This month I thought I’d veer off the trail of cowboys, sheepherders, and gunslinging desperados. I’ve decided to focus on a different hero of the West, the ones who fall from the sky and fight fires…the smokejumper.
In 1918, Henry S. Graves, the Chief Forester for the U.S. Forest Service, contacted the Chief of the Army Air Service (Army Air Corps), inquiring about the possibility of cooperating with the Forest Service to provide aerial fire detection over forests in the Western states.
The first aerial patrols were conducted on June 1, 1919 over the Angeles Forest in California. The Missoula Sentinel out of Missoula, Montana reported in May of 1919 “…This will be the beginning of experimental work in which the adaptability of aircraft to forest patrol work is to be tried out thoroughly. If the tests prove as successful as it is thought that they will be, it is expected that the airplane patrols will be extended before the end of the 1919 season and that airplanes will become a permanent feature of the forest service forces."
These first trials proved successful and in 1925, aerial flight patrols started in Region 1 (Montana, Idaho, and eastern Washington at the time). The Spokane Chronicle, June 25th, 1925, said: "Lieutenant Nick B. Mamer of Spokane today received appointment as forest fire patrol pilot for eastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana. He will leave Spokane tomorrow night for Rockwell Field, San Diego, to get his Liberty-motored deHaviland Airplane which will be used on the patrol..." Nick Mamer was already a legendary pilot coming out of WWI. He later established the Mamer Flying Service and Mamer Air Transport firms in Spokane.
From 1925-1935, Forest Inspector Howard R. Flint and Nick Mamer were instrumental in the pioneering of aerial activities in the Northern Rocky Mountain Region until Mamer’s untimely death in a plane crash.
During the early years of aerial reconnaissance in the Forest Service, many began examining the possibility of dropping firefighters in by parachute. A formal proposal was made in 1934, but Forest Service officials were not impressed. In 1935, the Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project in California experimented with dropping water and chemicals on wildland fires. While these initial drops proved unsuccessful, they made delivery of cargo by parachute possible and helped set the stage for experiments in parachute jumping.
By 1939, the Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project was moved to Winthrop, Washington, where the balance of funds shifted to carrying out parachute jumping experiments. The Forest Service prepared a contract providing for parachutes, protective clothing, and the services of professional riggers and parachutists.
|Montana Smokejumper descends into fire|
After a series of experimental jumps, in the summer of 1940 the U.S. Forest Service Smokejumper Project became fully operational. Six smokejumpers were based at Winthrop, and seven at Moose Creek Ranger Station in Idaho. Two of the smokejumpers from Moose Creek made the first operational jump on the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho. Eight more jumps were made during the 1940 fire season.
When U.S. Army Major William Lee (the father of airborne troops) witnessed smokejumper training in Montana, he incorporated many smokejumper techniques into the Army Airborne doctrine.
The entire project, consisting of 26 jumpers, was relocated to Missoula, Montana in 1941. This was an economical decision, basing all smokejumpers in one location made more sense than maintaining multiple and widely scattered facilities. Missoula was chosen because it was home to the Johnson’s Flying Service, who supplied smokejumpers with aircraft and pilots.
|Early smokejumpers with equipment|
As it did with so many things, World War II, interrupted and changed the smokejumper service. With the United States entry into the war, by the summer of 1942 the number of qualified smokejumpers had been greatly depleted. By 1943, only five jumpers were available. This problem was solved when the smokejumper program turned to the Civilian Public Service, an organization made up of conscientious objectors. Seventy members of the CPS were trained as smokejumpers and the use of CPS personnel continued through 1944.
A threat to the Western forests by Japanese fire balloons rose in 1945. Members of the U.S. Army’s All-Black 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion were trained in timber jumping and firefighting to combat this threat. The threat did not materialize, but the members of the battalion were used as suppression crews on the large fires of that season.
|Member of 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion preparing to jump into fire|
On August 4, 1949, a 5,000 acre forest fire near Helena, Montana changed the way the Forest Service would fight fires, and leave the smokejumpers scarred.
The Mann Gulch fire was started by lightning during a particularly dry season. A fire thought to be only a few acres, blew up to 3,000 acres in ten minutes. Sixteen smokejumpers had jumped into the location only to be hunted by a fire with flames estimated at fifty feet high and moving fifty yards every ten seconds. Added to this was the terrible loss of their communication equipment during the cargo drop, leaving the jumpers without a way to contact the outside world. They attempted to make it to a ridgetop, but the fire caught up to them.
|Members of NFS carry out victims of Mann Gulch fire|
Thirteen brave men were lost, the largest single loss of life due to fire the Forest Service experienced until the loss of nineteen in a fire in Arizona in 2013.
The smokejumper program continued to grow through the 1950s, and new bases were established at Grangeville, Idaho; West Yellowstone, Montana; Silver City, New Mexico; and Redding, California. In 1959, the BLM established a base in Fairbanks, Alaska, the first base not under the Forest Service management.
This is just a small glimpse of the proud history of these elite firefighters. I have a new contemporary series releasing this month, 4 Marines For History, and one of the heroines is a smokejumper and the heroes are members of a hotshot crew. While conducting research, I had the opportunity to meet with a few smokejumpers who offered more information than I needed for this series. So, coming in 2017, I will be writing a spinoff series focusing on smokejumpers and hotshots. I’m also planning a historical series featuring those first brave men who decided to fight fire by attacking it from the sky.
Thanks so much for stopping by!
Kirsten Lynn is a Western and Military Historian. She worked six years with a Navy non-profit and continues to contract with the Marine Corps History Division for certain projects. Making her home where her roots were sewn in Wyoming, Kirsten also works as a local historian. She loves to use the history she has learned and add it to a great love story. She writes stories about men of uncommon valor…women with undaunted courage…love of unwavering devotion …and romance with unending sizzle. When she’s not writing, she finds inspiration in day trips through the Bighorn Mountains, binge reading and watching sappy old movies, or sappy new movies.