Original Smoke Jumper

Safe landing

Typically it takes me a week to fully read the Sunday edition of the New York Times. I buy it in the morning, before brunch, and usually have Sunday Styles and the Week in Review finished by the time I go to sleep that night. On Monday I typically read the A pages and the sports. Tuesday may be the arts and business, travel on Wednesday, the NYT magazine on Thursday or Friday and then the Book Review on Saturday. Its tough because I’m simultaneously reading the NYT online, blogs, magazines, and books. What I read in the Sunday Times sometimes sends me to the internet for more information. I rip out the article and bring it to the computer. That was certainly the case this week, with the obituary of Earl Cooley.

Earl Cooley, who died at age 98, was hailed as the original smoke jumper. Smoke jumpers are firefighters who parachute into remote areas to combat wildfires. Earl Cooley was one of the first two Americans to do this, back in 1940. Until his first 10 practice jumps, Mr. Cooley had never been in an airplane. “Our training consisted of a man saying: ‘This is your parachute. You know what fire is. We jump tomorrow.’ Earl Cooley was aware of how regular folks might perceive smoke jumpers. He carried around a written copy of a statement by Evan Kelley, a regional forester, that said, “The best information I can get from fliers is 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.”

Smoke jumper

Men who jump smoke generally find themselves alone in the wilderness. They stop fires with shovels, chainsaws, portable pumps and polaskis. This strikes me as awfully brave. The image of a human being parachuting into a forest fire would probably have seemed strange hundreds of years ago, and yet many of the survival strategies employed by smoke jumpers are hundreds if not thousands of years old. When a smoke jumper cannot outrun a fire, they strike a match and light up the vegetation around them. This is called an escape fire. The smoke jumper then lays face down in the cleared area, in the hope that the larger fire will jump over them. Although probably a Native American practice, this technique first entered the public mind after the Mann Gulch fire in 1949.

The Mann Gulch fire was the worst disaster in the history of smoke jumping. Twelve smoke jumpers perished in the Helena National Forest, in Montana, near what Lewis and Clark named the Gates of the Rocky Mountains. That day, Earl Cooley had the job of selecting the spot where the parachutists were dropped. He made his calculations based on the best information available. All the men who jumped that day were Earl’s friends. The winds shifted, and the fire swept over them, fifteen minutes after the team landed. Two men escaped through a crevice to a rocky area with little vegetation. Foreman Wagner Dodge lit an escape fire, and called out to the other smoke jumpers to join him but his words were lost. Everyone else died.

The crosses

Earl notified his friends’ families. He crafted steel crosses for each of the fallen, reinforced with steel, and placed them at the location where each man died. Every year he made the arduous journey deep into the mountains to make sure that the crosses were safe and standing. Earl did this until well into his eighties, and even after his body gave out to rest, his mind continued to carry the weight. “I am sure I did the right thing that day, but I still look at that map and have thought about it every day since then,” Mr. Cooley said in an interview with the Rocky Mountain News in 1994.

Needless to say, Earl Cooley’s obituary struck a chord with me. To my mind, smoke jumping is kind of the flip side of the coin to pictures of the people jumping from the burning World Trade Center. This was featured in the Esquire article, The Falling Man, and later a documentary. Its an image of a man headfirst diving towards the pavement, the lines of the WTC in high contrast. To me the picture is about conditions so unendurable that certain death is a grace. Smoke jumping turns this logic on its head. The conditions are becoming unendurable so the only grace is to jump on the fire itself. That, Earl Cooley, is called audacity.

One thought on “Original Smoke Jumper

  1. Snow Ball says:

    Wilderness, that Esquire article has obviously made a big impression on you. I am not a fan of it. I am, however, more of a fan of parachute jumping.

    Hope that your reading material is very good this week.

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