Being a smokejumper is one of the toughest jobs.
There may be only one job that’s tougher – being a smokejumper’s mother.
“I started crying right away when I heard,” said Barb Hill of Jamestown, mother of smokejumper Jason Hill, after the recent deaths of 19 members of a hot shot crew in an Arizona wildfire.
Hill last heard from her son two days ago, in a text message from where he’s stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska. “Mom, I’m safe,” it read.
“We both worry about Jason a lot,” said Hill of her and her husband. That was even before news of the Arizona fatalities rocked the nation.
Barb Hill and her husband routinely go a week or more without hearing from their son, who spends each April through October parachuting from an airplane 1,500 feet above burning areas of the backcountry, then backpacks out to civilization carrying 120 pounds of supplies on his back.
Cellphone contact can be spotty under such circumstances.
Usually, Barb Hill said, the way it works is, “We know that he’s safe because we haven’t heard anything.”
The 19 deaths represent not just a huge emotional blow to the smokejumper community, but a big one in terms of population, proportionally speaking.
There are only about 400 smokejumpers nationwide, all bound together by the strange demands of a job that demands continual sacrifice: time away from home, broken bones and near religious devotion to year-round physical fitness just to survive the gig.
“Most of the jumpers break their leg, have new knees” after a while, said Jason Hill’s fellow smokejumper and 1999 Fargo North graduate Chris Hinnenkamp, stationed in Redmond, Wash.
“I actually just got back from Albuquerque. It was 100 degrees, had a little lightning. It’s super-hot and dry right now – it’s going to be, ‘Keep your head down, be more careful than you would be,’ ” he said of his instructions.
Hinnenkamp believes the foil and fiberglass fire shelters that smokejumpers are required to carry and which the 19 dead smokejumpers deployed right before their death are an additional potential hazard of the job because they can create a false sense of security, leading smokejumpers to get closer to a blaze than they would without one.
“I’m not saying they did anything wrong,” Hinnenkamp said. “Sometimes you can do everything right and it still goes wrong.”
Even when it all goes well, Hinnenkamp said, smokejumpers usually find themselves ending their careers after about seven years, in part because of the toll it takes on the body. Hinnenkamp spent two years on a hot shot crew – those driven into forest fires – before graduating to smokejumper.
Page 2 of 2 - Barb Hill worries about the end of her son’s career. At age 35, he is “getting to be one of the older ones,” she said. Jason Hill passed his 100-jump mark last season.
“It’s hard on his body,” she said. “Usually, during the winter months, he sees a chiropractor every day.”
Barb Hill also worries that pursuing a career that takes him to the most remote areas of the country will make it harder for him to pursue marriage and a family.
For Hinnenkamp, though, who’s in his sixth year of smokejumping, the sacrifice is worth it.
“I want to do this forever,” Hinnenkamp said. “You can’t really beat the people. Once you’re in, it’s the top of the food chain, the adventure, with these fit, super-strong people. It’s definitely for me.”
“I think driving down the street’s probably more dangerous than what I do – all those people texting,” he said.