1961 Higgins Ridge Fire — 20 smokejumpers were rescued by a tiny helicopter

Twelve years after the Mann Gulch Fire disaster

Bell 47 helicopter Forest Service
Bell 47 helicopter. Forest Service photo.

(This article was first published at FireAviation.com)

Twelve years after 13 smokejumpers were killed on the Mann Gulch Fire 13 miles north-northwest of Helena, Montana, 20 jumpers were entrapped on a fire in northern Idaho 83 miles southwest of Missoula, Montana.

It happened August 4, 1961 on the Higgins Ridge Fire in the Nez Perce National Forest after an eight-man crew from Grangeville, Idaho had jumped in the area, followed by 12 men from the Missoula jumper base, the last arriving at 1 p.m. The fire behavior on the two-acre fire was fairly benign until a passing cold front brought a sudden increase in the wind at 4:15 p.m. which resulted in the fire spreading rapidly. The 20 men took refuge in a previously burned area. As the wind increased to 50 mph the supervisors of the two squads, Dave Perry and Fred “Fritz” Wolfrum, instructed the firefighters to remain calm and to clear an area for themselves in the ashes.

Lightning was bursting from the pyrocumulus cloud over the fire as the men in their newly issued orange fire shirts covered their heads with their arms when the fire burned around them. They helped each other swat out the flames on their clothes during the ember shower.

They did not hear it because of the roar of the fire, but they looked up and saw the red skids of a helicopter. It was a Bell 47B-3 that had seating for three people abreast, with the pilot in the middle.

Below is an excerpt from the April, 1994 edition of “The Static Line” published by the National Smokejumper Association:

…The pilot was Rod Snider of the Johnson Flying Service and he had spotted the men and their orange [fire shirts].

Fritz and Snider quickly organized an evacuation plan. Snider had to drop down vertically and take off the same way because of old snags surrounding the jumpers [a maneuver that requires more power than departing from a ridge]. On the first few trips Rod took out two jumpers on each run, having them ride in the cabin. Then, with the helicopter getting hotter, Rod told them he would take four out on each trip. Two rode in the cabin and two hung on to the [cargo trays]. Rod was able to ferry all 20 jumpers to the Freeman Ridge fire camp. Fritz and Tom were among those on the last trip out.

Some of the jumpers were treated at St. Patricks’s Hospital for smoke-burned eyes. Within several days most of the jumpers who had been on the Higgins Ridge Fire were out jumping on more fires.

Rod Snider and James Van Vleck Nat Museum FS History
L to R: Helicopter pilot Rod Snider with James Van Vleck. Photo by the National Museum of Forest Service History, June, 2019.

In June, 2019 a reunion was held in Missoula for the firefighters that were involved in the Higgins Ridge Fire. Eleven of the jumpers gave oral interviews and participated in a panel discussion at the National Museum of Forest Service History (video of the panel). Mr. Snider made the trip and gave his oral history, but unfortunately had to return home the night before the panel discussion due to a family emergency.

Below are excerpts from an article in The Missoulian, August 2, 2019:

“It was hard to find them,” said Snider, 89, a quiet man who received awards for his heroism but shuns the obvious mantle of hero.

“The wind was really cooking in there and you couldn’t see the heliport all the time to get down. I had to come in high and drop down into it when I could see a little break,” Snider said in an oral history interview before he left town.

What made you risk your life to do it? an interviewer in Missoula asked.

“Oh, it had to be done. It had to be done,” Snider replied. “I don’t know. You just can’t leave guys down in the position that they were in.”

His helicopter, a Bell 47G-3 that Snider christened “Red Legs” for its painted landing skids and support legs, was one of the first with a supercharger. But the overload was nonetheless hard on it, he said.

“I felt a little uneasy, because I knew I’d over-boosted everything, But when they gave an inspection later on they couldn’t find anything wrong with it,” Snider said.

