Development of Smokejumping
History by Tim Huntington and Dennis Golik
The earliest use of aircraft by the U.S. Forest Service took place in 1917, when aircraft were used in California for detection of wildland fires. During the 1920s various attempts were made to drop water and foam on wildland fires, using such devices as five-gallon cans, paper bags, and wooden beer kegs attached to parachutes. These early experiments met with little success. During this same period, occasional non-emergency parachute jumps were being made by the military and a few thrill-seeking barnstormers. In 1934, a proposal was made to use aircraft and parachutes to transport firefighters to wildland fires. A professional parachutist made a few demonstration jumps, but Forest Service leaders were unimpressed.
In 1935 the Forest Service established the Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project in California, and experimented with dropping water and chemicals on wildland fires. Although the retardants tested proved impractical, the improvements made in delivery of cargo by parachute helped set the stage for later experiments with parachute jumping.
By 1939 the Aerial Fire Control Experiment had moved from California to Winthrop, Washington, and was directing all its efforts into parachute jumping. Nine jumpers worked on the project, along with two consultants from the Eagle Parachute Company. During the summer of 1939, some 60 experimental parachute jumps were successfully made into the forests of northern Washington.
In the summer of 1940, the U.S. Forest Service Smokejumper Project became fully operational. Six smokejumpers were based at Winthrop, and seven were located at Moose Creek Ranger Station in Idaho. On July 12, 1940, two smokejumpers from Moose Creek made the Project's first operational fire jump on the Nez Perce National Forest of Idaho. Eight more fires were jumped in Northwestern states before winter put an end to the 1940 fire season.
During the summer of 1940, US Army Major William Lee observed some of the smokejumper training being conducted in Montana. Major Lee, now known as the "father of airborne troops," incorporated many smokejumper techniques into the establishment of Army Airborne doctrine. In 1941 the entire project, now comprising 26 jumpers, was relocated to Missoula, Montana; it was more economical to base all smokejumpers in one location rather than maintain multiple and widely scattered facilities. Missoula was chosen because it was home to Johnson's Flying Service, a private contractor who supplied the smokejumpers with aircraft and pilots.
By the summer of 1942, the supply of qualified personnel available for smokejumping had been greatly depleted by the personnel demands of World War II. Only five smokejumpers returned from the previous year; 33 additional jumpers were hired and trained for the summer of 1942, but only a few had any wildland fire experience. The personnel shortage reached a critical stage by the spring of 1943. Only five jumpers were available, including the instructor. The problem was soon solved, however, when 70 members of the Civilian Public Service (C.P.S.) were trained as smokejumpers. The CPS was made up of conscientious objectors to the military draft. The use of CPS personnel by the smokejumper project continued until the end of the War, and in 1944, after five years in the trial stage, the smokejumper program was officially adopted by the US Forest Service. Consequently, a number of national forests reduced their ground forces and relied more on smokejumpers. This period also saw an expansion in the number of smokejumper bases, with new bases established in McCall, Idaho, and Cave Junction, Oregon.
In 1945, a threat of attack to Western forests by Japanese fire balloons was feared. To combat this threat, members of the US Army's All-Black 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion were trained in timber jumping and firefighting. The expected Japanese fire balloon menace did not materialize, but the 300 paratroopers were used as suppression crews on many large fires during the severe 1945 fire season.
With the end of World War II, the Civilian Public Service smokejumper program was discontinued. The smokejumper ranks for the 1946 fire season included returning war veterans and college students. A total of 229 smokejumpers were employed during the summer of 1946, based at Missoula, Montana; McCall, Idaho; Winthrop, Washington; and Cave Junction, Oregon. Smokejumper bases and numbers remained relatively static throughout the remainder of the 1940s. The 1949 fire season was notable not only as an extremely active season, but a tragic one as well. Twelve smokejumpers were fatally burned on the Mann Gulch Fire in Montana's Helena National Forest. Mann Gulch remains the single most fatal tragedy in smokejumper history. It is also the subject of the best-selling book Young Men and Fire, by Norman Maclean.
The smokejumper project grew significantly throughout the 1950s; numbers continued to increase, reaching 398 by 1958. In addition, bases were established at Grangeville, Idaho; West Yellowstone, Montana; Silver City, New Mexico; and Redding, California. In 1959, the federal Bureau of Land Management established a smokejumper base in Fairbanks, Alaska. This was the first time an agency other than the US Forest Service had maintained a smokejumper project.
The 1960s saw no really significant developments within the Forest Service smokejumper program. No new bases were established, despite the fact that total numbers of smokejumpers continued to increase, reaching 427 by 1968. However, the Bureau of Land Management's Alaska smokejumper project grew significantly during the 1960s and, by the end of the decade, smokejumpers were playing a major role in Alaska fire suppression.
