Not Your Average Firefighter

Michaela Falls


If jumping from a plane 1,500 to 3,000 feet above the earth is considered a thrill for the stouthearted, then jumping with the sole purpose of battling a wildfire is an unthinkable feat for even the doughtiest thrill seeker. Not for Michelle Barger, a physical education and health and science teacher, who describes her summer job for the last two years as "safe, if you follow all procedures."

Michelle is a Grangeville Smokejumper, an elite group of firefighters taken to remote areas in the United States where they are dropped from planes to battle isolated wildfires. Out of the 350-400 jumpers nationwide, most are seasonal jumpers, working through spring and summer, and then returning to other occupations during the winter months.

Born in Cut Bank, Montana, where her parents own a dry cleaning/laundry business, Michelle was the oldest of four sisters and clearly the tomboy of her family. She often enjoyed hunting and fishing with her father, and earned a basketball scholarship from Lewis & Clark State College in Idaho where she received her degree in education. It was there that she met her future husband, who encouraged her to work for the United States Forest Service. For three consecutive summers, while in college, Michelle worked with a fire crew before beginning her first teaching job in Browning, Montana and her training as a smokejumper in her hometown of Cut Bank.

The five-week training program for a smokejumper consists of intense physical conditioning and is only offered to those who have a minimum of three years of experience within the fire industry. Success depends on proficiency in handling a parachute and landing, and passing strenuous physical and mental endurance tests such as an all-night line dig after a fifteen mile run. One test required the candidates to carry a 110-pound pack three miles within ninety minutes. Michelle, who weighs one hundred and thirty pounds, finished the test in little over an hour. In Michelle's training group of thirty (twenty-six men and four women), five men and one woman dropped out before finishing.

Michelle credits her mental and physical strength for getting her through the rigorous training, but admits that it did not come without plenty of preparation. She ran five miles during the week and fifteen on weekends, worked out twice a day lifting heavy weights, and eventually mastered her toughest challenge, pull-ups. Often asked if she ever feels insecure in a male-dominated field, she compares smokejumping to any other job where you are expected to perform a certain duty, saying, "If you can do the work, you're respected like anyone else." Michelle shares the sentiments of her co-workers in believing that no one, male or female, should be there if incapable of doing the job. And if you know Michelle and the forceful stride of her determination, you know that she can do the work and has little patience for those who can't.

After smokejumpers land, they may battle a wildfire for anywhere from two to five days. This time is spent using shovels and pulaskis (a combination of an ax and hoe) to remove ground fuel such as trees and brush along the edge of the fire in an effort to prevent it from spreading. When digging lines, they use natural barriers, like rocks, as much as possible, in an effort not to disturb the soil. At the end of a long day, smokejumpers may have to hike up to fifteen miles, carrying heavy packs through a terrain often steep and overgrown to a road where they can be picked up.

Michelle will not be jumping this season. She is expecting her first child with her husband, also a smokejumper, who has left his teaching job for a full-time position as the foreman of a fire crew. When asked what she will say one day to her child if he or she aspires to follow in her footsteps, Michelle does not hesitate. "I'd be supportive of anything my child does that makes him or her happy," she says. Acknowledging that it will not be easy, Michelle plans to return to smokejumping in the near future.


© Michaela Falls

Michelle can be seen in action when NOVA, the award-winning PBS science series, presents a two-hour special, "Fire Wars," on Tuesday, May 7, 2002 from 8 to 10 PM ET (check local listings). The NOVA special follows wildland firefighters through one of the most destructive seasons ever.


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