Chapter 4 - Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters - Jason A. Ramos

Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters - Jason A. Ramos (2015)

Chapter 4

RANGER ED PULASKI STOOD at the mouth of the mine tunnel, choking on smoke. He threw hatfuls of water on the blanket that covered the opening. When the support timbers started to smolder, he doused them too.

His men lay on the muddy tunnel floor, writhing and moaning in the sweltering darkness. One man stood up and made a desperate rush for the entrance.

Pulaski barred the way and drew his pistol.

“The first man who tries to leave this tunnel I will shoot,” he said.

It was August 20, 1910, in the Coeur d’Alene National Forest near Wallace, Idaho, and outside the world was burning.

Ever since humans tamed fire, it has been our best friend and worst enemy. We first used it to cook and stay warm, to light up the night and scare off predators. In North America, native tribes set fires to improve grazing for game, to clear farmland, and to make war. When European settlers arrived, the endless forests and open prairies they found were in large part the result of repeated burns set by Native Americans.

Early urban fires were frequent and devastating; the Great London Fire of 1666 destroyed more than 80 percent of the city. In 1736, Ben Franklin founded America’s first volunteer fire company in Philadelphia. Members of these “mutual fire societies” helped douse blazes on one another’s properties, using leather buckets and early water-pumping engines.

The rise of concrete, steel, and iron construction lowered the risk of citywide fires during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. City governments started installing fire hydrants attached to public water mains and setting up their own professional fire departments. Cincinnati’s was the first in the United States in 1853.

These men didn’t just fight fires. They also fought each other over territory and the insurance money that came with putting out blazes. (Fire departments in New York City were notorious for sending out “runners” to get to fires first.) Some of the groups enlisted together to fight in the Civil War, which may be where the fire department rank system—company, battalion, captain, and so on—came from.

In the countryside, fire was a normal part of life well into the nineteenth century. Farming, logging, and railroad construction left the landscape littered with piles of slash and sawdust. Burning was the easiest way to get rid of them, and countless small man-made fires filled the skies with a hazy tang.

And of course, nature lent a hand.

In 1910, a dry spring in the northern Rockies was followed by an even worse summer. The first small lightning fires were already spotting the hillsides by June. Record summer temperatures baked the forests like pottery in a kiln.

Residents reported a feeling of impending doom in the air. By August, thousands of small fires had sprung up across Washington, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia, caused by everything from lightning to hobo campfires and sparking locomotives. Trains were such a problem that forest rangers had special rail-mounted bikes they pedaled down the tracks to snuff out the fires they left behind.

The U.S. Forest Service, founded as part of the Department of Agriculture only five years before, recruited an army of ten thousand men to help keep the blazes under control. Mostly immigrants, plus some soldiers and convicts, they were given shovels but no formal firefighting training.

On August 20, a freak cold front out of Washington State sent 75 mph winds through the mountains. The canyons acted like chimneys, sweeping all the small fires into the air and melding them into one giant inferno.

In two days, the “Big Burn” spread across western Montana, northern Idaho, and northeastern Washington. Telegraph operators described flame fronts thirty miles wide before the lines burned through. There was so much smoke that bats came out in the daytime and sailors hundreds of miles out in the Pacific couldn’t see the stars.

There was no way to fight a fire this size. People were crushed by falling trees and baked alive in cellars. Firefighters shot themselves when their fire lines were overrun, dying mixed in heaps with horses and wildlife.

In places at the center of the blaze, like Wallace, Idaho, finding space on the last train out of town could mean the difference between living and dying. Soldiers had to order men off at gunpoint to make room for women and children. Even then they weren’t safe. Engineers found the trestles over valleys were already on fire. They tried to hide in tunnels in the Bitterroot Mountains, but the oxygen-hungry flames still found them.

All people could do was run. An assistant ranger named Ed Pulaski rounded up forty-five firefighters near Wallace and tried to guide them to safety. Fire surrounded the group on the West Fork of Placer Creek in the Coeur d’Alene National Forest.

