Smokejumping started in 1939 in the Methow Valley as an experiment: Can we put parachutes on firefighters and drop them from planes over fires?
What seemed to some people at the time as “a hare-brained and risky scheme” — a quotation attributed to U.S. Forest Service Forester Evan Kelley — became “the greatest job in the world,” as one jumper famously put it.
Fifty-eight practice jumps were launched from a dirt airstrip at what is now the North Cascades Smokejumper Base (NCSB) in the fall of 1939. The only casualty was a single twisted knee. Jumpers landed successfully in a variety of terrain, from steep, rocky slopes to heavy timber to open meadows.
Since its inception in the Methow Valley, smokejumping has developed a colorful history of heroics, tragedy and political intrigue. Much of that history was on display in an exhibit of the National Smokejumper Association’s northwest traveling museum, shown over four days earlier this month in Building 9 at the TwispWorks campus.
Lots of stories
What couldn’t be gleaned from the displays themselves could be heard in the stories told by John Doran, 67, a former smokejumper who is now the traveling museum’s custodian. Doran presided over the exhibit all four days, Aug. 16-17 and 23-24, and was more than willing to share stories with the steady stream of visitors.
For instance, smokejumpers trained military paratroopers in the 1940s and the CIA in the 1950s. Smokejumping techniques were incorporated by Special Forces units and the 82nd Airborne Division.
NCSB base manager Bill Moody took part in a cultural exchange with smokejumpers from the Soviet Union, with Moody making two jumps in Siberia. The Soviets may not have known at the time that smokejumpers had participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the “secret war” in Laos more than a decade earlier.
Doran, who grew up in Twisp, told of the time he trained Special Forces paratroopers in equine combat, after the Sept. 11 attacks. While out in the Cascades, Doran said he would point out to Special Forces personnel the places where smokejumpers had landed.
The Special Forces elites thought smokejumpers must be crazy, Doran said.
The exhibit included a section describing the smokejumpers’ training regimen and physical requirements. They had to hike a 110-pound pack 3 miles within 90 minutes. They also had to get comfortable with the sensation of jumping and landing with a parachute.
Landing definitely took some practice, Doran explained.
“Landing with a parachute feels like a fall from 15 feet,” he told museum visitors on Saturday (Aug. 24).
Doran got his rookie training at NCSB in 1972 and made 82 jumps over three seasons. He broke his leg and foot on his 82nd jump, which would be his last. After healing, Doran was took his enthusiasm for firefighting to the Wenatchee Fire Department, which he served for 15 years.
Doran’s three seasons as a smokejumper has stayed with him for a lifetime. Get him talking about smokejumping, and Doran might tell you a story not found in any museum exhibit.
“About 90 percent of the smokejumper stories can’t be told,” he joked.