From the mid-1960s until the mid-1970s, Jim Darr of Redwood Falls spent his summers out west working for the forest service. Early on he found what he believed was the role he wanted to fulfill – smoke jumper.
“I applied, but you needed two years of firefighting experience. I only had one,” Darr said, adding that is when he took on a role as part of a newly created hotshot crew.
There he found other members of his former crew who apparently had the same idea.
Darr worked that entire summer, which was a slow one.
“I think we had two fires all summer,” said Darr, adding that meant doing other work, such as walking into forested areas and clear cutting spaces that had been logged and much of the trash left behind - the kind of material that was fuel for fires. “I got a lot of chain saw experience that summer.”
Darr, who primarily worked out of Missoula, Mont., said as time went on the number of smoke jumpers increased, so that at one time there were up to 250 who were serving in that role.
As the 60s ended and the 70s began the number started to decline.
Naturally, prior to Darr ever getting in the forest in the role as a smoke jumper he had to be trained to do it.
“We had four weeks of training. Half of the time we were learning to parachute and the other half was fire control,” Darr explained.
The job of a smoke jumper is to get to the fire while it is still small and then to work to control it.
In the early days, lookout towers were set up throughout a forested area, and from those lookout towers the fires were spotted.
“They would see the smoke curls,” said Darr.
Most often the fires were started by what Darr called dry lightning – when there would be lightning in the sky but no rain would fall.
When smoke was discovered a crew would be dispatched.
Prior to smoke jumping, those fighting fires might have to walk all night to get to a fire. Then, often tired from the trek, the crew would have to start their efforts to fight the fire. When a smoke jumper was able to get to a site by plane and then could parachute into the area, they were fresh.
Darr said he flew in a variety of planes from what were known as the Twin Beech all the way up to the DC-3.
Darr said most of the planes were World War II vintage and were refurbished to fill the role for the forest service.
Depending on the plane being used, jumps would either be done from a door on the right side of the plane or from the back.
Darr said the jumpers did not jump out of planes and pull a rip cord as one might typically see. Rather they would use what was called a static line.
Jumpers would typically drop from about 1,000 feet, with the plane making a number of passes prior to the actual jump to find a place for the drop to take place.
Prior to making a jump, Darr said weighted crepe paper would be dropped from the plane in an effort to gauge the wind and to determine the best time for the jumpers to go.
In addition to the jumpers, equipment would be dropped from the plane. Darr said the plane would often descend to about 200 feet for that drop.
Darr said he made more than 100 jumps during his time as a smoke jumper, adding not every jump is an ideal one.
Yes, he said, there are times when one might get stuck in a tree. Jumpers were prepared for those situations, as they would be carrying a cord that was 100 feet in length. The jumper would connect that cord to their body with some D-rings and then attach it securely, so that they could use it to slide down to the ground.
Once on the ground, the jumpers would secure their equipment, including their parachute and then would find the fire.
The chute Darr primarily used was an FS3A which was orange and white stripped. Darr said it looked like a piece of candy as it fell.
The jump suit was made of a heavy nylon, and Darr said they also wore the equivalent of a football helmet.
The major tool of the smoke jumper was known as a pulaski, explained Darr. The tool looked similar to an axe, but on the other side of the head it included an adze which was used for digging. The jumpers also had a small sand shovel.
At a fire the work of the smoke jumper was to dig a line around the fire removing any material and getting down to the mineral soil.
The crew would work side by side in an area and would move around the fire in what Darr called a leap frog method. As a jumper would finish an area, he would move up the line and each other crew member would subsequently move as well.
Darr said it was essential to check for heat as well, as he said that a fire can smolder underground for a significant period of time and then start up again.
When in Alaska, Darr said he learned that the permafrost, if it is dry, can act in the same way.
Darr ended his time as a smoke jumper in 1975 when he started a family.
“When you are young you feel immortal,” Darr said, adding as time goes on priorities change.
Darr is one of more than 5,000 current and retired smoke jumpers, and every five years he makes a trip west to take part in a reunion.
The smoke jumper program celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2009.
As one talks to Darr about his time as a smoke jumper it is easy to see he is proud of the time he served in that role. The license plate on his pickup is also a pretty good indicator.
“It really was a fantastic experience,” he said.