Throughout the 1970s, the number of smokejumpers available nationwide remained around 400. There were, however, some significant changes and events involving the national project. On June 3, 1970, after 31 years of operation and over 90,000 parachute jumps, the first smokejumper fatality associated with parachute jumping occurred. This tragedy took place on a fire jump in northern California.
In the late 1970s, the Forest Service initiated a base consolidation program. Some bases were closed, while the remainder were designated either core or satellite bases. Smokejumpers are stationed at both, but all training occurs at regional core bases. Base consolidation was made possible by the ever-increasing mobility of smokejumpers. Standardization of procedures allowed smokejumpers to operate easily from base to base, and faster aircraft reduced the travel time between bases.
During the 1970s, the Bureau of Land Management smokejumpers in Alaska began experimenting with Ram-Air style parachutes. Until this time, all smokejumpers used the round-style parachute, similar to that used by Army paratroopers. The Ram-Air system proved suitable for flat terrain and high winds encountered on the Alaska tundra, and was adopted by the Bureau of Land Management in the early 1980s. That decade also witnessed increasing utilization of smokejumpers on a national scale. Although the number of smokejumpers available nationwide remained around 400 throughout the 1980s, smokejumpers increasingly found themselves on the move throughout the Western states and Alaska. Because of their inherent mobility, they could be quickly concentrated in an area of high fire occurrence and then, just as quickly, be deployed to another. During the 1980s the smokejumper project truly became a national project.
The 1980s also saw notable events and developments. In 1981 the first woman smokejumper and the first woman smokejumper pilot were employed by the U.S. Forest Service, both based at McCall, Idaho. In May 1981 a fatal airplane crash and ensuing fire destroyed the smokejumper base at Redding, California. The Redding Smokejumpers were operating out of temporary quarters within a month, and a new facility was completed in 1984. In 1987 the Bureau of Land Management established a base in Boise, Idaho, using the facility vacated by the Forest Service Boise Smokejumpers in 1980. In 1989, a full 50 years after the first jumps were made, the smokejumpers made their 200,000th parachute jump.
Heavy smokejumper utilization continued into the 1990s. For example, during the severe summer fire season of 1994, the 391 smokejumpers available nationwide made 4,806 fire jumps on 989 wildfires, setting a record for yearly activity. The year of 1994 was also a tragic one - three smokejumpers were among the 14 firefighters who lost their lives July 6 on the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. These were the first smokejumper fatalities since the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949.
As the 21st century approaches, the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and many other agencies responsible for wildland fire suppression continue to rely on smokejumpers. And the smokejumpers, for their part, continue to adapt to the ever-changing policies and environment of wildland fire suppression. It is interesting to note, however, that the basic concepts and techniques for the aerial delivery of firefighters developed by smokejumper pioneers of the 1930s are still employed today. The smokejumpers are, indeed, an organization with an eye on the future and its roots in the past.
By Tim Huntington and Dennis Golik
Parachutes have been used for dropping supplies and equipment to firefighters since at least 1925, but the concept of delivering personnel is isolated fire locations was untested until the mid 1930's. As early as 1916, however, Herbert L. Adams of Sommerville, Massachusetts procured patents, "On a parachute that he claimed could be steered by manipulation of the shroud lines." John W. Cawdery, an Englishman, attached guidelines to the lateral flaps, and Ivar Malmer of Stockholm, Sweden, Richard H. Hart of New Orleans and Leslie Irvin added greatly to the body of knowledge concerning the behavior and controllability of parachutes. Consequently, even before the first U.S. Forest Service sponsored tests, there was irrefutable evidence that available parachutes, "were reasonably safe from malfunction and steerable to a limited degree."
In 1934, T.V. Pearson of the Intermountain Region of the Forest Service... proposed and initiated the first experiments in the use of parachutes for the transportation of firefighters. A few demonstrations were made by a professional (J.B. Bruce), but the idea was abandoned as being too risky." Under the direction of David P. Goodwin, smokejumper experiments were conducted on the Chelan National Forest near Winthrop, Washington in 1939. Beach Gill of the Eagle Parachute Company worked as a consultant, Lage Wernstedt represented the regional office and Harold King served as Forest Service pilot. Professional jumpers with Frank Derry in charge conducted a number of dummy tests and approximately sixty live jumps were made. Most of the parachute jumps were made by employees of the Eagle Parachute Company. However, several Forest Service employees were allowed to jump into both open fields and timbered areas as the tests progressed.
These efforts proved that men could land safely in rugged, forested terrain. Using procedures developed from the tests, the Forest Service in 1940 trained sixteen people who had volunteered for parachuting jumping. "Additional experimental work was planned, but after some initial work and before the season ended the men were making practical rather than test jumps, parachuting to fires in inaccessible areas, and promptly controlling them." Reflecting on the 1940 season, Earl Cooley was later to write:
One key smokechaser was selected from each of seven forests in R-1 to carry on the experimental smokejumper program. Each of these men were to be single and between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-five. Rufus Johnson was selected from the Nezperce, Jim Alexander from the Old Cabinet, Jim Waite from the Clearwater, Dick Lynch from the Flathead, Earl Cooley from the Bitterroot, Leonard Hamilton from the Lolo and Bill Bolen from the Kootenai. These men were to take the smokejumper training at the Seely Lake Ranger Station.
