The Smokey Generation: Wildland Fire Oral History Project

Bethany Hannah
Bethany Hannah

Wildland firefighting is a unique occupation, very different from structural firefighting and any other job, actually. It is a niche line of work, an amalgam of professional athlete and warfighter. Few people outside of the relatively small pool of those who have experienced it have a good understanding of how wildland firefighters live and work — the frequent or constant travel, the extreme physical demands over an extended time, the camaraderie of the crews, the feeling of accomplishment, and the occasional adrenaline rush.

These folks have stories to tell. Some of them are fun and entertaining, and many are embedded with lessons that can help educate those just beginning their careers. It would be a shame to allow their hard earned knowledge to fade away.

Betheny Hannah has embarked on a project to preserve some of those memories and lessons, creating The Smokey Generation, a collection of video interviews with firefighters. Having worked as a hotshot firefighter for six years and a chain saw instructor, she knows the jargon and what questions to ask. On her website, which was designed as part of her Master’s thesis project, and on Vimeo, she has posted interviews with dozens of firefighters. Most of the individual interviews have been broken down into several short recordings, each on a singular topic, lasting just a few minutes so it can be a little overwhelming when browsing through over 250 of them on Vimeo. On her website they can be sorted by person and topic.

This summer Ms. Hannah initiated a Kickstarter project to raise funds to attend and interview some of the 900 attendees at the smokejumper reunion in Missoula.

Several videos are posted below. The first was produced by STIHL, the chain saw folks, in which she is featured as part of the company’s Real People campaign. The rest are from The Smokey Generation. Beginning with the second, the descriptions are below the video.

(Vimeo, which is an excellent service, usually, seems to be having problems the day we posted this article, and you may have trouble starting some of the videos.)

Ariel Starr, Redding Smokejumper in 2012 and Missoula Smokejumper from 2013-Present (2015), tells an amusing story about her first jump in her home state of Alaska.

Charlie Caldwell, retired Hotshot Superintendent and Smokejumper, talks about how he got his start in his career, along with some information about the beginnings of the Redding Interagency Hotshot Crew program.

Ronald Stephens, Missoula Smokejumper from 1946-1947, describes his involvement with the 1947 water bomb project, a semi-secret USFS experiment in partnership with the Army Air Corps.

Ken Jordan, retired Hotshot Superintendent, describes his perception of the characteristics that make an ideal Hotshot and talks about the draw of working with good people early on in his career. Interviewed: 4/2014

(Each thumbnail at the bottom tells a new story)

Gina Papke, current Program Specialist and former Hotshot Superintendent, shares some of her memories and thoughts on her experience leading up to and after the South Canyon Incident.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.