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May 1, 2013

Risky Business

Think your workday is stressful? Imagine leaping from 10 stories, hand-feeding sharks, or dismantling bombs. For these professional badasses, danger is just part of the job description.

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Photo Credit: TrujilloPaumier

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KATIE "K.T." SCHEER, 33: The Smokejumper
Redding, California

Time on the job: Ten years

Why she loves it: "I don't do desk jobs"

Perk: Four to six months off in the winter and early spring

"I've always loved being outdoors. So I trained to become a smokejumper—we parachute into wilderness areas that can't be reached by regular firefighters and put out fires before they can spread.

I'm the only woman in my crew—only 5 to 10 percent of smokejumpers are female—but I don't mind. Wearing heavy Kevlar suits, we jump from planes as close as possible to a fire. Then the plane throws our cargo—food and water, plus tools like chain saws. As soon as we hit the ground, we cut a line around the perimeter of the fire to contain it. That means we cut the brush and trees out of the way, then dig a trench down to mineral soil. When the fire hits bare earth, there's nothing for it to burn. Depending on the size, jobs can last from half a day to a week.

My parents worry, but I tell them that the odds of getting hit by a car while driving to a fire are probably greater than the odds of getting injured on a jump. Still, I once 'burned out,' which means I landed in the trees but my parachute didn't catch and hold—it collapsed and I fell. Luckily, I just got the wind knocked out of me.

This job is for people who want to push themselves. But there are great rewards. Every time I jump out of a plane, it's a rush." —As told to Melissa Walker


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