They take a dive to save forests and homes

Redmond smokejumpers are Central Oregon's elite firefigthers

Redmond Smokejumpers are Central Oregon's elite

REDMOND, Ore. - Smokejumping -- it's the kind of firefighting adrenaline junkies fall for. But don't be fooled: This work is no walk in the park.

"We can get to the middle of nowhere fast and put a lot of people on the ground," said Redmond smokejumper Jacob Welsh.

The Redmond Air Center opened in 1964, and ever since has been home to Central Oregon's elite wildland firefighters.

"We perform initial attack duties, which is being the first on the scene," Welsh said.

The  base is one of only three in the Pacific Northwest and currently serves 35 smokejumpers, who have been preparing for fire season all year.

They've been busy this spring, doing all the things you'd expect.

"These saws actually get thrown out of the doors of the plane," said one smokejumper as he sharpened a saw.

The men and women also do other work you'd never guess.

"I didn't know how to pick a stitch before I was a jumper," Assistant Loft Manager Dirk Stevens said.

That's right: They're expert firefighters -- and master sewers.

"Right here are a pair of jump pants," Stevens said, holding up a pair of heavy-duty canvas pants he was sewing a zipper on.

The smoke jumpers construct every piece of their uniform -- all straps, pockets, buttons -- and also every stitch on their gear bags.

What about their parachutes? They don't make those, but each year they make the dozens and dozens of repairs the chutes require after snagging trees and branches.

"We're the only people that do what we do," smokejumper Dustin Underhill said. "So we have to make our own stuff. It's hilarious, actually, that I spend my winters in the sewing room."

But as soon as summer hits, it's go time. When the alarms ring, smokejumpers only have minutes to throw on their gear and hop on the plane. Then it's time to go to work.

"We put out fires when they're small, to keep them from getting bigger," Welsh said. "We save taxpayers money, and keep a lot of people from getting in the woods when fires get bigger."

Veteran jumper Stevens is in his 24th season and still going strong.

"It's a great job, good people, and fun and exciting," Stevens said.

And the newbies are eager to get to the flames.

"I know I'm going to be just as excited and as nervous as every jump I've had, and then the added pressure of knowing what to do on the ground," said 27-year-old rookie jumper Katie Campbell.

Now preparations are over, and a long summer has started, as Redmond jumpers are flying all over the Northwest. Fourteen are battling the Carlson Complex fire in Washington state, others are in the North Cascade National Park and Willamette National Forest, and 13 are available on reserve for whatever comes next on the High Desert.

The Redmond base is also currently hosting 20 jumpers in from Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

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