Two Enterprise High School grads from the mid-1990s are at the peak of demand this time of year as they and their crew regularly are first responders to wildfires on USFS land throughout the U.S.
Brothers Sean and Gabe Wishart, who graduated from EHS in 1995 and 1996 respectively, are among 35 smoke-jumping firefighters seasonally stationed at the USFS Redmond Center, the only such facility left in Oregon.
Sean says the USFS first employed firefighters to jump from airplanes in 1940 when it became clear there was no more efficient, quicker way to address fires burning in remote, often wilderness areas.
Smokejumpers normally jump from planes at about 1,500 feet carrying backpacks that weigh about 85 pounds, says Sean. Tools, sleeping bags, and other necessary items are parachuted separately in what regularly is rugged terrain.
Using basic tools that have not changed for decades, smokejumpers from Redmond hand-fight what initially are small fires with pulaskis (tools combining an axe and adze), shovels, and chainsaws. Whenever the fires get larger and require additional manpower, smokejumpers almost always are among the first personnel removed from that fire, freeing them to respond to the next one.
Sean recently returned from the most distant locale where hes been asked to jump, well above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, and was surprised to work in temperatures in the mid-80s.
The 35 firefighters based in Redmond, of which three are women, are not required to live at the air center.
According to father Gary Wishart, of Enterprise, Sean lives off the air center in Prineville and Gabe and family live off the air center in Bend.
Sean, who has been smokejumping for eight years and fighting fire since he was in high school, says hes normally called to jump from planes to fight fires as many as 12 times per year. Brother Gabe didnt get into the firefighting business until he was in his early 20s and has been smokejumping for five years.
Both agree that they are not smokejumpers exclusively, but often are sent to fight fire by land vehicle if the situation warrants such an application of their skills.
Asked what lures him into the profession of jumping out of airplanes to work long, hot hours to fight forest fires, Gabe says its not the thrill of jumps that attracts him. Instead, he says, its the challenge of a job that demands the most from a person professionally and physically, day-in and day-out.
Interesting enough, Sean says the most dangerous part of the job is not jumping out of planes, but instead is riding in vehicles away from rugged fire sites.
Smokejumpers, although they might have subtle warnings if they pay close attention to weather projections, ordinarily have little pre-warning when they will be called to a fire. They dont know if they will be away from home one day or 20, but know for a fact their stay on fires cannot exceed 21 days before, by law, they must be granted time off.
Because high fire alerts often are localized, smokejumpers from Redmond often are flown to the nearest smokejumping air centers in Redding, Calif.; McCall, Idaho; or Winthrop, Wash., to be on standby when pools of smokejumpers there are deployed on numerous fires.