Pulaski had worked as a miner and knew about an old mine tunnel nearby with a seep running through it. He urged the men in that direction. They fled through the deafening roar of hill-sized flames and thousands of massive trees snapping like twigs in the giant updrafts and crashing downhill. One survivor likened it to “a thousand trains rushing over a thousand steel trestles.”

A falling tree crushed one man. At one point a black bear fled alongside them. It felt like the world was ending.

They made it to the tunnel just as the flames swept over their trail. Pulaski ordered everyone to get inside and lie facedown. He hung a blanket across the opening and tried to keep it wet against the impossible heat.

Some men cried like children and others prayed for divine mercy. Only one tried to bolt.

Eventually everyone passed out.

A second cold front—this time with rain—finally extinguished the firestorm.

“The completeness of the destruction is indescribable,” wrote a journalist from the Idaho panhandle. “Not a living thing can be seen for a distance of 20 miles.” The fire even killed the fish in the streams, left them floating by the thousands.

Three million acres had burned, an area the size of Connecticut. Entire towns had been vaporized. At least eighty-five people died, most of them firefighters.

In the Placer Creek mine shaft, Pulaski somehow managed to keep the flames out and his men in. At 5 A.M. the next morning, forty men crawled from the tunnel black with soot, their clothes in rags. The other five would never wake up.

“Come outside, boys,” one man said. “The boss is dead.”

“Like hell he is,” Pulaski said, pulling himself to his feet. He was blinded and burned, his lungs seared from the heat, but alive. It was two months until he could see again. He lived the rest of his life in Wallace, where his wife and adopted daughter had survived the fires.

Even if not for his heroics, “Big Ed” would still be remembered for the tool he invented later in life. A pulaski is still standard issue for wildland firefighters.

The Big Burn changed America’s attitude toward forest fires dramatically.

There was already a strong antifire sentiment in the Department of Agriculture. Bernhard Fernow, who ran the USDA’s forestry division from 1886 to 1898, blamed wildfires on “bad habits and loose morals.” Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, said they “encourage a spirit of lawlessness.”

After 1910, fire became the enemy, to be fought by an army called the U.S. Forest Service. Congress poured money into the agency’s fire-suppression efforts—even today, more than half its budget goes toward fighting fires—just in time for a run of large fires in the 1930s.

The Tillamook Burn, a series of four enormous fires between 1931 and 1951, destroyed over five hundred square miles of Oregon’s coastal forests. In 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, a wildfire in Griffith Park in Los Angeles killed twenty-nine men from a road crew, called on—and in some cases forced—to fight the fire for forty cents an hour.

The new head of the Forest Service, a survivor of the Big Burn named Gus Silcox, decreed that all forest fires should be controlled by 10 A.M. the day after they started. The problem was that wildfires usually started in such remote areas that they grew large before anyone could get in to fight them.

In August 1937, a lightning strike in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest sparked a fire that went undetected for two days. By the time crews arrived, it had grown from two acres to two hundred. The Blackwater Fire eventually exploded into a firestorm that killed fifteen firefighters and injured thirty-eight more.

There had to be a better way to get men on a small fire, no matter how remote it was, without making them slog for miles over mountain trails carrying heavy equipment.

Although fixed-wing airplanes and modern parachutes were both barely more than thirty years old, World War I had spurred quick development in both. In the 1920s and 1930s, American foresters experimented with dropping water and chemicals on fires from airplanes, using everything from paper bags to beer kegs.

The idea of parachuting men in to fight forest fires originally came in 1934 from T. V. Pearson, an intermountain regional forester in Ogden, Utah. A professional parachutist even made a successful demonstration jump. Still, the higher-ups weren’t convinced. This was the barnstorming era, and anything related to airplanes—let alone jumping out of them—was considered crackpot at best.

One memo said the Forest Service had “no hankering to assume the responsibility for men risking their lives in any such undertaking,” since “all parachute jumpers are more or less crazy.”

