An Unexpected Landing

A former Badger rower traded boats on Lake Mendota for fires in the Wild West.

November 23rd 2016 | Chelsea Schlecht
Alumni & Friends
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Todd Jinkins ’96 waits for the go-ahead to parachute out of a Twin Otter plane as his team gears up for another season of firefighting. (Photo by Jeff Miller, UW-Madison)

The tall man with the pigtails is Todd “Jinks” Jinkins (B.A.’96, Political Science and Legal Studies), deputy chief of the Great Basin Smokejumpers. It’s refresher training week for the veterans, and today is the first active jump after winter break. Smokejumpers are the navy SEALs of firefighting. They rely on elite skills to launch the initial attack on a wildland fire. Fighting fires in the wild is highly specialized work, but smokejumping is more specialized still. They don’t battle raging, 50-meter-tall blazes; instead, the crew of eight, far from help, works on small fires before they grow into monsters like the one that consumed 3,000 acres of Northern California in August. During the spring-to-fall fire season, the smokejumper base tracks lightning storms and clusters of less-threatening fires to determine areas that could be in danger. A crew is then dispatched to those sites — in the most remote areas of the western wilderness.

The rookies train outside of Boise in an area they call “the units,” developing skills such as rapelling and climbing before progressing to training jumps.

That’s the smoke. Then there’s the jumper. “Some people take the bus [to work],” Jinkins says. “We just happen to take a parachute.” 

Read more in On Wisconsin Magazine