Superheroes Are Real

They jump out of planes. They fly onto the field of battle. They run, chainsaws in hand, into 20-foot flames against the ultimate opponent: Mother Nature. Meet the smokejumpers of America, a merry band of athletes just trying to—oh, I dunno—save the world

By Rachel Monroe

Photography by Thomas Lee

October 11, 2016

It’s a windy morning in the middle of Dirty August, and dispatch has just informed the jumpers at the West Yellowstone Smokejumper Base that there’s a wildfire out in the Grand Tetons in need of their particular brand of attention. There’s no time to shower, and nowhere to go but straight toward the smoke. The jumpers strap on their ankle braces and stuff candy bars in the pockets of their Kevlar jumpsuits. The ready room vibrates with the contained intensity of people who know they are about to spend the next two weeks doing several very difficult things: parachuting out of a plane at 3,000 feet, battling a half-acre wildfire, trekking through the woods with 100-plus pounds of gear on their backs. There remains just one problem: The rookie is missing.

The jumpers cram chew in their mouths and double-check their chutes. They consult the map—northwest Wyoming is a country of lodgepole pines and grizzly bears—then surmise what sort of territory they’ll be landing in: Just you wait, it’s gonna be a tiny little pucker-hole jump spot. The “jumper-in-charge” on this fire is Jason Hill, an incident commander with more than a decade of experience, a big red beard and a picture of The Dude in his locker. He looks into his pocket and packs some homemade jerky, a souvenir from his offseason hunting trip. But wait—why hasn’t anyone managed to get in touch with Bedell?

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From left: Rookie Casey Bedell, Missoula Smokejumper Base manager Pete Lannan and second-year jumper Erik Vermaas. "The fun part is when you're actually on the front and you're chasing, you're racing the fire," Vermaas says. "That's what we all crave. That's why we're all here."

The rookie and a handful of other jumpers are here in West Yellowstone on “boost,” or loan, most from their assignments at the Missoula Smokejumper Base, 211 miles to the northwest. Here, you can stroll around the tarmac with your shirt off—browning out, the jumpers call it—a kind of untrained habit that would never fly at the home base that’s (semi-)affectionately called the Death Star, where everyone’s always paranoid that the governor’s wife will stop by for a guided tour. But they’re still backup, and so the rookie better show up soon; the team can’t work without him.

This fire was rude enough to announce itself during the 90-minute block the jumpers typically devote to physical training, when they lift weights or run or bike down the dirt paths—whatever they can to ready themselves for the kind of work you can’t fully prepare for. The other seven guys on the jump list stuck close to base this morning and were easy enough to round up, but Bedell must have been on some sort of epic trail run beyond the paths that branch out from the dinky Yellowstone Airport, because he’s still not answering his phone and no one seems to know where to find him.

Pete Lannan, the mustachioed base manager, has changed out of his I ❤️ MOMS T-shirt and into an olive-green one-piece flight suit. He brandishes a clipboard, does a quick head count. Everyone is accounted for, except Bedell. “How many roads are there?” he asks.

There’s a nervous energy in the room; you don’t become a smokejumper because you like waiting around, killing time. It’s been less than 10 minutes, but the jumpers are antsy, as if—oh, I dunno—a fire is waiting on them. “I’m stoked!” says Erik Vermaas, a snookie (second-year rookie) from Oregon. This will be his first fire jump of the season, and he’s as prepared as you can be for something as unpredictable as a wildfire: “The butterflies are always there; I just overlook that with adrenaline.”

There’s no sign yet of Bedell, and the jumpers do what they do best, besides jumping out of planes and putting out fires: They poke holes in the tension by making jokes. So this is going to be a night jump? They theorize about the Pokemon they’re going to capture out there in the rugged mountains of Wyoming: You never know where you’re gonna find ’em!

Finally, Casey Bedell, a tattooed rookie from Reno, Nevada, jogs into the room and is treated to a brief round of applause. He won’t hear the end of this anytime soon. “Everyone’s waiting on me?”

