Smokejumpers are wildland firefighters who parachute to the
site of a forest fire. Through this method, firefighters are able to reach
remote areas quickly and combat wildfires before they get out of control.
Smokejumpers must be in top physical condition and attend regular training
courses. While smokejumping is risky business, it’s an effective tactic in many
Interested in how this program started? Read on to learn
more about the history of smokejumpers.
1917-1933: Aircraft is First Used in Fighting Fires
Before the idea of smokejumping even entered anyone’s mind,
the U.S. Forest Service was already using aircraft to detect and survey
wildfires. During the 1920s, several attempts were made to put out wildfires by
dropping water or foam from planes. Unfortunately, the results were less than
impressive, but with new technologies came new hope. By 1925, firefighters were
using aerial photography, and in 1929, departments were sending free-falling
supplies to firefighters on the ground.
1934: Smokejumping is First Suggested
By 1934, the military and thrill-seekers were already
employing parachutes for non-emergency jumps. It was in this year that T.V.
Pearson, the Forest Service Intermountain Regional Forester, suggested
parachuting in firefighters to combat fires in remote locations. After a few demonstrations,
however, the idea was abandoned as it appeared too risky.
1935-1939: Smokejumping Proves More Practical
In 1935, the Forest Service established the Aerial Fire
Control Experimental Project. This involved experimenting with dropping water
and cargo via parachute onto a wildfire site. While these experiments proved
impractical, the tests on parachuting in cargo paved the way for advances that
would make smokejumping an ideal tactic.
By 1939, The Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project had
realized the potential of parachuting, and in the spring of that year, David
Godwin led the parachute jumping project in Winthrop, WA. At that time, seven
experienced jumpers and two other locals joined the project, and they completed
60 successful live jumps in the forest near their base.
1940-1941: Smokejumping Sees its First Operational Seasons
In 1940, the Parachute
Project was in full swing with six smokejumpers based in Winthrop and another
crew of seven in Moose Creek, ID. Over the course of that year, nine
fires were jumped that resulted in saving an estimated $30,000 worth of damage.
By 1941, the program totaled 26 jumpers, and the entire
project was moved to a centralized location at Missoula, Montana, home of
Johnson’s Flying Service, which supplied pilots and aircrafts for the project.
1942-1945: WWII Reduces Access to Qualified Personnel, but the Program
Thanks to the demands of WWII, the smokejumper project
slowed down during the 1940s and involved a lot of training for inexperienced
jumpers. While more smokejumper bases were established during this time,
qualified personnel were limited. In 1942, only five of the previous years’
jumpers returned, and another 33 (mostly without any fire experience) were
By 1943, personnel was depleted to a point where only five
jumpers (including the instructor) were available. However, inquiries from
draftees in public service camps rolled in, allowing the program to train 70
more smokejumpers from the Civilian Public Service and another 25 from the U.S.
Coast Guard, the Canadian Air Observers School, and the U.S. Air Force for
By 1944, the Civilian Public Service smokejumper program had
a team of 110 jumpers. In this same year, the Forest Service officially adopted
the smokejumper project.
1946-Present: The Smokejumper Program Grows in Popularity and Acquires New
After the war ended, and thanks to the Forest Service
adopting the program, smokejumping grew in popularity. By 1958, the project
grew to 398 smokejumpers. While new bases have been established since then, the
number of smokejumpers at any given time has consistently hovered around
400. As of 2011 in the United States, there were 325 Forest Service smokejumpers along with another 145 employed by the
Bureau of Land Management.
Throughout this time, technological advances have improved
the program. In the 1970s, for instance, the Bureau of Land Management
experimented with Ram-Air style parachutes, which were better for the Alaska
During the 1980s, smokejumpers were being utilized
nation-wide, the U.S. Forest Service employed the first woman smokejumper and
smokejumper pilot, and the 200,000th parachute jump was made.
Today, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land
Management, among other organizations, rely on the skills of smokejumpers.
advances have helped make smokejumping a reliable tactic for fighting
wildfires, smokejumpers are using many of the same concepts first suggested
back in the 1930s.
What do you think of the smokejumper program?
Would you like to see new technologies available to smokejumpers or perhaps
more smokejumpers employed in the program? Let us know!
image provided by US Forest Service