Smokejumpers: Heroes in an Emerging Public Health Emergency

On August 5, 1949, Eldon E.Diettert was celebrating his 19th birthday with his family when he got the call. Diettert was part of the Missoula, Montana, smokejumper force. As a student in the Forestry department at the University of Montana, Diettert was passionate about protecting the environment and the role of a smokejumper was a perfect fit. That day in August, he was called up alongside 11 of his colleagues to combat a fire near the Missouri River. All of them perished. This incident became known as the Mann Gulch Fire and is considered one of the key moments in firefighting history, which also shaped how we respond to wildfires today. 

Smokejumpers are firefighters who specialize in combating wildfires and are part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. The National Smokejumper Association, a non-profit dedicated to preserving the history of smokejumpers, notes that there are over 5,000 men and women in the U.S. dedicated to fighting wildfires in service of protecting human lives and property. Their website lists the names of the over 30 smokejumpers that have been killed in active duty. Smokejumpers are also at the  tip of the spear when it comes to  the negative health impacts of  wildfires. 

“Warmer weather as well as extreme drought as a result of climate change” will raise wildfire risks globally.”

Dr. Angela Haczhu

In recent years, wildfires have increased in both number and danger. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a study in 2016 showed a doubling in the amount of wildfires between 1984 and 2015. The continuing effects of climate change has only encouraged the growing number of wildfires around the world. Climate change has shown to cause dry conditions and drought which greatly facilitates the formation of wildfires.. The director of the Lung Biology Center at the University of California, Davis, Dr. Angela Haczhu predicts, “Warmer weather as well as extreme drought as a result of climate change” will raise wildfire risks globally.” Scientists at the National Interagency Fire Center documented more than 9.8 million acres burned in 2015, losses which can impact the national food supply. The U.S. Fire Administration calculated that  13 per 1,000,000 people died as a result of  wildfires in 2021, a major increase from 11.5 deaths per 1,000,000 people in 2020. These deaths are largely due to collapsing structures, burns, or smoke intake. With the major wildfires last year in Maui, Hawaii and Quebec, Canada, these numbers have already increased. After the initial mourning over those immediately killed in the fires, more attention has turned to the long term health effects of wildfires. 

Image credit: Amelia Clifford

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes a score of over  150 on the Air Quality Index as harmful to humans and a situation which may cause lung ailments. Throughout 2023, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington DC and other communities were affected by the Canadian wildfires. New York City on June 7, 2023 had air quality measurements of 342. The American Lung Association explains that particles from smoke, which are about 2.5 micrometers in diameter (in comparison human hairs are about 50-70 microns) can easily pass through lung tissue and enter the bloodstream causing harmful effects to the human body triggering illness or hospitalization. Long term exposure to poor air quality can lead to heart failure, asthma aggravation, and bronchitis. Dr. Haczhu explains, “Vulnerable populations, particularly those from marginalized communities (due to ethnic or socioeconomic status), children, the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions are at high risk of developing disease.” This should be considered because some people are more impacted by wildfire smoke which should be seen as a public health risk.  

Since wildfires are becoming more frequent and impacting more communities each year, policymakers and citizens  should be better informed of how to prevent them. The US Department of the Interior recommends that the public avoid camping in dry conditions or areas affected by drought. After the devastating fires in Maui, there has also been considerable attention on the role of early warning systems to alert the public of wildfire risk. Finally, policymakers should continue to study and advance policies and technologies that address the climate risks that increase the likelihood of predicting and dealing with wildfires. 

Every day, more and more smokejumpers risk their lives on the front lines to protect our communities. Raising awareness, changing people’s behaviors that lead to greater risk of wildfires, monitoring air quality, and advancing technologies and policies are steps that may stop the National Smokejumper Association from having to add another name to their list of the dead.

  • Smokejumpers, part of the U.S. Forest Service, continue to battle the increasing threat of wildfires exacerbated by climate change. These fires significantly impact public health through poor air quality and other hazards.
  • With wildfire frequency and danger on the rise, it is crucial to enhance public awareness, early warning systems, and policies to mitigate these climate-related risks.


  • 10 Tips to Prevent Wildfires. U.S. Department of the Interior. (2023, July 28).
  • Association, A. L. (2023). Particle pollution. American Lung Association.
  • Environmental Protection Agency. (2022). Health Effects Attributed to Wildfire Smoke. EPA.
  • Environmental Protection Agency. (2023). Wildfire Smoke and Your Patients’ Health: The Air Quality Index. EPA.
  • Fire death and injury risk. U.S. Fire Administration. (2023, August 2).
  • Managing fire. US Forest Service. (2023).
  • National Smokejumper Association. – National Smokejumper Association. (2023).
  • Newburger, E. (2023, June 8). New York City tops world’s worst air pollution list from Canada wildfire smoke. CNBC.
  • Romero, F. J. (2017, October 19). California fires result in job and income loss for seasonal workers. NPR.
  • Wildfire climate connection | national oceanic and atmospheric … Wildfire climate connection. (2023).

Editorial Team

  • Chief Editor: Annika Singh
  • Team Editor: Tara Prakash
  • Image Credit: Amelia Clifford
  • Social Media Lead: Melia Hillman


Curious Science Writers Faculty

Content Expert

Angela Haczku, Ph.D., is the director at the UC Davis Lung Center and a Professor of Medicine. Dr. Haczku is an internationally recognized expert in pulmonary immunology. She studies the effects of environmental exposures (allergens, air pollution, cigarette smoke and psychosocial stress) on respiratory health and disease. She is interested in how the epithelium and local immune cells cooperate in maintaining a healthy lung tissue. She has been federally funded for the past 20 years and has received numerous awards, such as the Parker B Francis Pulmonary Fellowship, the MRC (Canada) Fellowship Award and the American Lung Association (ALA) Career Investigator Award. At UC Davis, she holds the Chester Robbins Endowment for Pulmonary Research.

About the Author

Jordan Henton

Jordan is rising junior at Alexandria City High School in Virginia, is excited to be a member of Curious Science Writers! He joined the program to improve science literacy by making scientific articles more accessible to the public. When he’s not writing about science, Jordan loves to play ultimate frisbee and videogames or hang out with his dog, Prince. He is looking forward to exploring his interests in science and writing this year!