The following year Snider received the Pilot of the Year Award from the Helicopter Association of America in Dallas and the Carnegie Medal for Heroism.

In 1976, the nation’s bicentennial year, Tom Kovalicky, 84, of Grangeville and Stanley, Idaho, successfully nominated Snider for the North American Forest Fire Medal, which was being revived for the first time since 1956. Snider and his wife were flown to New Orleans for the presentation that October. And in 2002 he was inducted into the Museum of Mountain Flying Hall of Fame.

An article about the fire dated February 21, 2003 at the National Smokejumper Association’s website was written by a firefighter who was on the Higgins Ridge Fire a year before he became a smokejumper.

Higgins Ridge Fire
by Gary Shaw

The year was 1961 when cumulus clouds built up every afternoon promising rain, but delivering isolated dry lightning storms. This was the year before I became a smokejumper. It was my second year to work on the Moose Creek District of the Nezperce National Forest. The preceding summer I had spent as a lookout fireman on top of Bailey Mountain. This year I had been working trail crew for a couple of months until the sky erupted at the end of July and left fires all over the district.

My trail partner (Ron) and I had been cutting a trail from the Selway River to Big Rock Mountain and were currently holed up in a cabin there when a helicopter picked us up to transport us to a small fire on Higgins Ridge. We were to meet a crew walking in from Elbow Bend on East Moose Creek. We saw smokejumpers parachute into the fire area on our way to the fire. We landed on the uphill side of the fire, grabbed our shovels and pulaskis and started for the fire. We could see the jumpers’ orange shirts through the smoke.

Before we could get to the fire a large cumulous cloud covered the sun and the wind picked up to 25 or 30 m.p.h. The fire blew up in our faces, and we were forced to retreat back into a large rockslide.

The jumpers weren’t so lucky. They were trapped in the middle of it with no escape route. They dug in, buried their faces in wet bandanas in the dirt, and tried to find air to breath as the fire roared from a manageable 2 acres to a 1280 acre holocaust. It was late evening, and the fire was beautiful to watch. It was crowning, and trees several hundred feet ahead of the fire would begin to tremble and then burst into flame like a fireworks display.

The fire was so hot that canteens of water near the jumpers started exploding. When things looked at their bleakest, the cavalry arrived in the form of Rod Snider(NCSB-51) in a Bell 47G-3B helicopter from Johnson’s Flying Service in Missoula. It was getting dark when he flew into the middle of the fire and started bringing Jumpers out four at a time, which is two more than the maximum the copter was supposed to carry. He had two guys on the seat and two more on the runners. He made five trips into the fire and rescued twenty jumpers. The manifold pressure on the copter engine was 200% above maximum, and when the engine was torn down later, two pistons fell apart. I heard that “Crash” received 20 cases of beer the next week.

My trail partner and I stayed on the fire through mop-up. The other crew arrived without tools, which were to be dropped in by air. Unfortunately, communications left something to be desired. We kept requesting tools and instead received three separate drops of sleeping bags. Each person had a half dozen sleeping bags, but Ron and I were the only ones who had a shovel and pulaski to work on the fire. So we did.

When the tools finally arrived and we got the fire under control, I walked down to the area where the jumpers had been trapped. I found exploded water cans, unexploded gasoline cans (go figure), and a personal gear bag with all their cameras melted together. I could see Minolta, Canon, and Nikon logos on the fused metal and glass. I sent the lot back to Missoula. The fire had been so hot that there were no snags, just pointed stumps and ashes over a foot deep.

I remember two of the rescued jumpers departed the chopper and immediately asked for a cigarette. Now that’s a habit!

I’ve always wondered what that fire looked like from the other side. If anyone reads this that remembers, let me know.

The group that organized the oral history and panel about the Higgins Ridge Fire was organized by the National Museum of Forest Service History. Wildfire Today first wrote about the museum in 2009 five years after they began their effort to raise $10.6 million to build a national museum to commemorate the 100+ year history of the U. S. Forest Service. Their vision began in 1994 when they obtained 36 acres west of the Missoula airport where they hope to build a 30,000 square-foot building.

