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The men who jump into fire

Smokejumpers are legendary in the American West, and a man who was present at two of the most important moments in smokejumpers' history died last week. Earl Cooley was the second man to leap from an airplane and parachute into a burning forest in the U.S., with the task of scraping a barrier around the fire and thus containing it until a crew of firefighters could walk in and finish the job.

1st fire jump, 1940,Moose Creek,r-l Rufus Robinson,Frank Derry, Earl Coole.jpgMr. Cooley was just behind Rufus Robinson, the first man out the door of the plane. In this photo, taken just before that July 12, 1940 jump, Robinson is on the left, Cooley on the right and Frank Derry, the parachute rigger, is between them. They're in front of the Johnson Flying Service plane that would soon carry Robinson and Cooley to Idaho's Nez Perce forest.

Smokejumpers are fast and efficient, and they save the U.S. government millions of dollars by preventing small fires from becoming big, expensive fires. They have a lot of injuries, but few deaths, which is amazing when you think about the experience of jumping out of plane into often-unknown terrain that is burning and unpredictable. They weren't the first in the world to try this dangerous work; that honor goes to the Soviet Union, which began experimenting in the 1930s. But the job is unpredictable, as Cooley's description of the first jump shows.

The lack of predictability is what killed 13 men on the Mann Gulch fire in 1949. Mr. Cooley was the spotter on the plane for that one, choosing the drop zone for the firefighters and signaling to them when to jump. It was a complex and tragic episode and I know of no better meditation on it than Norman Maclean's "Young Men and Fire." Maclean, best known for his earlier "A River Runs Through It and Other Stories," died before he fully finished the Mann Gulch book but it doesn't matter; Alan G Thomas of the University of Chicago Press edited the book into readable form and it is well worth your time.

The disaster at Mann Gulch stood for 45 years as the nadir of smokejumping history until the South Canyon fire (also known as the Storm King fire) in Colorado killed 14 wildland firefighters, including smokejumpers, hotshots and other ground-based firefighters. Norman Maclean's son, John N. Maclean, wrote the authoritative book on that disaster, "Fire on the Mountain."

I covered a number of fires when I was a reporter in Montana many years ago, and I still remember watching a plane carrying fire retardant crash into a mountain, and seeing the remains of it the next day. That particular story deepened my respect for all those who battle fire in the mountains. If you're ever in Missoula, Montana, stop by the smokejumper center on the west end of town, near the airport. Take a tour and consider the courage of the men and women who work so close to the edge.

By Patricia Sullivan  |  November 15, 2009; 11:16 AM ET
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Pat: Thanks for reminding a wider readership of smokejumpers and their importance, especially in the West. More of us in Missoula, Montana, know of their work because it's a matter of local pride, and many of us know a smokejumper or two, It's an elite corps of smart, brave, young men and women and it's a calling that's not likely to go out of style, as more people move into the wildland-urban interface.

Posted by: 1cpw | November 15, 2009 6:02 PM | Report abuse

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