Washington: Guns and smokejumpers

By Pamela Wade

Pamela Wade discovers modest fire-fighting heroes in a Wild West town.

A Western figure in Winthrop, Washington State. Photo / Pamela Wade
A Western figure in Winthrop, Washington State. Photo / Pamela Wade

If it weren't so obvious that there's not an ounce of fat on them, it would be tempting to call Washington state's North Cascades Smokejumpers well-rounded: how else to describe men who not only leap from a small plane to parachute into dense forest wreathed in the smoke from a wildfire, but can also execute a nifty bit of top-stitching on the sewing machines back at base?

They have to make their own jumpsuits in this service because there are only 400 smokejumpers in the whole of the US and there's not much call, commercially, for yellow Kevlar boiler suits with capacious pockets, weighing more than 80kg fully packed.

Standard equipment includes a rope for rappelling down out of trees and a knife to slice through tangles, making sliding down a pole at the station and getting into a truck look like fire-fighting for wimps.

Employed by the US Forest Service, these men - and women - see themselves as the equivalent of the Army's Green Berets, an elite force who survive a rigorous five-week boot camp to become tough, self-sufficient members of the team.

Jason is typical. Polite, modest, matter-of-fact, he shows us around the base at the airport outside Winthrop. A tin shed with two long parachute-packing tables, racks of jumpsuits ready to step into and a corner with computers and radios, it's not fancy.

Smokejumpers are all about getting the job done, not making an impression; and the hand tools they use to starve the fire of fuel - a rake, a shovel and a chainsaw - are equally practical.

"We aim to stop the fires from getting on the TV news, ma'am," Jason says simply.

It's a different story along the road. In Winthrop, a small town tucked into a Pacific Northwest mountain valley, appearance is everything. Slowly declining after the gold rush years, it was reincarnated in the 1970s as a Wild West town to encourage tourists to stop as they travelled along the new state highway.

Business seized the idea, erecting timber frontages, building boardwalks with hitching rails and verandas, stocking Stetsons and cowboy boots. Cliche it may be, but it works.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Economy class airfares to Seattle commence from $2502 per person return, travelling on Air New Zealand and partner airlines, with daily services via Los Angeles.

Getting around: Winthrop is an easy and scenic 2-hour drive from Seattle; Sun Mountain Lodge, 16km from Winthrop, offers year-round
activities and luxury.

SMOKEJUMPING

The North Cascades Smokejumpers Base: is located 8km from Winthrop and is open to the public for free guided tours. See ncsbsmokejumpers.com.

Further information: For more about visiting Washington State see ExperienceWA.com.

Pamela Wade travelled around as a guest of Washington State Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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