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Smokejumpers Drop Into Heart Of Fire Country

Wildland firefighters come in all forms: There are seasonal workers, Army reservists – and prisoners who fight fires for a few dollars a day.

And then there are the smokejumpers who parachute into the heart of fire country.

Among them, Daren Belsby, who manages the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington. He’s been a smokejumper for nearly 30 years.

Smokejumpers are uniquely positioned for what he called “initial attacks” when wildfires break out.

“The fact that we fly at over 200 miles an hour, we can be there often faster than an engine or any one could get there,” Belsby said. “I don't think there's any piece of Washington that we can't get to in one hour.”

This summer saw a lot of fires, however, which stretched Belsby’s crew of 25.

“We did not expect this many starts, this many fires to go live to large – this many fires to escape initial attack,” he said. “There’s just obviously more fire than there are for service state personnel to handle.”

Among the fires: The Okanogan Complex, which began two weeks ago and is now the largest fire in state history. Other major fires include the Chelan Complex around Lake Chelan and the North Star Fire on the Colville Indian Reservation.

In all of this, his own home has been threatened. He and his family live four miles from where some of the fires are burning.

"We have a generator and food and we've certainly practiced fire-wise techniques around the house, so I guess we're probably more prepared just by last summer,” he said.

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