Firefighters make leap to smokejumping

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Firefighters smokejumping in Washington
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Firefighters smokejumping in Washington
Supervisors Guy McLean (L) and Inaki Baraibar (R) observe smokejumper recruits as they complete their first jump from an airplane into a field adjacent to the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 7, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A smokejumper navigates towards the ground after leaping from an airplane during a training exercise in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 6, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A smokejumper recruit lands after leaping from an airplane during a training exercise in a field adjacent to the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 7, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A smokejumper is seen under his parachute after leaping from an airplane during a training exercise in a field adjacent to the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 7, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Veteran smokejumpers and recruits watch as a recruit completes his first jump from an airplane into a field adjacent to the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 7, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A smokejumper lands in a large gravel circle after leaping from an airplane during a training exercise at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 6, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Smokejumpers celebrate a successful training jump at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 6, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Assistant spotter Scott McClanahan (L) and spotter Daren Belsby (R) size up the landing area for smokejumpers preparing to complete a practice jump from an airplane while flying above Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 30, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Smokejumpers navigate towards the ground after leaping from an airplane during a training exercise in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 6, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Smokejumper recruit Ross Lindell untangles his parachute after landing in cow manure during his first training jump from an airplane into a field adjacent to the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 7, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Spotter Daren Belsby communicates with a smokejumper preparing to complete a practice jump from an airplane while flying above Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 30, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Smokejumper recruit Leo Brett winds up a hose after cleaning equipment at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 7, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A smokejumper recruit lands in gravel while practising parachute landing fall techniques at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 7, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Smokejumpers exit an airplane during a training flight in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 6, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smokejumper recruits clean their sweat-soaked equipment after training in extreme heat at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, United States June 7, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Rookie smokejumper Brian Anderson (R) prepares to jump from an airplane with fellow smokejumpers while flying above Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 30, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Parachutes ready for use are seen in the parachute loft at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 6, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A smokejumper prepares to leap from an airplane while flying above Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 30, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Smokejumper Jeremy Zemke labels a parachute he has finished packing, in the parachute loft at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 6, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Smokejumper recruits train by jumping from a large tower while attached to zip lines at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 7, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Smokejumper recruit Jeff Rasmussen does squats with a large rock, punishment for dropping his helmet from atop the practice tower, during training at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 6, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A smokejumper recruit trains by jumping from a large tower while attached to a zip line at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 6, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Instructors (R) watch a rookie class of eight smokejumper recruits as they practise parachute landing fall techniques at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 7, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A smokejumper leaps from an airplane during a training flight above Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 30, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smokejumper recruits exercise at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 6, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
(L-R) Supervisors Daren Belsby, Inaki Baraibar, and Fidel Verduzco observe a smokejumper recruit as he jumps from a training tower while connected to a zip line at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 7, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Smokejumper recruit Ross Lindell lands after jumping from a large tower while attached to a zip line at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 6, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Smokejumper recruits enter the parachute loft during training at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 7, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Smokejumper recruits train at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 7, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Smokejumper Jeremy Zemke labels a parachute he has finished packing, in the parachute loft at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 6, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Smokejumpers gather for a meeting in the parachute loft at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 6, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Tools for packing parachutes are seen in the parachute loft at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 7, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Magnets identifying which smokejumpers are scheduled to deploy are seen on a board in the parachute loft at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, U.S., June 6, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder SEARCH "SMOKEJUMPING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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WINTHROP, Wash., Aug 12 (Reuters) - On a 100-degree day in early June, Matt Mueller did sit-ups in a semicircle with seven other experienced firefighters training to parachute into a wildfire.

Better known as "rookie candidates," they were determined to make it through the five-week program at North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, where the first experimental jumps occurred in 1939.

"It's sort of the spiritual home of smokejumping," said David Ryder, who photographed the latest group of rookies for Reuters. "These guys are the elite of the elite."

The 32-year-old freelance photographer said covering the record-setting wildfires in his home state of Washington over the past two years made him want to learn more about the people behind the acts of courage he had captured.

These rookie candidates were required to have basic firefighting skills; two seasons of forestry experience, one being a main fire position; be 5 feet to 6 feet 5 inches (1.52 to 1.96 meters) tall; and weigh between 120 and 200 pounds (54.4 to 90.7 kg), according to the base.

"It can be dangerous work," said Inaki Baraibar, North Cascades' training supervisor. "It's dirty work; you're away from your family a lot."

Mueller and his fellow trainees, who were almost completely covered in dirt and sweat, packed their parachutes, always anticipating two loud blasts of an air horn alerting them to a fire.

After the horn sounds, jumpers have two minutes to suit up in their protective gear.

Mueller, 31, was identified as having smokejumper potential from a pool of roughly 150 applicants.

He described the five weeks of training as "intense but doable" alongside his "rookie bros."

"It's the kind of thing you really don't get through without bonding with the people around you," said Mueller, who has been fighting fires for more than six years. "That's just because it's so tough."

After successfully completing the program in late June, he was ready to work.

Two weeks ago, Mueller was eating his lunch when the air horn sounded.

"I dropped everything and ran to get suited up in under two minutes," he recalled.

Mueller, who got married last October, said one of the hardest parts of his job is managing to see his wife and their daughter.

He has not returned home to New Mexico since he arrived at the base in May.

"My wife has been incredibly supportive, but she's also very worried sometimes," he said. "She let me chase my dream, which unfortunately takes me away from home a lot."

Parachuting Into a Wildfire: Yes, This Is Someone's Job

"JUST DUCK"

Ryder, who has been a photographer for 13 years, did not get into the plane with the smokejumpers; he photographed the drill from below.

With a laugh, he recalled a training officer saying that if he thought a smokejumper would land on him, "not to run, just duck."

Ryder rented two GoPro cameras, attaching one to a wing on the plane and another to the helmet of a smokejumper. The camera clicked every two seconds, leaving him with thousands of shots.

"There's always weird, surprising stuff that happens, but you never know what it's going to be," he said.

Ryder captured one of those spontaneous moments when one of the rookies took his first jump straight into a pile of cow manure.

When Ryder returned later in June, all eight rookies had recently attained full smokejumper status, which has never happened before, according to Michael Noe, the base's operations manager.

"I'd go out on a limb and say that they are an exceptional group," said Noe, who has been working there for 18 years.

"We've also always had a couple rookies drop out during the training, but not this year."

But that does not mean the rookies do not slip up from time to time.

Ryder also took an impromptu shot of a rookie recruit who had dropped his helmet from the top of a jump tower.

His punishment was to do squats while carrying a giant boulder.

"It's called the prayer rock," said Baraibar, the base's training supervisor. "It offers jumpers a moment of reflection and reinforces the idea that there was something they could have done better."

While Baraibar can "show teeth" when he needs to, he said his style is to encourage jumpers to play into their strengths.

Baraibar described Mueller as a "mellow dude."

"That's optimal, in my opinion," he said. "You want someone who's not too hyped, not too relaxed, but stable."

Ryder said covering a memorial service in Washington State for three firefighters killed while battling a wildfire in August 2015 was eye-opening.

"That really put everything into perspective for me," he said.

Still, he reflected on the rewards of such responsibility.

"Some of the firefighters talk about getting bit by the 'firebug,' being up that close, seeing the power of nature, seeing this incredible release of energy," Ryder said. "It's definitely captured me, too."

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