“You were just trying to show us up with some real P.T., huh?”

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Kevlar jumpsuit, helmet, kneepads, butt pads, boots, parachute, reserve chute—and that's before you get to the chainsaws and ax-hoes, let alone jump ops.

Then the speaker system blasts a tinny version of the William Tell Overture, the traditional pump-up anthem of the West Yellowstone Smokejumper Base, and suddenly the jumpers shift into a higher gear. They strap on backpacks with tents and extra socks and ropes, and then zip themselves into Kevlar jumpsuits, like they have, for some reason, decided to put on Hollywood fatsuits—with bonus butt padding—before heading out to dive from the side of an airplane. Despite the remaining 80 pounds of gear they’re carrying, their safety checks and rechecks are efficient and precise.

Their rookie accounted for, their gear checked, two chutes strapped to each of their bodies, the jumpers run past the posters of Johnny Cash and John Wayne and load up into the Dornier 228, a high-wing aircraft with barely enough room for the eight of them and their equipment, plus a pilot and two spotters. In the end, these few minutes of delay won’t matter much, because the jumpers will do what they do: get there the fastest and work the hardest and—oh, I dunno—jump out of planes to compete against the ultimate opponent, working as a team. “I’d say we’re pretty versatile because we can work together or independently,” Lannan says. “Eight smokejumpers can do a lot of stuff.”

The roar of the small plane’s engine fills the air around the base, and just like that, the smokejumpers—smoke-jumpers—are off to do one of the toughest jobs most people have never heard of.


mokejumpers would like you to know that they are not the firefighters who bust down your door or save your baby from the flames or rescue your cat from a tree. They are wildland firefighters, which means they deal with burning forests, not burning buildings. They are also not generally the ones battling the big fires like those in California this summer. Instead, a smokejumper’s job is to parachute in to remote wilderness areas to fight smaller wildfires before they encroach upon populated areas and start threatening homes and lives. (In 2015, the most expensive firefighting year on record, wildfires burned 10 million acres and destroyed 4,636 structures, costing $2.6 billion and killing 15.)  Smokejumpers are called in to handle the initial attack—that is, jumping in while a wildfire is still small, and ruthlessly extinguishing it as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“We’re getting them before they go big,” Vermaas says. “We’re catching these fires before they’re a problem, before they even get on the news.”

There are only 400 smokejumpers in the entire United States, and maybe only half of those are actively jumping fires on a regular basis. Here’s how you get to be one of them: First, love fire enough to build your life around it. Spend five years as something literally called a “hotshot,” doing hard and hot work on the biggest fires all around the country, using your Pulaski (a sort of ax-hoe hybrid) and chainsaw to remove all possible surface fuel and dig down to mineral soil in an 18-inch line that encircles the fire. Or else get yourself hired on to a helitack crew and rappel out of a helicopter and into a wildfire. Once you’ve become acquainted with the hard work and 20-foot-high flames and you’re still somehow left wanting something even more impossibly intense, then go ahead and send in your application to become a smokejumper.

Also: Prepare to get rejected. Last year, 172 people sent in applications to the Missoula Smokejumper Base; only eight were hired. And there are only nine permanent smokejumper bases in the entire country. Even if you’re tough, talented and skilled, you’ll probably still get rejected for three or five or eight years in a row. Anyway: Stay hungry. Call up the base and tell them how much you want the job; they put tally marks by your name every time you call, just to keep track of how serious you are. Last winter, after five years on a hotshot crew, Bedell—the rookie—moved to Missoula weeks before he was offered a job. He visited the base every week, “just poking my head in, letting them know that I'm hungry and ready to go.”

“We’re catching these fires before they’re a problem, before they even get on the news.”