This group of men under the supervision of Frank and Chet Derry formed the nucleus of the first smokejumper crew in Region 1. The Derry brothers trained one squad of jumpers at Winthrop and then went over to Missoula and trained three more squads. "...When Frank Derry, our instructor, hung up an Eagle parachute in a tree and gathered the crew around him, he said, 'this is the apex of the chute, these are the load lines and tomorrow we jump.'...and tomorrow we jumped! This was the extent of our conditioning; however, we had all been working on trail crews and were in good shape."
The first two successful fire jumps were made by Rufus Johnson, Kooski, Idaho and Earl Cooley, Hamilton, Montana on July 12, 1940 when they jumped the Martin Creek Fire on the Nezperce National Forest. During the remainder of 1940, twelve smokejumpers made 99 fire jumps to effectively establish a viable smokejumper program. The Forest Service decided that parachuting men to fires was a viable alternative to the existing modes of travel and time consuming initial attack procedures. The time saving potential in reaching a fire might conceivably be measured in days, dollars saved in suppression costs in the thousands of dollars and watershed and timberland saved from destruction would be considerable.
Military staff officers visited the smokejumper training camp in 1940, and many of the Forest Service ideas and methods were later employed in organizing the Army paratrooper training at Fort Benning, Georgia. The Army relied heavily on the smokejumper program during World War II as the military worked to develop an effective airborne contingent.
Building on the effectiveness of these early efforts, the first parachute facility was established by the U.S. Forest Service at the Winthrop Ranger Station in the Methow Valley, Washington state. Region I followed closely by constructing facilities at Seely Lake and later at the Nine Mile Station. The early 1940's saw continued expansion and development of the new smokejumper program.
World War II, however, caused serious problems for the new program. In addition to the shortage of parachutes, the lack of manpower reached a critical stage. Fortunately, Region I, IV and VI began to receive numerous inquiries about employment from Conscientious Objectors to the war. By 1943, the Forest Service began to actively recruit Civilian Public Service enrollees, and 62 candidates were selected for smokejumper training. The Mennomite, Brethern and Friends Churches supplied the majority of the recruits. In 1944, The Forest Service went directly to the headquarters of the Selective Service System and the National Service Board for Religious Objectors, and arranged to retain all of the trained Civilian Public Service volunteers who elected to remain with the program. Sixty percent of this group was given refresher training, and fifty more were selected and added to the various smokejumper projects.
The last of the "war years," 1945, was marked by further expansion in the smokejumper project; crews were bolstered, and the most severe fire season since the inception of the program ensued. In Regions I, IV, V and VI, jumpers were used on 269 fires with a total of 1,236 individual jumps. The 555th Battalion of Black paratroopers were also trained by Missoula Smokejumpers at Pendleton, Oregon, in timber jumping and fire suppression to combat Japanese balloon fires. After training, the 300 paratroopers were used as auxiliary suppression crews on large fires through out the Pacific Northwest.
1945 was especially significant, because, while smokejumping had been regarded as successful for a number of years, "This was the first season in which its importance was fully documented." The program had demonstrated considerable effectiveness and resulted in large savings in fire suppression costs. It had proven to be a concrete economical substitute for costly installations and the training and suppression problems of a widespread "back country" fire organization. Armed with this evidence and the knowledge of the program's flexibility, the Forest Service acted to expand the smokejumper concept to eventually provide coverage for most National Forest Land in the western United States.
In 1943, bases were added at McCall, Idaho and Cave Junction, Oregon to further cut transportation time and suppression costs in those areas. 1951 saw crews established at West Yellowstone, Montana and Grangeville, Idaho to provide extended coverage for the Region I forests, and a detail was organized in 1954 to operate out of Silver City, New Mexico on a seasonal basis during Region III's fire season. The Idaho City Smokejumper Base was created in 1954 and operated there until it was moved to Boise, Idaho in 1969. This crew consisted of two smokejumper squadleaders who were permanent forest officers, and seventeen jumpers and a foreman. A smokejumper crew had been spiked out at Idaho City since 1948 when Smoky Stover lost a coin flip with Wayne Webb and took the unwanted detail; names were drawn from a hat to fill out the crew roster. The California Smokejumper Base was organized in 1957 to finally provide coverage and capability on a regular basis in Region V. Redmond and LaGrande, Oregon established bases in 1964 and 1974. The Bureau of Land Management based a crew in Fairbanks, Alaska in 1959, and another crew operated out of Anchorage for a short time in late 1960's. As of 1979, 540 smokejumper positions were funded and eleven bases were in regular operation with full support facilities.