Summer is here and that means the start of fire season. Missoula saw epic snowfall this year, which I hope means that the forest fires will be pretty moderate (is nonexistent asking too much?). Friends who work for the forest service, however, like the adrenaline rush of fire season and of course, there are other perks, aside from employment—wiping out beetle kill, for instance, and clearing the way for new forest growth. All in all, though, I’ll admit I don’t know that much about fighting forest fires and thus I decided to kick off this summer by visiting the Smoke Jumper Center, where my friend Caylin works as a tour guide.
Smokejumper and Plane, Ft Missoula Photo
Before heading out there, I got my hands dirty in the Fort Missoula archives. Not literally—dirty hands are antithetical to archival material—but I like going into new experiences with some kind of grounding. I always find that the more I know about something, the more curious I am to uncover all of its deepest, darkest secrets.
So…to the archives!
Fort Missoula houses one of the original programs distributed to guests on the day the Smokejumper Base was dedicated, September 22, 1954. Do the math—that makes this year the diamond anniversary of the base, or the “Aerial Fire Depot”! Construction began in the fall of 1952, but Missoula was a center for smokejumping even before Congress authorized the $700,000 for a new base. In fact, the previous year saw the release of “Red Skies of Montana,” a 20th Century Fox movie about the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, a fire that killed 12 smokejumpers. Filmed in Missoula, the movie featured real smokejumpers as extras.
The dedication program itself is pretty basic: a single sheet of paper folded in half, printed on both sides. On the front of the leaflet, we’re presented with a sketch of an aerial view of the base—very simple geometric buildings with flat roofs, one crowned by what looks like a wide smokestack but what is in fact the parachute tower, all surrounded by fifteen or so scattered trees. The lower half of the page gives the basic information, everything you might expect on a title page:
SMOKEJUMPERS’ BASE – AERIAL FIRE DEPOT
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
SEPTEMBER 22, 1954
Cool! Already, I’ve learned that the USFS is part of the Department of Agriculture. The bifolium opens up to a map of the grounds drawn horizontally across the entire leaf. To the west, there are three major buildings—the warehouse, the dormitory, and the parachute loft—and the “fire truck ambulance wrecker.” There’s an announcer platform, a refreshment stand, restrooms and even a first aid tent put up for the enormous crowd of 30,000 spectators. To the east, at the end of the drive into the base, there is the President’s Stand.
Which leads me to perhaps the most exciting part of the program. President Eisenhower actually flew in to the Smokejumper Base to give the dedication address! September 22, 1954, in fact, was so carefully scripted that the program specifies the arrival of the Presidential plane at 5:45 pm and the departure of the plane at 6:40 pm. During his hour on the ground, Eisenhower became the first and only President to be inducted as an honorary smokejumper, which seems appropriate as the USFS expanded significantly under his leadership.
Of course, there were other many things going on that day. Tours were conducted in the afternoon, followed by an air show and a 4:00 presentation of “smokejumpers in action” (both of which were probably much cooler than the speech, no offense Ike). Here’s a photo of the schedule:
This all left me with one question: what else was Eisenhower doing on September 22, 1954? I get it—the President is pretty important—but Missoula seems like a far destination for a visit lasting less than an hour. So, naturally, I looked up Eisenhower’s schedule on September 22 (which can be found at his Presidential Library or at UVA’s http://millercenter.org/scripps/archive/documents/dde/diary). What did I learn? That it would be exhausting to be the President of the United States! Here’s what he was up to:
The following day, Eisenhower had an official breakfast at 7:50 am, after which he dedicated the McNary Dam in Oregon.
A couple more fun facts:
- During its first summer in operation, the summer of 1955, the Missoula base supported a total of 126 jumps.
- Smokejumping was invented in 1939. That year might ring a bell for any movie buffs out there—it’s considered Hollywood’s greatest. Gone with the Wind, the Wizard of Oz, Of Mice and Men, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—those were just a few of the titles up for Best Picture.
- Today, there are nine USFS bases scattered across the west. Missoula is host to the largest, with about 70 smokejumpers working here now.
The Fort contains a huge amount of information on fighting fire in and around Missoula, including a corner of the current exhibition, Growing the Garden City, which details the earliest structural fire department (come check it out!). And so I think I’ll dive into fire fighting for a while, soak up the history of Montana fires and allow you to do the same. Stay tuned for a brief synopsis of my visit to the Smokejumper Center and a post about what it’s like to be a lookout!
It is fire season, after all.