All that work spent walking the line between hustling and begging is worth it—for some adrenaline-hungry, routine-resistant people, at least—in order to become one of the most elite firefighters in America, equal parts hero and badass. While the work is undeniably invigorating (albeit also occasionally exhausting and/or dangerous), part of the appeal of becoming a smokejumper is that old-fashioned, manly mystique—even if about 15 percent of smokejumpers are now women. “I wouldn’t compare us to the Navy SEALs—those guys get shot at—but it’s similar,” says Missoula smokejumper Dan Cottrell, a 16-year veteran. Like a special-forces team, smokejumpers are a kind of highly skilled advance guard sent in to dangerous places to take care of crucial work quickly. Traveling by plane means they can get to remote fires faster than anyone else; parachuting onto the scene allows them to access wilderness areas miles away from any roads, because in the wildest public lands of these western states, there are still many roadless places.

That mystique is alive even among other firefighters, who tend to mock jumpers for their supposed arrogance even as they envy their independence. The first time Bedell worked a fire on which jumpers were called in, he didn’t even see them. As his hotshot crew dug line, the jumpers were busy parachuting in from 3,000 feet, then doing something important at the fire’s head, like some sort of band of wildland ninjas. While a crew of hotshot firefighters is a tightly coordinated machine built to work in formation, with a rigid command structure to match, smokejumpers are something else entirely. “[Hotshots] walk in single file in fire camp,” says Vermaas, the second-year jumper. “You can just tell smokejumpers are different. They’re not a number. These dudes roll through fire camp and it’s like, Who the fuck is that? You can tell.”


ast winter, Bedell got the call he’d been waiting for: a job offer with one of the country’s biggest jumper bases, the Missoula Death Star—provided, that is, he made it through the spring’s grueling training regimen. By the time prospective jumpers make it to this point, the assumption is that they’re already highly skilled firefighters; rookie training is more like a five-week physical and mental exercise to test how people work when they’re pushed to their limits. Every year, about one in five of those invited to rookie training drops out along the way.

Bedell knew all this, and he saved enough money to devote several months to full-time training. Leading up to rookie training, he worked out twice a day—lifting weights, taking yoga classes, going for epic trail runs with as much weight in his pack as he could stand. He’d heard that nothing really prepares you for jumping out of a plane from two Empire State Buildings in the sky, but maybe paragliding was a decent approximation—so he ran up mountains with a chute strapped to his back, then jumped off them and soared down.

On the first day of training, the whole base—veteran jumpers and pilots and staff members and curious tourists—turned out to watch the wannabe rookies take their first physical training test. The basic standard of fitness a smokejumper must pass to even start training: seven pull-ups, 25 push-ups, 45 sit-ups, plus a 1.5-mile run in 11 minutes or less. “This is a bare minimum and all rookies should be able to perform at a much higher level,” according to the superhuman boilerplate from the Missoula Smokejumpers instruction manual.

The calm before the jump, when the team will exit this plane from 3,000 feet before slamming into the ground at 15 miles per hour.

Over the next five weeks, the trainers gave the rookies every reason to quit, and the rookies looked within themselves to find reasons to stick around. They slept outside under tarps (“It snowed the whole first week of my rookie training,” recalled Missoula smokejumper Stephen Latham) and spent their days enduring whatever their trainers threw at them. Like any good-natured hazing ritual, some of what goes on during rookie training isn’t supposed to be revealed to outsiders; the trainers need the element of surprise. Other traditions are brutal enough to have become legend: All Missoula rookies must spend 24 hours straight cutting fireline—back-breaking, arduous work. By the end of it, loopy with sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion, it’s almost impossible not to let the thought of dropping out creep into your mind. Both Bedell and Vermaas seem half-stunned they endured that day. “I thought about not making it,” Bedell says. “The main thing was that I wanted to represent the [hotshot] crew I was from. To make them look good, to make them proud. I know that sounds kind of cheesy.”

Don't be a fucking pussy,” Vermaas says. “That’s what was going through my mind.”

