Smokejumping Development

black and white photograph of suited-up jumpers approaching an aircraftblack and white photograph of men bending over backwards, their legs tied to ascaffold on the ground

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.