That didn’t discourage David P. Godwin, the assistant chief of USFS Division of Fire Control, who was heading up the Forest Service’s Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project. When the aerial bombing experiments didn’t work, Godwin decided to use the leftover funding to try firefighting by parachute. The project was moved to a small dirt airstrip outside of Winthrop, Washington, in 1939.

The tiny lumber town in the Methow Valley of the North Cascades already had been a center for training fire personnel and had a variety of extremely rugged terrain nearby for testing. If parachute firefighting could work here, the thinking went, it could work anywhere.

That October, a team of sixteen foresters and parachutists started experimenting with parachutes. The first drops from the plane used 150-pound test dummies strapped to thirty-foot silk canopies made by the Eagle Parachute Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They used the first USFS aircraft, a Stinson SR-10 Reliant, for the experimental jumps.

Then it was time for the volunteers. Seven of the eleven jumpers had never jumped before. A few had never even been up in a plane.

The jumpers wore two-piece padded canvas suits and leather football helmets fitted with wire face masks to guard them from sharp tree branches. Wide leather belts and athletic supporters protected their spines and soft parts, respectively. They laced leather ankle braces over stout logger boots, and each man wore a twenty-seven-foot backup chute in a chest pack and carried a rope for rappelling out of trees.

The team included the Derry brothers—Frank, Chet, and Virgil—and Francis Lufkin, a fire guard with the Forest Service who had originally been hired to help the parachutists get down out of trees. The other jumpers started razzing Lufkin—how could he climb a tree but not jump out of a plane? He took it as a dare, one thing led to another, and soon he was suited up to jump too.

In six weeks in October and November, the crew made fifty-eight successful jumps into the Chelan (now Okanogan) National Forest, including the first jumps into timber. They jumped from two thousand to six thousand feet and landed in open meadows and on steep slopes littered with boulders.

When they pulled their rip cords, the chutes opened with a bang that could be heard five miles away. But there were only minor injuries—a twisted knee, a branch-scraped face—and every jumper walked away from the landing ready to fight a fire.

The next step was to find one. For the 1940 fire season, thirteen jumpers from Winthrop and Seeley Lake, Montana, were stationed at Moose Creek, Idaho. They all had to be men with wildland firefighting experience, between twenty-one and twenty-five years old. They received ten days of classroom and physical training and a salary of $193 per month, with no overtime or hazard pay. Johnson’s Flying Service, a private contractor based in Missoula, supplied the planes and pilots.

On July 12, 1940, just thirty-seven years after the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, Earl Cooley and Rufus Robinson made the first fire jump in U.S. history.

It was a small lightning fire in the Nez Perce National Forest. The winds were so high they probably shouldn’t have jumped. Cooley’s chute came out of his pack tangled. It barely opened in time to deposit him in a spruce tree, ninety feet up.

Then the spotter almost fell out when the plane hit an air pocket.

Nevertheless, Cooley and Robinson made it to the ground safely and had the fire under control by the following morning. The next fire jump came two weeks later, and then Francis Lufkin and Glenn Smith made the first fire jumps in Winthrop that August. By the end of the season, smokejumpers had put out nine fires in Washington, Idaho, and Montana, saving an estimated $30,000.

Since the program’s entire budget was $9,047, that qualified it as a major success.

Two jump bases were in operation by the end of 1940. One was at the Ninemile Training Camp in Missoula. The other was in the Methow Valley in Washington’s North Cascades: the Winthrop base which would later be named the North Cascades Smokejumper Base (NCSB). In 1941, jumpers put out nine fires and the program seemed primed for expansion.

That December the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

World War II could easily have spelled the end of smokejumping. Everything the program required, the armed forces needed more urgently: young men, aircraft, funding, even silk parachutes.

So many jumpers entered the military that the only way to keep the program afloat was to train conscientious objectors, many of them Mennonites and Quakers.

Luckily for us, the enemy turned forest fires into a matter of national security.

Over a period of six months in 1944 and 1945, roughly ninety-three hundred fûsen bakudan, or “balloon bombs,” lifted off from a beach on Honshu, Japan. Each balloon was thirty-three feet in diameter, made of laminated mulberry paper filled with hydrogen, and carried up to a thousand pounds of incendiary devices or explosives suspended underneath.