National Museum of Forest Service History
An architect’s concept of the future National Museum of Forest Service History.

The museum’s fund drive received a significant boost this month when it received a $2 million contribution from the estate of Bill Cannon, a Forest Service retiree.

From the Ravalli Republic:

…Cannon spent most of his Forest Service years in California and Oregon, with an interlude in Hawaii where he was assigned to state and private forestry work. He finished his career in Washington, D.C., where he worked on program planning for the Forest Service’s state and private programs.

Meanwhile, according to a press release announcing his gift, he used his avocation of studying financial markets to become an adept investor.

Cannon became impressed with the National Museum of Forest Service History on a field trip to the site while in Missoula for the 2000 U.S. Forest Service retiree reunion.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Congress considers additional Forest Service funding for COVID-19 pandemic

Funds are likely to be eventually appropriated to help at least one firefighting agency address some of the issues created by the virus

Smokejumpers attack wildfire
Smokejumpers prepare to attack a wildfire. NIFC.

A bill introduced in the Senate to help Americans and businesses deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic contained language to beef up the budget of the U.S. Forest Service (FS), but it failed to pass Sunday [UPDATE: and during a second attempt on Monday]. The $1.8 trillion bill included $71 million, or 0.004 percent of the total, for the FS to address the crisis. The funds were intended for personal protective equipment, health testing for first responders, cleaning, maintenance, and disinfecting but were to be “allocated at the discretion of the Chief of the Forest Service”, to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.”

The legislation appears to have been hurriedly drafted, probably within the last few days. I was not able to find any specific funding in the bill for the four agencies in the Department of the Interior that have wildfire responsibilities. If it had been written in January, a month after the outbreak began, there would have been more time to put together a comprehensive budget for all five firefighting agencies that would appropriate a substantial amount for directly increasing the ability to fight fires.

It is likely that the number of firefighters available to respond to wildfires through next year will be decreased as 20-person crews or 5-person engines have to be quarantined when one crew member tests positive for the virus or if they are exposed while fighting a fire.

Under these conditions, it will be difficult to use 100 percent of the usual capacity of the firefighting agencies. If more firefighters were hired it could make it possible to have healthy forces in reserve. It could also enhance the ability to attack new fires with overwhelming force.

Since firefighters assembling in groups to suppress a fire can put them at risk of spreading COVID-19, we need to rethink our tactics. This could include making far greater use of aerial firefighting. It should become standard operating procedure to have multiple large air tankers and helicopters safely and quickly attacking a new fire from the air, far from anyone on the ground infected with the virus.

The fewer large fires we have that require hundreds or thousands of firefighters to work together, the safer firefighters will be from additional virus exposure. Attacking new fires with overwhelming force would also reduce evacuations that can result in refugees assembling in large numbers. An infected person forced to leave their self-quarantine to fend around for housing during an emergency is a danger to society.

In order to better protect our homeland from wildfires during the pandemic the amount of additional funds appropriated for the five firefighting agencies in this bill needs to be increased by a factor of 10 or 20. Instead of 13 or 18 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts there should be 40, and the Type 1 helicopter numbers should increase from 28 to 50. The fleets of smaller air tankers and helicopters also need to be beefed up.

Having said that, air tankers don’t put out fires, but under ideal conditions they can slow the spread which allows firefighters on the ground the opportunity to move in and suppress the fire in that area.

If we expect to maintain the ability to fight wildfires, every firefighter must be tested on a regular basis. This can greatly reduce the risk when they gather in large numbers to suppress a fire.

Other key members of the wildland firefighting community must also be tested in order to maintain the viability of the system. This would include pilots, aircraft mechanics, air tanker base crews, helitack crews, dispatchers, members of Incident Management Teams, and contractors that supply firefighting equipment and services, especially caterers.

