Earl Cooley, one of the first smokejumpers, followup

Earl Cooley
Photo: The Earl Cooley family

Another article has appeared about the life of Earl Cooley, one of the first smokejumpers, who died on November 9 at the age of 98. This one is in, surprisingly, The Economist, a British publication. Here is how it begins:

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SEEN from the height of a passenger jet, the mountains of Idaho and western Montana look like the grey, wrinkled hide of a dinosaur. Closer up, from a twin-engine aircraft, those wrinkles become thousands of conifers marching over the steep and broken ground. Closer still—“My God! My chute’s not opening! Something’s wrong!”—that’s a spruce you’re plunging into, your tardy parachute lines tangling round your neck and your flailing legs kicking off branches a hundred feet above the ground. Luckily, you’re alive. Luckier still, you have a rope in your trouser pocket that lets you rappel down from the tree. And you haven’t even got to the fire yet.

Such was Earl Cooley’s introduction, on July 12th 1940 when he was 28, to the completely new science of smokejumping. After years spent trying to douse the forest fires of America’s West from aircraft—labouring skywards with water stowed in five-gallon cans and beer barrels—this was the first attempt to parachute firefighters to blazes too remote to reach by road. In the 22 years Mr Cooley was to spend doing it, it was also his closest call. He reflected later that if the spruce had not saved him, the smokejumping programme itself would not have survived—let alone become the success it is today, with 1,432 jumps made for the Forest Service last year. Back then, too many people thought it crazy. One Montana regional forester, a big-shot called Evan Kelly, had already complained to Washington that it was a waste of “honest suppression money”—dollars spent putting out fires in the old, plodding, non-flamboyant way.

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The rest of the article is HERE.

Thanks Jim

Junior smokejumpers

The Missoulian has an excellent article about a program at the Missoula smokejumper base which introduces kids to the concept of jumping out of perfectly good airplanes into forest fires. (Is this child abuse?)

Here is an excerpt:

Fourteen-year-old Gunnar Nabozney took a Junior Smokejumper class a few days ago.

Eight-year-old Molly White smiles behind the mask of a jump helmet at the end of her Junior Smokejumper camp last week. Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

It’s not entirely clear he needed it, as he seemed to already know plenty about fires, airplanes and parachutes.

“Isn’t this the same system that paratroopers used in World War II?” Nabozney asked smokejumper Travis Parker as the class looked about a DC-3 jump plane.

“Pretty much, although we do things a little differently than they did,” a surprised Parker said to Nabozney, one of five kids taking part in the class sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service Smokejumper Center. “In fact, they learned how to do this by watching how we did it way back then.”

Despite his wealth of knowledge, Gunnar, his brother Joren and three other youngsters learned a lot during the one-day smokejumper program.

“We’ve had about 100 kids go through this this summer, and they really seem to enjoy it,” said Molly Cottrell, who taught the class with an assist from Parker and folks at the National Weather Service.

The kids come away with a heightened sense of what it means to be a smokejumper. But they also learned about fire, its behavior and how that behavior is influenced by weather.

“It’s pretty neat stuff,” 10-year-old Joren Nabozney said.

Thanks Dick

Mann Gulch fire–60 years ago

On August 5, 1949 on the Helena National Forest, a wildfire entrapped 15 smokejumpers and a fire guard in Mann Gulch. Before it was controlled the fire took the lives of 13 men and burned nearly 5,000 acres.

The fatalities:

  • Robert J. Bennett
  • Eldon E. Diettert
  • James O. Harrison
  • William J. Hellman
  • Philip R. McVey
  • David R. Navon
  • Leonard L. Piper
  • Stanley J. Reba
  • Marvin L. Sherman
  • Joseph B. Sylvia
  • Henry J. Thol, Jr.
  • Newton R. Thompson
  • Silas R. Thompson
The 13 men who were killed in the Mann Gulch fire. U. S. Forest Service photo.

The story of this fire was told by Norman Maclean in his book “Young Men and Fire”.

The Six Minutes for Safety overview of the fire is HERE.

As Wildfire Today reported earlier, on August 2-5, 2009 the Helena National Forest along with the National Smokejumpers Association will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Mann Gulch fire at the Meriwether picnic area through informal interpretive programs highlighting the Mann Gulch Fire, impacts the Mann Gulch tragedy has had on firefighting techniques and smokejumping and the associated equipment.

