If you have kids and have been to our National Parks, you’ve most likely heard of the Junior Ranger program. But did you know that there is a Junior Smokejumper program as well? West Yellowstone is home of the National Smokejumper Center, formed by a group of school teachers, foresters, pilots and retired smokejumpers. Between June and September, children ages 5-12 can attend the free two-hour program (parents are welcome, too).
The kids sign in and receive a temporary tattoo designating them as smokejumpers. Then the training begins, with plenty of hands-on fun. Children run through an obstacle course to reinforce the importance of physical fitness. Fire ecology and the science of fire is explained. Matchsticks are used to demonstrate how fires travel. The positive and negative aspects of fire are covered, which are fitting considering the 1988 Yellowstone fire. At the time, the fires were thought to have destroyed the park, but they actually renewed the park and resulted in healthier wildlife populations and forest.
Children see the gear and tools used by smokejumpers firsthand – and how heavy it really is – and jump from the door of a practice plane. They learn about cargo supply drops, and that part of firefighting is “taking everything out” when they leave. Group games with a parachute teach the value of teamwork. The culmination of the program is a graduation ceremony where kids pledge not to play with matches or start fires, and a group photo is taken.
The historic Madison Ranger Station was donated by Gallatin National Forest and is being relocated to the west entrance of Yellowstone. The National Smokejumper Center will continue its educational programs there in an effort to spark our children’s interest in their natural surroundings. The use of retirees and grandparents as instructors provide a vital service in an era of decreasing federal and state budgets.