History of Smokejumpers

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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 wildfire cases.

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 Prevails

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 trained.

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 pararescue work.

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 Resources

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 terrain.

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. While technological 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

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