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Fort St. John smoke jumpers prepare for upcoming wildfire season

A new set of para-attackers join the team in 2022

Raise your hand if you ever considered parachuting from a plane.

How about with a fire burning on the ground below?

Wait... what?!?!?

That's something that a number of very specialized men and women, known as smoke jumpers, do every day during B.C.'s wildfire season.

Meet Chelsea Marshall.

Since 2016, the 27-year-old has returned every spring to the Northeast; first in Fort Nelson and now in Fort St. John as part of the para-attack unit.

Marshall loves her job and you can certainly hear it in her voice when she describes what smoke jumping is all about.

“We can get a lot of people and gear to fires very quickly and it's a very cost-efficient way to fight fires,” she explains.

It's one of a number of ways, she says, wildfires are fought.

“So, we have unit crews. These are 20-person crews, who typically drive to fires in trucks that respond to those larger incidents,” describes Marshall. “Then we have initial attack crews that are three-person crews that will respond in trucks or helicopters.”

The para-attack unit, part of the initial response, can be deployed when it's unsafe to fly in by helicopter or drive a vehicle into the fire zone.

“Rap-attack is also an option,” she says. “That's where crews will repel from a long line into the area.”

Earlier in the month, the unit began its training of new recruits.

With her six years of experience in situations around the province, Marshall was brought in to help with some of the training.

“What you saw today was our rookie class learning what to do in the event of a water landing.”

The exercise is carried out inside the North Peace leisure pool with an open parachute and candidates in full pack gear, preparing them in the event they land in a lake or river.

Among those taking part on this day, May 4, is Rogan Mei, a young man from Central Ontario with five years of wildland firefighting experience.

“I've always had para-attack in the back of my mind just from seeing videos of it and just the kind of people that it draws.”

Mei spent four years on a helitack crew in the northern part of his home province, where crews leave from a helicopter on the ground.

“The advantage of a plane is you can go farther distance away. You can cover a broader area. Just to get this spot in a group like this is such an honour.”

Typically smoke jumpers will parachute from a plane from about 1500 feet, says Mei, and land on the ground as quickly as 60 seconds after they jump.

“Depending on the fire, we could be there for a couple of days or a couple of weeks.”

Prince George native Owen MacDonald will also be stationed at the Fort St. John base in 2022, after spending time as a junior firefighter and last year in Chetwynd on an initial attack crew.

“I don't know if it's the jumping out aspect or mostly the people and the culture, the training...but I love it. It's going to be such as amazing experience. I can't wait.”

To be considered for this particular role, candidates need to have knowledge or rudimentary skills behind them, like on a fire line, but motivation also plays a key role in who gets chosen.

“Someone who is willing to do it, really eager, and wants to be here. Physically fit. Just willing to work hard,” said Marshall. “You would start in boot camp, typically in Merritt, and go from there.”

And, like a local fire department, there's room to advance with the more courses you take.

While this year's recruits have been already been chosen, she highly recommends anyone interested starting looking into it now.

The application process for next year already begins in late fall.

Is this everything Marshall hoped for when she started six years ago?

“Absolutely!”


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