Smokejumpers are most often deployed to fires that are extremely remote. The extra risk associated with this method is justified by reaching a wildfire shortly after ignition when it is still relatively small. Another argument for delivering wildland firefighters by parachute is that the fixed-wing aircraft that carry smokejumpers are cheaper to operate over long distances, carry more personnel and equipment and have higher top speeds than the helicopters often used for other fire deployments. While remoteness is one reason parachute deployment is used, it adds to the risk inherent in smokejumping as crews are often hours away from help if the wind shifts or someone gets injured. The ordinary risk of a parachute jump, the adverse conditions for the jump, and the lack of resources for firefighting and rescue once on the ground in a remote area give smokejumping a reputation as exceedingly dangerous work.
Typical smokejumper fires are small (under several acres), isolated, and in mountainous or very remote terrain. Once on the ground, smokejumpers normally use hand tools such as pulaskis (a combination ax and mattock), shovels, chainsaws and portable pumps to attack the fire. If their initial attack fails, reinforcements can be called in, such as engine crews, hotshots, and local handcrews. In practice, smokejumpers usually catch in excess of 97% of the fires they respond to, although public exposure of the larger fires is understandably much greater. Explosives are sometimes used in this role, having been first used on a fire by jumpers in 1974 as a fireline technique. However, fireline explosives have proven to be expensive, time consuming, and ineffective due to the rapidly changing dynamics in the fire environment.
In the United States, smokejumper bases currently operate in Missoula, Montana; Fairbanks, Alaska; Boise, Idaho; McCall, Idaho; Winthrop, Washington; Redding, California; West Yellowstone, Montana; Redmond, Oregon; and Grangeville, Idaho. Formerly, smokejumper bases have also been located in Cave Junction, Oregon; Idaho City, Idaho; Bristol, Virginia; and a few other locations. Russia, Canada , and Mongolia also have smokejumper programs.
The following year, in 1940, permanent jump operations were established at Winthrop, Washington, and Ninemile Camp, Montana. The first actual fire jumps in the history of smokejumping were made by Rufus Robinson and Earl Cooley at Marten Creek in the Nez Perce National Forest on July 12, 1940, out of Ninemile, followed shortly by a two-man fire jump out of Winthrop. In subsequent years, the Ninemile Camp operation moved to Missoula, where it became the Missoula Smokejumper Base. The Winthrop operation remained at its original location, as North Cascades Smokejumper Base. The "birthplace" of smokejumping continues to be debated between these two bases, the argument having persisted at this time for approximately 67 years. After observing smokejumper training methods at Ninemile Camp, Major General William C. Lee, U.S. Army, went on to establish the U.S. Army airborne.
The 555th Parachute Infantry battalion gained notoriety as the only all-black airborne unit in United States Army history. The battalion did not get the chance to serve overseas during World War II; however, in May 1945, it was sent to the west coast of the United States to combat forest fires ignited by Japanese balloons carrying incendiary bombs, an operation designated Operation Firefly. Although this potentially serious threat did not fully materialize, the 555th fought numerous other forest fires while there. Stationed at Pendleton Field, Oregon, with a detachment in Chico, California, unit members courageously participated in dangerous firefighting missions throughout the Pacific Northwest during the summer and fall of 1945, earning the nickname "Smoke Jumpers".
The 555th was purportedly not sent to combat because of racism within the military. Today, ironically, many contemporary smokejumpers are extremely proud to call the men of the "triple nickel" their brother smokejumpers.
In May 1978, members of the 19th Special Forces Group and other western military units began airborne training at the Missoula Smokejumper School.
Statistically, smokejumping remains as safe as ground-based wildland firefighting as a whole. Although jump injuries do occur, they are not frequent, and smokejumper personnel take deliberate precautions before deciding whether to jump a particular fire. Multiple factors are analyzed, and then a decision is made as to whether it is safe to jump the fire or it is unsafe. Bases tend to look for highly motivated individuals that are in superior shape and have the ability to think independently and react to changing environments rapidly. Because of their fire experience and physical conditioning, most Hotshots make good smokejumpers. Smokejumping is not a crew-based firefighting tactic, and it takes time for firefighters that have been entrenched within the "crew mentality" to break free and think independently.
It is argued that smokejumper operations are expensive to maintain and marginally effective; however, the comparable cost is that of many more helicopter deployments. The range of smokejumper aircraft is greater than a helicopter, the speed is greater than a helicopter, and the payload is greater also. In a realistic assessment, the two delivery systems bring different advantages and disadvantages, as both the primary vehicles and delivery method (fast-roping vs. parachute) are so different in capability. A typical smokejumper mantra is "Speed, Range, Payload". Advocates of smokejumping believe that, due to their extreme initial-attack function, smokejumping is one of—if not the—most cost-effective wildland firefighting method employed in the U.S. today.