lot to manage but the results were worth it.

Matt Oakleaf, camera mounted on his gear bag, drops behind the rest of his team to a landing site near smoldering boreal forest. Jumpers can put on 100 pounds of gear and get on a plane in minutes. Their mission: extinguish fires before they rage out of control. (Photograph by Mark Thiessen / National Geographic)
Mark Thiessen / National Geographic

Another look from Thiessen:

Incident commander Ty Humphrey communicates with a pilot who has dropped a pallet of cargo near a fire. Crew members free the chute from the tree where the load landed. (Photograph by Mark Thiessen / National Geographic)
Incident commander Ty Humphrey communicates with a pilot who has dropped a pallet of cargo near a fire. Crew members free the chute from the tree where the load landed. Mark Thiessen / National Geographic

Read the full story on the Alaskan smokejumpers at National Geographic here. 

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