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The Blackwater Fire: How Smokejumpers were Born

In 1937, a lightning bolt struck a tree just outside of Yellowstone National Park in the Shoshone National Forest. For most, this was simply an act of nature. However, this event would become a catalyst to the creation of an elite firefighting profession. What started as a small 2 acre burn would violently shift with harsh wind conditions and eventually spread across 1700 acres, claiming the lives of 15 firefighters in what is known as the Blackwater Fire.

The Historical Significance of the Blackwater Fire

The Blackwater Fire Map

In the 1930s, firefighters did not have the privilege of remote communication or deployment which is integral to rapid response and wildfire containment. Additionally, given that The Blackwater Fire occurred two years before the world’s first practical helicopter was flown, supply and water drops were also out of the picture to fully sustain crews. 

What Happened at The Blackwater Fire

The Blackwater Fire ignited in a remote location and burned for nearly two days before it was noticed by a local hunting camp. At this point the fire was estimated to have covered around 2 acres; but by nightfall on the same day, the fire had grown to over 200 acres in size. Though dozens of CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) members had responded immediately, because of the fire's remote location, firefighters were unable to respond in an efficient manner and could only travel out on foot. By the time the fire was contained four days later, it had consumed nearly 1700 acres of land.

In addition to the challenges with location, severe weather and high winds caused a shift in direction, causing the fire to spread rapidly. The U.S. Forest Service was provided with information regarding severe weather warnings, but due to lack of radio communication they were unable to warn firefighters of the impending danger.

The Aftermath

Following the fire, the Assistant Chief of Fire Control for the US Forest Service at the time, David Godwin, led an investigation into what caused the fire to grow so rapidly. He concluded that the firefighters had done all they could and that the end result was simply out of their control. The result of the fire was due to the aforementioned challenges of response time, shifting weather conditions and inability to deploy more firefighters in an efficient manner; it needed to be mitigated much sooner, but this was just not possible with the current system. The investigation would lead to the proposal of an idea that would change the course of firefighting as we know it. He believed that “parachuting firefighters from airplanes as soon as fires were detected….would provide the fastest way to get firefighters in place before a fire raged out of control”.

As a result, Godwin authorized for the experimentation of parachuting from planes with the goal of fire suppression. This would lead to the creation of the Smokejumper program that initialized in Winthrop, Washington.

The Birth of Smokejumpers 

Today, smokejumpers are known as the most elite force of wildland firefighters, oftentimes with just 5% of applicants being selected for rookie training. Not to mention the strict requirements of extensive experience in wildland firefighting in order to become one.

Two years after the Blackwater Fire in 1939 and following Godwin's conclusion of the need for a more rapid response to wildfires, an experimental program of parachuting firefighters was launched in the Pacific Northwest. One year later in 1940, the first-ever "fire jump" was recorded. 

However, while the Blackwater fire seemed to serve as the catalyst to the creation of the Smokejumpers, the idea was first proposed in 1934 by T.V. Pearson who was at the time Regional Forester of the Intermountain Region. He suggested that parachuting “self-sufficient” firefighters (i.e. they won’t need extra supplies, etc) into these remote regions would be the most efficient way to mitigate a fire.

Smokejumpers prepping for deployment

Regardless of who said it first, the Smokejumper program truly originated in 1939 following Godwin's authorization to fund the parachuting experiments and it is still prevalent in today’s fire suppression techniques. Granted, in a large number of states, urban development has quickly expanded into what was previously rural land, thus giving life to the term "Wildland Urban Interface". As a result of urban expansion, data shows that over 90% of fires start just a mile off of the road with 85-90% of them being initiated by people and/or structures. However, a number of states like Montana, Washington, Colorado, and Alaska, to name a few, still retain a huge portion of remote land that is susceptible to wildfire and thus, require rapid intervention techniques.