After the 24 hours were up, the trainer told the rookie jumpers to look around: Every jumper they saw, he said, had been through the same ordeal. Bedell sat for a few minutes, basking in the camaraderie—and the blissful absence of work. “Then they made us do an 85-pound pack test,” he said. That is, travel three miles over rough, hilly terrain with 85 pounds on their backs. In 90 minutes or less.

There’s plenty of—oh, I dunno—actual fun to be had at rookie camp, including an obstacle course straight out of basic training and a landing simulator affectionately called The Slamulator, which mimics the brutal force of a hard parachute landing. Jumpers are taught how to put on spurs and scramble up a 100-foot tree, and also how to rappel down one—a crucial skill in the event of an unplanned arboreal landing. They get familiar with parachute procedures by jumping out of a 40-foot tower.

Video footage courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

Eventually it’s time for the real test: jumping out of an airplane, deploying a chute and navigating wind currents to find a safe landing spot. On actual fire jumps, jumpers will typically be exiting the plane at 3,000 feet, but for the first jump, they’re taken up to 4,000. All the simulated jumping in the world can’t really prepare you for the terror and exhilaration of that first leap into the void. Rookie jumpers work on compartmentalizing their anxiety and learning to narrow their focus to the details, even as their brains would prefer to be overwhelmed by panic. They practice watching the streamers that the spotter tosses out of the plane’s door in order to understand how the wind currents will affect their flight. They learn how to deploy their reserve chutes in the instance of, God forbid, a problem with their main parachutes. They learn to manipulate the toggles on their chutes to steer toward their intended landing spot, hopefully avoiding trees or lakes or particularly pointy timber. They work on their landings, practicing how to fall into a roll to minimize the joint impact of slamming into the ground at 15 miles per hour. Jumps and landings are filmed and reviewed with the obsessive scrutiny of a Division I football coach examining an opponent’s defense.


he air was hot and dry again, and the lightning kept igniting the sky. Even if the changing climate has made this kind of weather the norm, the jumpers call it Dirty August because the smoke never sleeps. When the fixed-wing aircraft made its first pass last summer over the intended parachute site in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, near the Idaho-Washington-Oregon border, Vermaas looked at his two jump partners, then gazed out onto a landscape suffused with smoke. It was his rookie year, and he was about to jump down into a rugged wilderness punctuated with many small but growing fires. The fires looked like they were waking up everywhere.

When the spotter slapped him on the shoulder, Vermaas heaved himself out of the plane and began the count to five before deploying his chute. He allowed himself a second to appreciate the strange calm of midair before turning his attention to the task at hand: negotiating a landing among the dense brush and ponderosa pines. The Selway River is beloved by fly-fishers, but to the smokejumpers, this was ugly country, thick with the kind of fuel that makes wildfires burn fast and hot.

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From Yellowstone National Park to the Bitterroot Mountains, Erik Vermaas says, "Fires are volatile because of us." One morning last August, he and two fellow jumpers discovered just how surprising danger could be.

It took three days for Vermaas and his crew to get their fire contained. They used chainsaws (to cut down trees that the fire would have otherwise used as fuel) and that Pulaski (to dig into the soil so there would be nothing on the ground for the fire to feed on). Hoses can factor into a jumper crew’s firefighting plan if a blaze is conveniently close to a river. Usually, it’s not—so instead of soaking their fires, smokejumpers starve them to death.

It’s nonstop work over rough terrain, and all the while the smokejumpers have to ensure they don’t let fatigue cloud their situational awareness. Though jumpers tout their safety record, there are still plenty of ways to get hurt in the woods—particularly when those woods are on fire: grizzlies, falling trees, flames that change direction and burn back toward you. When the fire settled down on the evening of the third day, Vermaas and the two other jumpers retired to their campsite. On fires with a bigger crew, rookies will sometimes engage in cooking competitions to see who can make the most back-country gourmet meal featuring the smokejumpers’ No. 1 staple of nutrition—Spam—as the star ingredient. (You’d be surprised: Spam tempura; Spam with a Ritz Cracker crust; Spam with wild huckleberry glaze…) With only three jumpers, though, this particular campsite was a bit more subdued. On their second night in the woods, the jumpers watched as a storm cell passed over them, strobing with lightning. One bolt sounded as though it had struck right above their heads. “Hope that didn’t start a fire,” one of them joked.

