What It’s Like To Jump Out of a Plane Into a Forest Fire… On Purpose

Smokejumpers are the thrill-seeking heroes attacking wildfires from the skies.

July 9, 2019

By Tobin Caddell (as told to the editors of VanMag)

I’d been fighting wildfires for three summers at Cultus Lake, and I loved it. But I knew I wouldn’t be doing the job forever, so I wanted to experience everything it had to offer. And because I was on a unit crew on the coast, no one knew about Parattack or smokejumping, other than that you got to jump out of planes to fight fires in remote areas. It was all legend and hearsay. It both intrigued and scared me, in a way, but I thought it was something I should apply for.

 Everyone on the coast said you need seven years of experience and had to be a crew leader, all that stuff. They’d talk about meeting a smokejumper or a friend of a friend who was one. But I threw my name in the hat. And, somehow, it worked. 

Tobin Caddell on the job.

So I headed up north to Fort St. John for the summer. I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t know anything about the town. At Cultus, I was pretty much as close as possible to Vancouver, my hometown, and I was about to go as far away as you can and still work for BC Wildfire. 

And, yeah, at first everyone judged me for being a city boy. But I ended up meeting the rest of the rookies (there were 10 of us), and it was kind of special because we were all just figuring it out. We were strangers, and then a week later we were best friends. 

But before we could smokejump, we had to go through boot camp. It was 10 hours a day, most of which was learning about jumping out of planes, how to land, how to do a letdown if you got caught in a tree.  

Fort St. John was in full-on evacuation mode at the time and literally on fire. The worst part of the job (and it’s not close) is seeing cities deal with the devastation… but it also motivates you to help out. So we’d go out at night to moonlight as forest firefighters on the ground, and get up the next morning for smokejumping boot camp. 

Soon, though, it was go time. 

A few years ago, a guy who used to work for Parattack donated this massive gong. So in between fires, we’re all at the base, waiting for the next assignment. The phone rings, and everyone drops what they’re doing and turns their attention to the guy answering it. He takes down some notes, hangs up and calmly walks over to the gong and smashes it. 

And everyone just goes nuts. The crew scheduled for the fire immediately makes for the rack and starts putting on their gear. “Thunderstruck”—or something else, usually by AC/DC—comes on the stereo. And then the garage door slowly opens and you can see the plane revving up. 

Everyone’s hooting and hollering, the music’s blasting, and you’re already walking slow because you’re in all this gear. So you feel like you’re in Top Gun, just strutting in slow motion to the aircraft. 

The program has two planes—a Twin Otter, with a capacity of about six jumpers (two crews), and a DC-3, which can hold around 13 and is the same type of aircraft used in the Second World War. You could be called to anyplace in the province, and usually you’d be able to make it there in two hours. 

When you’re in the plane, everyone is at the window, going “Okay, there’s the fire; that’s going to be the water source and that’s going to be the drop zone.” You’re thinking of everything before you hit the ground so you have an idea of where it’s all going to be.

You typically jump in pairs. I’ll go, and then my partner will jump immediately after me. The plane circles around to the exit point—two minutes, and the next pair goes.

At the beginning, I was terrified. I’d hoist myself out of the plane as hard as I could, shut my eyes tight and scream my count at the top of my lungs: “PUSH THOUSAND, TWO THOUSAND, THREE THOUSAND, FOUR THOUSAND, CHECK THOUSAND”, and at “check thousand” I would look up and pray that I saw a beautiful blue and white canopy.

But after the first few times, it became something I craved. I wanted back up in the air. I loved the feeling of jumping out of the plane. I started opening my eyes and enjoying the ride through the skies with one of my new friends.

Your gear gets dropped in after you, and each crew of three begins doing their separate roles—Alpha is the crew leader, Bravo is the second in command and Charlie is usually the rookie.

Water typically comes from the nearest source, like a river, creek, lake, whatever. It’s B.C., so there’s almost always one around. Of course, if there’s no water source, you’re going to be digging.

Usually with Parattack, it’s before the fire gets huge. You’re trying to mitigate it. It could be big, but it’s not going to be a massive one like you hear about on the news.

Last summer was tough. It was the first time in five years I didn’t spend the season in the brush. When you read this, I’ll be back out there for one more tour. And I can’t wait. It’s just a very unique thing—something I took such a risk on—and it’s benefited me hugely. 

Oh, and they also teach you how to sew (because jumpers stitch the cargo parachutes), so I surprised my whole family one Christmas with handmade bags. It didn’t help with my city-boy reputation, though.


More from our “What It’s Like To…” series:

What It’s Like To… Discover Your Restaurant Has Been Burned Down

What It’s Like To… Find out You Have 40 Brothers and Sisters

What It’s Like To… Survive an Avalanche


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