They were designed to ride the high-altitude jet stream across the Pacific, with automatic altitude controls. After three days, when they would likely be over the United States, a timer dropped the bomb to spread fear and fire. In the war effort, wood went to everything from packing crates to gunstocks, making our forests huge strategic natural reserves.

The balloons may have been the first intercontinental weapons ever used, the warfare equivalent of a Hail Mary pass. About three hundred of them turned up from Alaska to Mexico and as far east as Michigan. The government tried to keep them out of the news, to avoid panic and to keep the Japanese from knowing whether they were effective or not.

Only one actually started a fire. Another got tangled in the power lines of the Hanford Engineer Works in Washington, which produced the plutonium for the atomic bomb used at Nagasaki. It caused a power outage but didn’t explode.

To counter the threat, the army turned to the all-black 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, otherwise known as the Triple Nickles. These three hundred brave African American men went through parajumper training and were sent all the way to Europe—where they weren’t allowed to fight because of their race.

Instead, the Triple Nickles were sent back home and retrained as smokejumpers, with a focus on finding and disposing of the balloon bombs. The same day they boarded the train to Oregon for training, a third balloon bomb exploded in southern Oregon, killing a pregnant woman and five children on a Sunday school outing. They were the only fatalities caused by the enemy in the continental United States during the entire war.

As part of the Firefly Project, the Triple Nickles made more than twelve hundred fire jumps and worked on thirty-six forest fires in the Pacific Northwest. They found a few bombs, too. Private First Class Malvin L. Brown, who died after a fall during a tree letdown, was the first smokejumper fatality.

Their efforts made smokejumping one of the first racially integrated jobs in America. Still, the men of the 555th weren’t allowed in many bars, hotels, or restaurants. They were denied live ammo for rifle training and forbidden from mingling with white soldiers, which even enemy POWs could do.

The battalion was eventually absorbed into the 82nd Airborne shortly before President Harry Truman ordered the U.S. military desegregated in 1948. The Triple Nickles served in more airborne units, in peace and war, than any other parachute group in history.

THE WAR YEARS SPURRED improvements in jump gear. Chet Derry, one of the first jumpers, worked with his brother Frank to invent a better chute. In 1941, with the increasing shortage of Asian silk due to the Japanese invasion of Asia, the Forest Service turned to procuring nylon parachutes from the military—rejects that did not meet military contract specs. Chet and Frank modified the flat circular parachute by creating two slots (openings) which provided improved performance and steerability. The Derry slotted chute was easier to control and opened more gently, better for both canopy and jumper.

A static line system, where parachutes are deployed automatically by a line attached inside the plane, was developed so jumpers wouldn’t have to worry about rip cords. (The first smokejumper static line was a fifteen-foot mule halter rope Earl Cooley found in a corral.)

A somewhat more refined version was in heavy use on the night of June 5, 1944, over northern France. The first part of the Normandy invasion consisted of a wave of paratroopers from the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, over thirteen thousand men, who parachuted behind German lines the night before the beach landings.

Four years earlier, Major William C. Lee had visited the jumper training camp at Seeley Lake, Montana. He was impressed and used much of what he saw when he created the 101st Airborne Division in 1942 and commanded it as a major general.

Together with the 82nd Airborne, the 101st played a critical role in the success of D-day. Medical issues kept Lee from making the jump over Normandy himself, but some of his troops yelled his name when they jumped: “Bill Lee!”

Jumpers still do occasionally, out of respect.

By the end of the war, 220 trained jumpers were stationed in Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. The age range was expanded to be eighteen to thirty-five and included many former World War II paratroopers.

The jump program had survived the war and was starting to gain national attention. Four Missoula jumpers flew to Washington, D.C., to make a demonstration jump on the White House lawn, a stunt to signal the launch of a new forest fire prevention campaign. Things were looking up.

Then on August 5, 1949, disaster struck in a remote Montana canyon whose name would become part of firefighting history: Mann Gulch.