Smokejumpers are one of the first lines of defense against wildfires, known for jumping out of planes into the fire zones.
But if one of them is injured, they not only lose their chance to fight fires for the summer, they also lose their income for that time period.
Redmond smokejumper Ben Elkind learned the pain of a hard landing and the financial fallout all at once last Sunday.
He’s been a smokejumper for nine years and he was using a new style of parachute on this particular training jump near Black Butte.
“It was a small jump spot and there was no wind so I just kept cruising through the jump spot,” Elkind told Central Oregon Daily News on Monday. “And then I ran into where I was running out of space, so then I basically just hit the full brakes on my parachute and the canopy collapsed. And then basically the last 20 feet, I just fell straight down.”
The result was a broken pelvis, a dislocated femur and no work for the rest of the season.
It’s a loss of crucial hours and income on a job that already makes it hard to make ends meet.
“After taxes, my base check, even two months’ worth of work, it doesn’t even cover a rental payment for a house in Redmond, much less daycare and groceries,” he said.
Elkind helps care for his family of four on the roughly $20 an hour pay he makes during his six-month smokejumping contract, supplemented by construction work during the winter.
He and other smokejumpers rely on overtime to fill the gaps during the summer.
“If you can’t go out on fires, you just take an income hit,” he said.
With his 6-12 month recovery period, that hit would’ve been much harder.
But a GoFundMe set up by the Redmond Smokejumpers Welfare Organization had already raised nearly $40,000 as of Monday, more than Elkind would have made during the fire season.
“I feel really lucky,” he said. “It gets scary just thinking if I can’t go back to my job or if my wife gets laid off from her job, and I can’t work because of my hip, it gets scary for me to think about all that.
“The GoFundMe is incredible, very lucky that people are willing to contribute.”
Jean Nelson-Dean from the Deschutes National Forest provided a statement, saying: “We are all hoping for a speedy recovery for Ben and many people are reaching out to help support him and his family at this time.”
Elkind said that almost 50 of his fellow smokejumpers have a meal train going for his family and many have volunteered to drive him to doctor’s appointments.
He knows that in this case, he’s one of the lucky ones.
“A lot of firefighters don’t have a partner at home. They might be living in their truck and if they get an injury like mine, then what? Then it’s crazy,” he said.
Even before his injury, Elkind was an advocate for better wages and benefits for Wildland firefighters, and he even joined a group to meet with the Secretary of Labor in Washington D.C. to convey their concerns.
“I’ve met with some legislative staff and I think they’re all pretty concerned about this stuff,” he said. “I think we’re all hoping for some changes coming sooner than later.”
His future career might be on hold, but Elkind has high hopes.
“People keep asking if I’m going to keep jumping, and I sure hope so, but it might be awhile,” he said.