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Smokejumpers refresh fire fighting skills as fire season nears

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Posted at 8:15 PM, May 27, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-27 22:15:33-04

SALT LAKE CITY – Flying near a wildfire at 100 mph with 75 pounds of gear may seem a daunting prospect to some, but for smokejumpers it’s all part of the job.

As Utah weather warms up and dries out, these daredevil firefighters are preparing to be dispatched across the state.

Smokejumper Ralph Sweeny said the moment before the jump is exhilarating.

"I love it,” he said. “That time in the door is definitely my time."

Sweeny was recently in Oregon to train in preparation of what could be a busy fire season.

"We come back this time of year and reunite and get ready to go fight fire again together, so it's really fun, it's a reuniting of old friends,” he said. "We know each other really, really well. We trust each other with our lives, and we do a really good job at what we do.”

Sweeny said the training prepares them to deal with difficult or unexpected situations, like getting stuck in a tree. He said that training is essential—especially in the heat of the moment.

"When your adrenaline is through the roof, you've just jumped out of an airplane, and now you are hanging in a tree, it's no real time to try and figure out what you're doing,” he said. "We practice this over and over again so when it happens it's second nature."

Sweeny said smokejumpers carry up to 110 pounds or so of gear on the ground, and he said smokejumpers need to be able to carry the weight and operate without much sleep. He said they strive to be prepared to go at a moment’s notice, and he said he never knows where he will jump next.

"You drive into work in the morning in central Oregon and end up in Alaska that day,” he said. “It's kind of fun that way."