Since leaving Sonoma in 2010, Paul Sokoloski’s career has really heated up.
Whether it be by ground or by air, Sokoloski has been fighting wild fires all over the country for almost five years.
During his time at Sonoma Valley High School, Sokoloski was really into shop classes, but after graduating in 2010, he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.
Upon entering Humboldt State University, he found his way to the forestry department and learned of an opportunity to work on a “handcrew.”
“I was going to Humboldt State and I didn’t really have a major in mind, but when I got there I kind of fell into the forestry department and just stuck with it,” Sokoloski said. “Then I just kind of fell into the handcrew, kind of a summer job in college, and it’s been fun so I stuck with it.”
A handcrew is a group of firefighters that fight forest fires by constructing a “fireline,” which is a strip of land cleared of flammable materials used to control the fires.
After graduating from college and from the handcrew, he moved to Truckee to be a part of a “hotshot crew,” which is basically a more experienced version of handcrews.
“It’s a 20-person crew and it’s pretty much the ground work that gets done on wildland fires. We use chain saws and hand tools to cut the fire line,” Sokoloski said.
Still, Sokoloski wanted to keep blazing forward, so he applied for a job as a smokejumper. Smokejumpers parallel the way Sokoloski has done almost everything so far, by literally falling into it.
“You’re pretty much brought into the fire by airplane and you parachute in. It’s used for more remote fires that you can’t get to by car or helicopter,” Sokoloski said. “I’ll generally be around here, but it’s possible we could go anywhere in the nation if called.”
Last spring, Sokoloski completed his smoke jumper rookie training and he is currently stationed in Missoula, Montana.
His smokejumper base was located at Missoula International Airport, along with the U.S. Forest Service Northern Region Fire Cache, the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, the Northern Region Training Center, and the Missoula Technology and Development Center.
Currently, 75 smokejumpers, consisting of men and women from diverse backgrounds, work at the base. Ranging in age from early 20’s to 50’s, smokejumpers are described as highly skilled, rapid-response and operationally-focused fire resource professionals who provide initial attack suppression on emerging fires and fill a variety of roles on longer duration project fires and wildland-urban interface fires.
Their training, versatility and agility enable them to provide leadership capable of establishing command structure, situational assessment and tactical and logistical support for extended fire and all-risk operations.
“I get to work outside pretty much all the time. That’s really what I like about it. It’s something new all the time, it’s just different,” Sokoloski said. “I get to travel a lot and see a lot of cool places that most people don’t get to see.”
When talking long term, Sokoloski knows he doesn’t want to cool down, and probably sees a fire-fighter career somewhere down the line.
Today, Sokoloski is working as a smokejumper stationed in Grangeville, Idaho.
According to the Missoula Smokejumper Visitor Center website, it takes preparation, hard work, and mental toughness to finish smokejumper rookie training.
“Most of the time we talk about the strength and endurance needed to make it through, but what other elements determine who [makes it through]? You must have the right attitude, be a quick learner, and be able to compartmentalize and focus amidst distraction. You must demonstrate an excellent work ethic, with the flexibility to adjust and do what is necessary for the team. You must think under pressure and adapt to the situation. You must be able to lead and be lead by those with more and less experience than yourself.”