Montana Smokejumper Base Offers Look at Parachute Corps

By SUSAN GALLAGHER | July 26, 2013

Fighting wildland fires is grimy, exhausting, dangerous and impressive. When smokejumpers do the work, parachuting in to wage the initial attack on fires in remote, rugged places, the wow factor is even stronger.

The smokejumper training base in Missoula gives visitors a look at the preparation and skill required of men and women who work as smokejumpers. Throughout the summer, tours are offered six times a day at the Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumper Center just west of Missoula International Airport.

The smokejumper base, one of nine in the western states and Alaska, has parachutes spread out for repair and repacking, and a “ready room” that gets busy fast when a crew mobilizes for a fire. Visitors can also view exhibits of firefighting gear and learn some of the history of smokejumping, now the seasonal work of about 470 men and women employed by the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

About 60 smokejumpers are based in Missoula. If some of them make practice jumps during a tour, visitors get to watch.

The first descent in smokejumping history was in 1940, over Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest. That was five years after a Forest Service regional boss sent a letter to higher-ups in Washington criticizing the idea of “dropping men from airplanes” to fight fires and suggesting that “all parachute jumpers are more or less crazy – just a little bit unbalanced, otherwise they wouldn’t be engaged in such a hazardous undertaking.” The letter is on exhibit at the smokejumper center.

There’s also a mock-up of a fire lookout. The small structures are still staffed in national forests, but they’re less important thanks to better ways of detecting fire through aviation and technology. Furnishings include a bed used by the late Norman Maclean at Seeley Lake, north of Missoula, when he wrote “A River Runs Through It and Other Stories,” about fishing, and “Young Men and Fire,” about the loss of 13 men, 12 of them smokejumpers, overrun by Montana’s Mann Gulch fire in 1949.

The smokejumper base is part of a Forest Service complex of buildings also occupied by the agency’s Missoula Technology and Development Center. Work there has contributed to the design and construction of the clothing firefighters wear, and the personal safety shelters they carry.

Missoula specialists in the shelters’ development and use went to Arizona in July to assist in the investigation after a 19-man ground crew died on June 30 while battling the Yarnell Hill fire southwest of Prescott, Ariz.

Tours by appointment are available at the technology and development center, where work ranges from testing chemical fire retardants to designing gate latches and campground water pumps for people with disabilities.

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