It’s mid June and the Smokejumper Base is bustling with preparatory activity. I popped over there for a tour this morning and saw men at sewing machines stitching together equipment for the jumps, others airing out used parachutes—checking them for damage—and one smokejumper saying goodbye to his wife and baby daughter before heading down to Arizona, where fire season is already underway. Over the course of this week alone, there have been tourists from Germany, France, Australia, and Bhutan, and then of course some of our fellow states—Wyoming, New Jersey, California, for instance. There’s really never a dull moment at the base. It’s like watching history in action, and every time I passed a smokejumper it felt a little bit like seeing Mickey Mouse when I went to Disneyworld as a kid, except that these guys (and girls—10% of the approximately 400 smokejumpers working in the US are women!) are national heroes and tremendous athletes. They understand the way that fire moves in a way that I never could—sounds kind of like magic. So, let’s dive into the smokejumper base tour and take another look at Fort Missoula’s own historic fire lookout!
Before the tour began, I spent a few minutes poking around the mock lookout in the Visitors’ Center. It was intimate—a simple bed, a small wood stove, narrow tables to store food and books, glass windows circling the entire room—and it felt familiar, probably because it reminds me of my friend Allison’s lookout in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I’ve never seen the lookout where she spent the last four summers (it’s a 30 mile hike just to get there, and then of course a 30 mile hike to get out again), but the pictures are spectacular and I’ve heard stories about it. Talk about beautiful isolation! I know that she used to mark the windows with dry erase markers during thunderstorms, so that she could track the lightning. That way, she would know where to watch for smoke and then she’d track the smoke on the Osborn, a circular map in the center of every lookout with a device that enables the lookout to locate the fire and call it in using exact location markers. Here’s a picture of her lookout – pretty spectacular!
Once Fire Management decides to fight a wild land fire and the Jump Base gets the phone call, the smokejumpers have a total of ten minutes to stop whatever it is they’re doing, get to the Ready Room, throw on all of their gear and board the plane before it takes off. If you think that seems like plenty of time, you might want to check out Manny, the Smokejumper manikin at the Visitors’ Center. He’s dressed in full jump gear—including a Kevlar suit, which is fire-proof and puncture-proof (in case Manny lands in a thicket of branches), a helmet with a cage over his face, a parachute, a back-up parachute, climbing spurs for climbing trees, 250 yards of rope, an emergency fire resistant shelter and a pack of other supplies. The Kevlar suits are just used for the jump; once on the ground, the smokejumpers wear nomex shirts and pants—fire resistant, but not fireproof. Even the fire shelters, developed by scientists, are not perfectly fireproof and they can’t save every life. The tents—made of aluminum foil and fiberglass—can withstand 500° of radial heat, but they can’t withstand direct flames. Caylin, our tour guide, pointed out that the Granite Mountain Hot Shots who died in Arizona last year had deployed the shelters as a last ditch safety measure, but that the fire was burning at 2000°.
After our preliminary introduction, we moved on into the Manufacturing Room, where the Smokejumpers make their own Kevlar suits (one suit might take about a week to finish) and other gear. Smokejumping is an amalgamation of skills and some of them are more humble than you’d imagine! Garrett, for instance, was sewing radio holsters together, but he’s also jumped in over 70 fires since he started at the base in 2001. I guess it’s not all guts and glory!
In the next room, the Parachute Tower, two smokejumpers were laying out a used parachute to carefully check for any damages. Generally, they will hang the parachutes from the ceiling to allow them to dry and to let any debris fall out. If there are damages to a parachute, it will be sent to the next room—the Parachute Loft—for repairs. The parachute loft was the busiest room today, filled with long tables for packing the ‘chutes. Smokejumpers generally pack their own parachutes, but in order to do so, they have to first successfully pack 20 parachutes and 20 back-up parachutes, which are inspected by a master rigger. To achieve master rigger status, they have to back another 100 parachutes. That’s a lot of hours! Here’s a fun holdover from history: each parachute is re-packed every 180 days as a safety measure. The parachutes, now nylon, were once made of silk, so the smokejumpers had to periodically check them for moth holes as well as any tears that developed along the folds. Probably my favorite part of the Parachute Loft, though, was the taxidermy. Caylin told us that the wives of the smokejumpers didn’t want the taxidermy at home, so the guys stored it in the loft. She admitted that the story might be apocryphal, so be warned before you spread that rumor!
The last stop on our tour was the Ready Room, which basically looks like a locker room but instead of football helmets and shoulder pads, you’ve got intense fire resistant boots, Kevlar suits, parachutes, enough dry food for two to three days, and other equipment (including a helmet that may or may not function like a football helmet). Instead of stickers that say “Go Griz!” you’ve got bumper stickers that say “I LOVE SPAM,” an enormous thank you card from an elementary school, and a flyer for specially priced massages for smokejumpers. Instead of a tunnel to the turf, the EXIT leads to the tarmac, where one of three planes would be waiting to take the smokejumpers into the fire. Sometimes, the planes are there for visitors to see, but today they were in the hangar….bummer!
After taking off from the Smokejumping Base (in my car, sadly, not the Sherpa, or the Twin Otter, or even the slower DC-3 plane used to carry smokejumpers from the base) I headed back to Fort Missoula to check out the lookout on the grounds here. The Sliderock Lookout was built in 1933—which seems to be kind of the heyday of lookout construction—and was subsequently moved from Lolo National Forest in 1983. Visitors are welcome to walk up the rickety stairs and take a look inside, where you can see the Osborn situated prominently in the middle of the room. On a high shelf, there are cans of food, including SPAM. It seems like SPAM is a pretty long tradition in the Forest Service. In fact, every year there is a competition among the rookies at the base to see who can develop the best SPAM-based recipe. I don’t know about you, but I would definitely lose that one. Apparently a woman won with SPAM sushi last year!
Miller Creek Guard Cabin (built circa 1910) is just next to the lookout and it contains a brief history of the Forest Service Lookouts and early photographs owned by the USDA. The lookout system developed as a reaction to the devastating fire of 1910 and by the 1920s, the familiar one-room lookouts were popping up across the western United States. A highlight, for me, was recognizing the St. Mary lookout cabin from an old black and white photo! Here’s a picture I took of that cabin last summer (with the windows boarded up), and here’s the one from the 1960’s:
I hope you enjoyed this little synopsis of the Smokejumper Base tour! Even more importantly, I hope you can make it out to Fort Missoula and to the base to check out the history and the living history of smokejumping for yourself. Stay tuned to find out what it’s like to man a lookout today and to explore some of our archival material on the Great Fire of 1910!