On my way to Billings, Montana, I passed through the Hysham wildfire. The plume of smoke it created could be seen for many miles before the eye-stinging, breath stealing reality of the fire actually occurred on the road. Hysham consumed 500 acres between I-94 and the Yellowstone River in rough terrain. The Department of Natural Resources responded with a helicopter and a fire-retardant dumping plane. The local volunteer fire department also helped. Smokejumpers were not needed.
The next day I was in Missoula, Montana, re-visiting the Smokejumpers Base Aerial Fire Depot located just west of its airport. Like an idled fire engine, a DC-3 was outside and ready to take off should a small forest fire erupt. The smokejumpers hanging out or doing chores seemed a bit bored while awaiting a call to action. When not fighting small wilderness fires probably started in a forest by lightning or on assignment aiding the sustained suppression of a larger fire, they work at the base getting ready. Except for their parachutes, they make everything they use including jumpsuits and harnesses. The ready-to-grab pack out bags can weigh up to 120 pounds and must be carried back to civilization after the fire is contained. Smokejumpers are picked up when the fire is out only in Alaska. Physical fitness is expected of the 62 men and 5 women who, if they last 10 years on the job, tend to make more than 200 jumps. They must prove at all times that they are capable of carrying 110 pounds over 3 miles in 90 minutes. Parachutes come in 3 sizes and are good for 10 jumps or 10 years. The most interesting rooms to me were the parachute drying and folding rooms. The museum part of the base where visitors wait for a tour could use some updating.
Wildfires roared through The West in 1910 and 4 million acres burned. Most were in remote areas and local firefighters didn’t have resources to fight them. That’s when the idea of parachuting in to quickly deal with small fires before they became major conflagrations was born. However, it wasn’t until 1939 that the 1st smoke jumping organization formed in Winthrop, Washington, which is currently near wild fires that have destroyed about 300 homes and been judged the biggest in this State’s history. Missoula’s Fire Depot was authorized in 1952 and dedicated in 1954 by President Eisenhower.
This Smokejumpers Base Aerial Fire Depot is now one of nine but the only facility offering tours to travelers. Its Visitor Center is only oppened from Memorial Day until Labor Day. Tours are given from 8:30 am until 5 pm with the last one starting at 4. This is the one Ruth and I were on, and it was crowded. The interest level never dipped. I believe its safe to say that this is Missoula’s biggest and best summer tourist attraction.