The next day, just after sunrise, the jumpers surveyed the perimeter they’d cut around the one-acre blaze and made sure any spot fires were extinguished. Then they began the unglamorous—but crucial—chore of mopping up: crawling on their knees over the blackened, burnt ground, feeling with their bare hands for any remaining spots of heat. “Fire is just dirty, sweaty, shitty work,” Vermaas says. “The fun part is when you're actually on the front and you're chasing, you're racing the fire. That's what we all crave. That's why we're all here.”

At nine that morning, a pilot flying overhead radioed the crew: You guys know you’ve got a fire-start right next to you? One of the other jumpers volunteered to bushwhack up the ridge to check out what was going on. It was slow going; the jumpers had been working in the thick, 20-foot-high brush that made walking a quarter-mile feel more like walking four. When the scout made it to the top of the ridge, he immediately radioed back: Let’s get out of here.

The fire had crowned—that is, started burning in the tops of the trees. The wind was pushing it toward the jumpers, and it was moving fast. In other circumstances, maybe the jumpers would have radioed for a plane to dump a tanker of retardant on the flames to slow things down, but by around 11 a.m., all those little fires had merged into a big one, and the smoke was so thick the helicopters couldn’t see a damn thing. Vermaas and the other jumper waited anxiously for the scout to fight through the brush back to them. The other jumper with Vermaas, a guy with decades of experience, barked into the radio: We do not have a safety zone, and our escape route is threatened. “That means,” Vermaas explains, “you basically are running out of options.”

“I wouldn’t compare us to the Navy SEALs—those guys get shot at—but it’s similar.”


Vermaas heard the loud, gunning sound of what he thought was a helicopter; he watched the treetops sway and felt a momentary surge of relief—until he realized that it wasn’t a chopper making that sound, or all that whooshing wind. The danger was the fire itself, ripping its way through the treetops toward them. No plane or rescue vehicle could make it anywhere near them; they’d have to get themselves out of this mess, and fast.

By the time the third crew member showed up, Vermaas says, “it was already fucking go time.” The jumpers ditched their gear—“We made the decision, ‘Fuck the gear, fuck everything, leave it, we're going’”—and made their way through the brush, racing the fire down toward the river. Vermaas tried not to think about what would happen if the fire spotted and caught below them—fire burns fastest uphill, and when it gets going even the most fleet-footed smokejumper doesn’t stand a chance. All three jumpers made it down to a creek and safe haven, but it was close.

Vermaas stood in the creekbed, then watched as the trees swayed with the energy only a fire could create—when wildfires burn hot enough, they can generate their own weather. Half an hour or so more and those flames would’ve burned right over them. Days later, a salvage crew went in to look for the jumpers’ gear. The only remnants they found were metal grills from their jump helmets and six fasteners from their parachutes. Everything else had been reduced to ashes.

“No person should have ever been down there,” Vermaas says. “It was stupid.” Not necessarily because conditions were dangerous but because the traditional tasks of smokejumpers have become increasingly incompatible with forest science in recent decades. When the program first started, smokejumpers were charged with putting out every fire they parachuted into by 10 a.m. the following morning. U.S. Forest Service smokejumpers were an offshoot of World War II-era paratroopers, and so it should be no surprise that early jumpers took a militaristic approach to firefighting. Wildfire was the enemy, and they attacked every stray spark with ferocity. The small fires that mid-century smokejumpers rushed to put out served several important functions, including thinning forests out; when that natural cleansing process doesn’t occur, you end up with overgrown woods and wildfires that burn hotter and bigger. And you end up with three jumpers caught in the middle of it.

