The National Smokejumper Center's Junior Smokejumper program educates kids about the science of fire, tests their agility and encourages them to enjoy the outdoors.
Daily educational programs are hosted in a rustic setting at the southern edge of town in West Yellowstone, where kids can ask plenty of questions and watch live demonstrations about the start and spread of fires.
Starting in 2006 National Smokejumper Center Board of Directors president Barry Hicks and a dedicated group of volunteers started offering children and families a chance to learn about fire ecology and the natural environment with seasonal summer programs.
The Junior Smokejumper program and the National Smokejumper Center have a new home this summer at Dunbar Park near the West Yellowstone Visitor Center. The center is housed in the historic 1924 Madison Ranger Station and the building switched locations last fall in order to increase the potential flow of visitors attending the Junior Smokejumper program. The new location will also give the National Smokejumper Center staff and board members the option to expand to offer future year-round educational programs to the public, according to Hicks.
A group of 13 kids from across the country traveled to West Yellowstone from places like Georgia and California to attend a special Monday afternoon session with members of the Junior Smokejumper program as part of their weeklong stay in town.
The kids are part of a larger group that visits West Yellowstone in the summer months with the Road Scholar program.
Road Scholar, formerly named Elderhostel, provides programs for lifelong learners. The intergeneration program available through Road Scholar offer grandparents a chance to bring their grandkids along on a joint trip to learn about the region and fire ecology.
"We have a kids' program about fire at the National Smokejumper Center. Their grandparents go through a separate presentation," Hicks said. "Then they can discuss together what they learn about fire when they visit Yellowstone."
Various aspects of the learning spectrum include the results and impact that fire has had on the regional ecosystem and the lay of the land in Yellowstone National Park. They observe how it has changed following the 1988 fires. The entire group can speak the same language about fire and fire management when they take trips through Yellowstone during their stay.
Hicks and Junior Smokejumper summer program coordinator Emily Stumhofer invited the kids to take a seat along the north side of the ranger station on Monday and kicked off the program with small-scale fire demonstrations.
Rows of matches, tip up, were placed in rows of holes drilled into small boards to act as trees in a forest. The first board rested on a flat surface while another was slanted to represent a mountainside with a tiny house nestled in a cluster of tall trees. Hicks had his water bottle on hand and extinguished the matchstick fire to keep the fire under control.
He showed the group how water takes heat away from fire and that wind controls which direction fuels, like brush and pinecones, burn.
An audience of wide-eyed listeners figured out that if trees are more spread out in a forest and regions of Yellowstone National Park that it could be a result from damage done by past fires, logging projects or pine beetles.
"It equals a lot less fuel to feed a fire," Hicks said.
Two smokejumpers that spend their summer months at the West Yellowstone base stopped by to visit the kids and conducted a second round of presentations outlining their job routines and the purpose of all the special gear they carry around with them on their missions.
"We wear special suits made from the same material as bulletproof vests to protect us," smokejumper Ernie Walker said.
The suit is tough enough to protect the smokejumpers from the elements as well as fire retardant. Smokejumpers risk landing on rocky terrain or becoming snagged in a tree branch after they jump out of an airplane 1,500 feet up from the ground.
Long ropes are also stuffed into their suits to help them climb down from trees. The men and women use long pink and orange strands of fabric as wind indicators and to signal fellow jumpers landing in the area.
"We have a personal gear bag and another bag we throw everything into to," Walker said.
Fellow smokejumper Nick Stanzak showed the kids the water pump they use to extinguish ground fires and another kit containing two-and-a-half gallons of water along with a three-day food supply.
The smokejumpers spend time on the local base putting together the food packs, rounding up supplies and taking care of their gear and tools when they're not fighting fires.
"We're usually here from April to September," Stanzak said.
The kids could only spend a couple hours with the smokejumpers, but still had time to take a practice jump off of a mock airplane setup outside the center and Stanzak and Walker threw in some physical fitness tests for them. They each lined up and waited for their turn to complete a round of pull-ups, sit-ups and pushups.
Their afternoon concluded with a short test quizzing them about what types of special tools smokejumpers carry with them, the year the fires swept through Yellowstone and a list of beneficial information about the world around them.
"We think it's a unique opportunity for kids," Hicks said.
The Junior Smokejumper program is offered daily Monday through Saturday. Kids ages six to 12 can enjoy the free program with hands-on learning about the many aspects of fire at the National Smokejumper Center located along Yellowstone Avenue.