Three smokejumpers—John McKinnon, Carl Gidland and Roland Anderson—will at the Meriwether picnic area to speak to people about Mann Gulch, current and historic fire fighting techniques and much more.

Here is a photo of Mann Gulch taken in 2008, from The Travels of John and Breya.

A Smokejumper’s tragic jump

KGW.com [link no longer works] has an article about a smokejumper that you should read. Sara Brown, on her 88th jump, collided with another jumper while decending to a fire. Her chute collapsed, she fell from 100 feet, and shattered her right leg.

She has endured a lengthy recovery, but last week, she was honored with the Smokejumper Courage Award from the National Smokejumpers Association

Retired jumpers restore smokejumper base

Smokejumpers who used to work out of the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base south of Cave Junction, Oregon are returning this week to restore the parachute loft.

An excerpt from the Mail Tribune:

CAVE JUNCTION — Former smokejumpers whose lives once depended on parachutes inspected, repaired and packed at the former Siskiyou Smokejumper Base are returning to help restore the nation’s oldest smokejumper parachute loft.

The retired smokejumpers will be joined today by local volunteers in restoring the parachute loft at the former Siskiyou Smokejumper Base, according to Gary Buck, a retired smokejumper who made his first fire jump in 1966 from the base.

Located at the Illinois Valley Airport, half a dozen miles south of Cave Junction, the base was established in 1943.

The first smokejumper base was established in 1940 in Montana, a year after the first experimental jumps were made at Winthrop, Wash. Another base was built in McCall, Idaho, the same year as the Siskiyou base. The bases in Montana, Idaho and Washington were moved and the original buildings were destroyed, according to Buck.

The Siskiyou base is the last of the original smokejumper bases in American history still standing in its original location with its original buildings, he said.

The parachute loft, built in 1948, is the oldest of any smokejumper base in North America.

Buck is the president of the nonprofit Siskiyou Smokejumper Base Museum Project, a group whose mission is to establish a smokejumper museum at the base, which closed in 1981. Thanks to the group’s efforts, the base has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

About 20 former smokejumpers are expected to show up this week to help restore the old loft, said project secretary Roger Brandt. That includes Cave Junction residents Bob Nolan and Paul Block, two smokejumpers who helped build structures on the base in 1950, he said.

Thanks Kelly.

Redmond smoke jumpers train for fire season

The Bend, Oregon Bulletin has an interesting piece about the Redmond, Oregon smokejumpers getting ready for the fire season. Check out the whole article, but here is how it begins:

Get set to jump

Fire season is just around the corner, and the forecast is calling for a hot, dry summer. For the 50 smokejumpers who call the Redmond Air Center home, that means some practice is in order.

A dark speck fell out of the plane as it swooped 1500 feet over Glaze Meadow, near Black Butte.

The smokejumper fell for less than a second before her parachute streaked out behind her, catching the air and popping open.

With clear skies and crisp views of the Cascades as a backdrop, the smokejumper toggled strings to navigate the blue and white chute toward the target — a bright orange X laid out on the meadow. In a full jumpsuit and helmet, she touched down just several yards away, curling up and rolling to absorb the blow as the parachute settled to the ground.

“It felt good,” Jesse Haury, 25, of Bend, said moments after her first jump of the season. “It came back really fast.”

Haury and 49 other smokejumpers based at the Redmond Air Center began refresher training last week in preparation for the coming wildfire season, reviewing the skills they need to drop in on — and extinguish — remote blazes.

“We go through and simulate everything we would normally do in a jump,” said Bill Selby, the smokejumper program manager at the Redmond Air Center.

That includes first aid and CPR training, physical ability tests, firefighting skills, practice jumps, techniques for climbing trees to retrieve equipment, emergency procedures and more.

“You do things repetitively until they do it without even thinking about it,” Selby said.

With all the review that goes into smokejumping — first with an intensive rookie training, and then with annual refresher training — jumping out of planes becomes a part of a smokejumper’s muscle memory, said K.T. Scheer, 29, of Hood River, who is starting her second season.

“It’s pretty much all training,” she said, before heading off to carry a 45-pound pack for 3 miles within 45 minutes.

But first, on Wednesday morning, under near-perfect conditions, she took a practice jump onto Glaze Meadow.

“There’s always the first bit of jitters, but I think it went well,” she said.