Safely fighting a wildfire during a pandemic this year and possibly next, is going to incredibly difficult. I am not sure if it can be done safely even if everyone involved has been tested for the virus and squadrons of air tankers and helicopters are used to the max in numbers not previously seen.

Australia/United States joint panel discussion about a woman’s career in fire

Simultaneously live streamed from both Sydney and Albuquerque

One of the more interesting events at the International Association of Wildland Fire’s (IAWF) Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference this week was that some speakers were being live streamed from Albuquerque, New Mexico; Sydney, Australia; and Marseille, France. At times presenters were contributing to one event simultaneously from two continents.

An example was the joint panel discussion live streamed from Albuquerque and Sydney Wednesday afternoon. Each site had three or four panelists discussing A Life and a Career in Fire, from a woman’s viewpoint.

women in wildland fire panel discussion
The stream from Sydney. New South Wales Rural Fire Service photo.
women in wildland fire panel discussion
The stream from Albuquerque. Bill Gabbert Photo.

women in wildland fire panel discussion

The panelists talked about how a woman’s career in a male-dominated work force can be different from a man’s, the challenges they faced, and how they reacted or dealt with the issues.

One notable comment was from Deanne Shulman, the first female smokejumper, now retired. She referred to Michelle Obama’s method for handling down in the dirt political campaigning, “When they go low, we go high”. Ms. Shulman said her tactic when harassed by males was somewhat different, “When they go low, I go lower.” Then she laughed.

The IAWF deserves a commendation for working out the logistics, electronics, and timing on both continents. In a previous life one of my duties was to arrange two-hour conference calls with participants in the US, Europe, and Australia. Choosing a time often meant some participants had to call in early in the morning or late at night.

A smokejumper — alone and forgotten on a wilderness fire in 1969

He spent days by himself without a radio

smokejumper McCall
File photo by the McCall Smokejumper Base of a modern-day smokejumper leaving a Twin Otter.

Dan Green sent us this description of one of the fires he worked on as a smokejumper in McCall, Idaho in 1969. He said it is a true story.


Four smokejumpers were working at the airport when we got the fire call. Jepson, a tall southern Idaho school teacher, Doc, a medical school student during the school year and a favorite companion in bars and a good hand with the ladies, myself, and the Ned, who will remain unnamed to protect the innocent (or guilty depending on your point of view). A small crew of four McCall jumpers getting a break from action in what had been a busy fire year.

I was on the top of the jump list and it was just a matter of time before I went out again on a fire. I told my wife not to expect me home for dinner.

Dry lighting had been forecast, so our crew was working at the airport where fast mobilization was assured. We were cutting grass around the airport lights — hard work with one of those scythes that remind you of the grim reaper. It was 1969, before the invention of weed eaters. Hand scythes were a good way to exercise the muscles that were used in digging fire line and we used them on a regular basis. We were all ready for something more exciting than cutting grass.

Multiple fire smokes had been reported that morning by fire tower lookouts scattered throughout the Payette National Forest, so we loaded a Doug (Douglas DC-3) with sixteen men and all their gear. It was a familiar drill; getting into jump suits, grabbing fire packs, picking out a lucky chute and reserve chute, loading a few other useful items like radios, water cubes, extra food rations (c-rations), chains saws and fire tools, and PGs (personal gear bags). Within fifteen minutes the Doug was rolling down the long runway of the McCall airport. Normally we took a smaller plane on patrol, but it was good to get airborne again and do what we were paid to do.

As the Doug banked into the sun we got our first good view of the towering thunderheads developing around Jug Handle Peak and extending all the way into the Secesh River (named for Civil War rebs that settled that part of Idaho). We could see occasional flashes of lightning cloud-to-cloud but no down strikes. The plane slowly straightened out and headed for the nearest cloud.