“We've only done more harm to the forest by suppressing these fires that are supposed to happen because they're a natural part of the ecosystem,” says Vermaas, who has a degree in forest management and fire science from Oregon State. “Fires are volatile because of us.” He acknowledges that his philosophy of the beneficial ecological role of wildfires does not exactly align with his chosen profession. “I’m a total hypocrite. But they don't pay you to watch them burn.”

“Smokejumping was never meant to be a real job.”


As our understanding of fire has evolved, so has the role of smokejumpers. Though they still parachute into some of the nation’s most remote areas, often a lightning-sparked fire in a national park will be allowed to burn itself out naturally. These days, smokejumpers are deployed more strategically, on fires that need to be put out quickly because there are nearby homes, or other resources that need protecting. “I’ve jumped on fires in suburbs, fires right next to highways,” says Cottrell, one of the Missoula smokejumpers.

Hardy Bloemeke, an air attack pilot in West Yellowstone, started jumping when he was 21 and kept going until he reached the mandatory smokejumper retirement age of 56 a few years ago. Back in the day, he said, if there weren’t enough jumpers on base when a fire call came in, dispatchers had a trick: call the bars in town. On Bloemeke’s first fire jump in Yellowstone National Park, National Park Service employees met his crew after its job was done and foisted cases of beer on them. “I can only tell you that because all those guys are dead or retired by now,” Bloemeke says. “Today, that would get you fired.”

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Pilot David Crisp (left) and retired smokejumper Hardy Bloemeke, with more than 350 jumps behind him, now staff a plane to help coordinate air attack efforts in the West Yellowstone area.

Smokejumping used to be a job college kids with an appetite for adventure would try for a couple of summers before moving on to do something else. These days, most jumpers are career firefighters, though the seasonal nature of the work means they aren’t entitled to benefits and only get subsidized healthcare for the months they’re working fires. The job also used to not be particularly conducive to family life, but the Missoula base now has day care. “It seems like they’re a lot more professional than we were back then,” Bloemeke says. Not far away, jumper Knute Olson’s bleach-blond twins are toddling around the tarmac. “We had a lot of fun. Probably too much fun. Most of us were single—once somebody started a family, they usually moved on. When people wanted to settle down, they’d go find what we called ‘a real job.’ Smokejumping was never meant to be a real job.”


he rookie-induced delay turned out not to be a problem for the West Yellowstone Smokejumpers: “Our jump ops all went really smooth, just like procedure,” says Hill, the jumper-in-charge, when he calls me that night from the campsite. The eight-man crew spent the day cutting fireline into the smoldering timber to stop the half-acre fire from growing. The forecast was for overnight temperatures near freezing, which would likely subdue the smoke and turn the jumpers’ main tasks into staying warm and watching out for bears.

The next few days, the jumpers will wake up and deal with any still-burning logs before crawling through the black on their hands and knees. Once they’re confident the fire is well and truly extinguished, they will load their chainsaws and their Kevlar jumpsuits and candy bar wrappers and those extra pairs of socks they brought with them into their packs and begin the long trek to wherever the nearest road may be. They will have endured five days of being alternately hot, cold and tired; their bellies will be full of Spam, their bodies pushed to the limit. Back at the base, they’ll distract themselves with Razor-scooter races around the tarmac and coin-flip games, snagging whatever entertainment they can as they await the next call from dispatch. In a few weeks, the season will wind down and they’ll head to their offseason jobs on ski patrol or as pilots or teachers or emergency room doctors. But for now, they’re just happy to be exhausted in the woods with a fire smoldering in the distance.

“This,” Hill says, “is the thing we work all summer for: jumping on fires.”

Rachel Monroe is a journalist based in Marfa, Texas. Her writing about crime, fire and small-town scandals has been published in the New York Times Magazine, New York, the Guardian, Texas Monthly and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter: @rachmonroe

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