Western Trips

Western Trips

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Smokejumpers / The Dangers, History and Training / Missoula Montana

There are many dangerous jobs in this world and one of those is that of the Smokejumper. These are dedicated fighters of wildfires who put life and limb in harms way each and every time they are called for.

The top photo at left (courtesy of Dragomilof,CreativeCommons 3.0) shows a group of Smokejumpers heading to their aircraft for deployment.

On your next Montana vacation there is an excellent museum located in Missoula Montana that provides a great deal of information and displays explaining the hazards of this occupation as well as the invaluable service these brave people offer. The museum is located at the Aerial Fire Depot Missoula. Visitors will be taken on a tour which will include the Smokejumpers Loft and the Smokejumpers Memorial. Montana trips have much to offer. In addition to the Smokejumpers Museum you can visit Glacier Park Montana and West Yellowstone. Two great sites.

The Job of a Smokejumper

Fighting wildfires in remote regions of the western U.S. is what a Smokejumper does. This generally is in very remote terrain, very difficult to reach by any other means.

Employing a fleet of fixed wing aircraft, including a Turbine DC-3, Twin Otter, and a Shorts Sherpa, firefighters and paracargo operations can reach any location in the country. Areas that jumpers work in include everywhere from New Mexico to Alaska.

The photo at left shows a group of Smokejumpers dating back to 1949. There is also a unit called The Alaska Smokejumpers. They are part of the Alaska Fire Service and the Bureau of Land Management since 1959.  Being a part of the BLM, the Alaskan crews have also helped fight fires in the lower 48 states.   

Improvement in Fire Fighting Technology and Methods

Just like everything, wildfire fighting has improved technologically. Back in the 1800's and even during the first part of the twentieth century, firefighting seemed to be a secondary concern, taking a back seat to the natural instinct of escaping.

Both the Hinckley Minnesota Fire of 1894 and the Great Fires of 1910 in the Montana/Wyoming region were essentially efforts to escape the advancing flames. In both of these catastrophes people tried escaping by any means possible..trains, horses and by foot. In the case of Hinckley, trains were overtaken by the flames and many perished. Wildfires can become firestorms. This is what happened in Hinckley. A firestorm is a fire of such immensity that it develops it's own weather system. This is about as dangerous a fire as you can imagine with winds and speed very unpredictable.
Photo courtesy Alan Radecki, GNU Doc. Lic.

Today, one of the methods used to manage forest land is the "controlled burn". This is where  small fires are started intentionally and then put out to clear land to avoid a much larger uncontrolled wildfire.

The men and women of the Smokejumpers are also employed for these purposes. In today's modern times we also have aircraft tanker planes such as DC-10's, shown at right, that drop fire retardant  chemicals to help put out fires. As a comparison to the days back in 1910  durring the Great Fire when stopping a fire meant digging trenches to try to prevent it's advance, the technology has advanced at warp speed.

The History of Smokejumpers

Smoke Jumper history is quite interesting. Experiments were begun in 1939 with personnel from the Eagle Parachute Company from Lancaster Pennsylvania. This was done in the northern Cascades and today this area of the Matthew Valley is considered the birthplace of smokejumping.

While these tests went well there still was a reluctance to have people parachute into raging fires. This was a time when aviation itself was considered a risky business and to add people jumping out of airplanes into fires seemed just too risky. Many people in the government considered this akin to barnstorming. Eventually more tests were done using 150 pound weights on parachutes and after success with that the go ahead was received.

During World War Two, about 240 people from the Civilian Public Service Camps were trained as smoke jumpers at the McCall Smokejumpers Base in Missoula Montana. There was also a time when the U.S. Army utilized smoke jumping training facilities to help train their parachute airborne troops. The army later established facilities at Fort Benning Georgia. Another interesting fact is that the Russian Federation is considered to have the largest contingent of smoke jumpers in the world. Supposedly Russia's use of Smokejumpers dates back to the mid 1930's.

Smokejumper Training

 Yellowstone  practice jump 1975

Deaths of Smokejumpers are considered very rare. In the U.S. the best known fatalities occurred in the years 1949 and 1994.

Injuries from jumps do happen but it should be noted that a great deal of caution is exercised every time a jump is called for. The decision to jump or not to is many times a last minute decision based on a variety of factors. Wind direction and the fires path are carefully considered before the green light is issued.

Smokejumpers training is quite rigorous since you not only need superior firefighting skills but additionally you need to train as an athlete to avoid injury. As a result, the injuries and deaths for Smokejumpers are not anything different from those of ground based firefighters.

When a Smokejumper isn't fighting fires he or she  works to maintain  their equipment and has a daily physical workout regimen. A Smokejumper is required to be able to find their way around a forest using only a map and compass. Being a quick thinker and  being able to manage risk are two additional good attributes to possess. Smokejumpers clothing is heavily padded to avoid injury if landing in a tree. The aircraft drops equipment such as chain saws, axes, firefighting chemicals and potable water pumps which the Smokejumper then gathers on the ground.

Hollywood has added somewhat to the storied legend of the Smokejumper and the dangers ever present. The 1959 Smokejumpers movie "Red Skies Of Montana" was based on the 1949 Mann-Gulch Fire that claimed fifteen lives, thirteen of them being Smoke Jumpers. A popular novel by Nicholas Evans published in 2001 "The Smoke Jumper" also added to public awareness of these brave firefighters. Another interesting story is that of Edward Pulaski who developed the Pulaski Tool which is still used today by our nation's wildland firefighters.

Trips to Montana can be an exciting and fun experience. Another stop to put on your Montana vacation planner is the Pompeys Pillar Monument near Billings where you can see the etched signature of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Make certain to add the Smokejumpers Museum to your Montana travel planner. You'll be glad you did. Websites to help plan your vacation in Montana are below.

Smokejumpers Museum Missoula Montana

Livingston Montana Travel

Montana Official State Travel Site

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images from the public domain)

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