You never knew how long these patrols would last so I found a pile of fire packs to camp out on and made myself a makeshift bed. Sleep whenever the opportunity presented itself was something I had learned in a job where twenty hour days was not uncommon.

As I drifted off to sleep I heard “Torg” (Gene Torgenroot), our self-appointed smokejumper comedian, singing his ribald version of “You oughta’ go to North Dakota….” A couple of other buddies, Doc and Freeman started moving around gear for a better spot to rest. I caught a little of their conversation about a girl they had met at the Brass Lamp, our favorite watering hole in McCall. Jumpers were not very sensitive to feminist issues in the sixties, and the conversation was similar to a marine corps barracks.

The nap was short-lived as the Doug banked to avoid a thunderhead, it hit some strong turbulence and gear started sliding around. I grabbed the webbing on the inside of the fuselage to avoid sliding myself. Still no smokes, so some of the boys lit up their own smokes. The Forest Service, sometimes referred to by jumpers as the four-assed Service, provided free smokes on big fires and those who didn’t smoke (like myself) ratholed a good inventory for trading with smokers when they needed a hit of nicotine. A pack or two in my PG bag was always appreciated on a long hike out after a wilderness fire when other jumpers had run out of cigarettes.

Monotony set in as the drone of the twin engine plane made conversation difficult. No sign of fires and it looked like a long patrol. It was early in the fire season and sometimes smoke reports from green fire tower lookouts were unreliable. Right after a storm, steam rising from the ground can form wispy clouds that look like smokes. It took experience to sort these “water dogs” out from the real thing.

The DC-3 eased over the divide between the Payette River and the South Fork of the Salmon and turned up the Secesh River (tributary of the South Fork of the Salmon). I enjoyed a first-hand view of several mountain lakes that I had hiked into the previous summer. They were fantastic fishing for sixteen to eighteen inch cutthroat trout. A long trail-less hike with almost 3,000 foot vertical rise on way in, but definitely worth a return trip. Crossing over the Secesh we spotted a small smoke on a ridge top. The Doug dropped down for a closer look. It was a small spot fire burning in white bark pine and lodgepole at 8,400 feet. The fire was less than a quarter acre so it was a two-man fire. Our spotter, Smalljohn, gave me the heads up and I moved towards the door. The DC3 was easy to get out of, so we typically did two man sticks. First, the plane did a fly over to look at the spot and drop streamers to test the wind.

Continue reading “A smokejumper — alone and forgotten on a wilderness fire in 1969”

Report released for injuries to several smokejumpers on wildfire in Utah

Three of the seven jumpers were injured and evacuated by two helicopters

Injuries smokejumpers Miner Camp Peak Fire
Map from the FLA.

(Originally published at Fire Aviation)

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has released a Facilitated Learning Analysis for an incident within an incident. Three of the seven smokejumpers that parachuted into the Miner Camp Peak Fire on July 29 east of Meadow, Utah were injured when landing. (Map) Two injuries were to the hand or wrist and the other was diagnosed at the scene as a broken collar bone or at least the potential for one.

The jumpers were evacuated by two helicopters, an air ambulance and a helicopter with hoist capabilities.

The jumpers received the resource order for the fire at 8:30 a.m. on July 29 while they were engaged in physical training at Winnemucca, Nevada. Since some of them “like to run trails in the surrounding area”, they did not get off the ground until 10:30. Due to the delayed departure, the distance they had to fly, and multiple issues related to fuel, the seven jumpers did not arrive on the ground at the fire until 5 p.m.

You can read the FLA here. (2.1MB .pdf file)

Filson honors aerial firefighters

Filson produced this video to honor smokejumpers and rappellers of the U.S. Forest Service.

This is how Filson describes the video:

For 112 years, the United States Forest Service has been caretaker of America’s most cherished natural resources: our public lands. Through their tireless efforts, 193 million acres of grasslands and national forests are ours to explore and cultivate-now and for generations to come.