Smokejumpers changed the way we fight wildfires — and it all started in Methow Valley | KNKX

Smokejumpers changed the way we fight wildfires — and it all started in Methow Valley

Jul 9, 2019

The men and women who fight wildland fires have to be prepared for everything. Many of the people who sign up as recruits have never been in a wildfire in their lives. Others have experience as hot shots or smokejumpers. And that got us thinking: where did the idea come from to jump out of a plane and into a fire? The answer: Central Washington.

In the simplest terms: smokejumpers hop from planes, land on the ground and work to keep small fires from becoming destructive ones.

The idea originated in 1934 with a guy named T.V. Pearson, says Daren Belsby, manager of North Cascades Smokejumper Base — the birthplace of smokejumping. There had been massive fires out west in the early 1900s, Belsy said, which tested the abilities of the newly-created U.S. Forest Service.

And, he added, the development of aircraft likely put the idea into Pearson’s head.

“I’m sure by ’34, I think when T.V. Pearson proposed it, he’s like ‘well, gosh, what if we could deliver the manpower actually to the ground with some equipment when the fires are much more easily fightable when they’re smaller than an acre,'” Belsby said.

Initially, concerns over firefighter safety put the plan on hold. But five years later, the idea was revived. The Forest Service identified Winthrop, in the Methow Valley, as the location to get the idea off the ground in fall of 1939 — a spot that became the North Cascades Smokejumper Base.

“They did, I think, 58 jumps with no major injuries, built a lot of equipment to adapt to landing in trees and in remote areas," Belsby said. "And proved it to be successful that they could deliver personnel to these remote areas.”

A smokejumper lands in the woods using a parachute.
Credit Courtesy of Daren Belsby

They worked on protective suits and face masks, as well as ways to safely carry equipment in and out of a fire. After working out a few kinks, the first fire jump happened the following year in Idaho. Many more have followed.

But if you ask Belsby, the development of the smokejumper program has contributed more than just fighting fire. The lessons learned in the small, grass airstrip in the Methow Valley were put to the test during World War II. Belsby calls the historical timing “fortuitous.”

“To think that in September of ’39, Hitler goes into Poland. And then in the middle of nowhere, this little experiment takes place that is successful,” he said. “And then the very next year, William C. Lee, who will be the founding father of the U.S. Paramilitary Program, comes to I believe it was Seeley Lake at that time to where they were training in the Missoula area. And observes what the Forest Service is doing and supposedly copies those techniques and takes them back to open Fort Benning and begin the U.S. Paratrooping Program.”

Belsby says he can’t exactly prove that’s how it happened, since they weren’t keeping detailed journals at the time. But the coincidence is too strong for him to ignore.

Sarah Berns feels the same way. She's now a former smokejumper, who initially got involved with the Forest Service to make some quick money for a film she was making for her senior thesis in college.

Berns was based out of Grangeville, Idaho, during her career and now calls the Methow Valley home. After several summers and a lot of time spent researching the history of the program, she became dedicated to the idea of becoming a smokejumper.

"The birth of smokejumping happened in a time and place in this country where the politics were super unstable and tensions were brewing in Europe and FDR was president here and there's isolationists," Berns said. "I definitely feel honored to be part of a program that I believe ultimately altered the course of the world's history in terms of the parachute development that happened in Winthrop, Washington, and aided the birth of the 101st Airborne."

Sarah Berns prepares for a jump.
Credit Courtesy of Sarah Berns

In addition to the historical significance, Berns says she was drawn to the variety of experiences and the ability to jump into areas of the Northwest that were wild and untouched by humans.

"You're not going to jump on areas where tourists and backpackers (are),” Berns said. “You're going to wildnerness areas or forest lands that are not generally visited, and haven't been visited for a very long time. So you get to have these really beautiful wildnerness moments where you can look 360 degrees and not see a sign of mankind or another human."

Belsby, the base manager, says programs don’t accept just any adrenaline junky. North Cascades Smokejumper Base, for example, works hard to vet its rookies. Wannabees are pushed to their physical and emotional limits to see how well they handle any given situation.

“And particularly with a group of people, you’ll see it’ll bring out emotions like some people start to blame other people,” Belsby said. “We’re pretty critical of how people react to those difficult situations. Because we’re so remote and have no support that it’s critical that everyone can solve problems, or keep themselves from getting into problems because you’re not going to get any more help than yourselves.”   

Daren Belsby after fighting a wildfire.
Credit Courtesy of Daren Belsby

Belsby says this job is more about determination and humility than thrill-seeking and what he calls “macho behavior.” And he has some advice for the rest of us.

“I think everyone should have to go through smokejumper rookie training and be thrown out of an airplane and have to dig a little line around a fire,” he said. “It would do them a lot of good.”