America’s largest active training center for smokejumpers and the biggest smokejumpers museum is located in Missoula, Montana.
Smokejumpers earn their paychecks by going to the most hellacious places at the most hellacious times. Parachuting to the periphery of wildfires deep in isolated wilderness without roads, and then battling the furious blazes with not much more than some equipment and gear dropped from above, smokejumpers are toughness, ego, adrenaline, and personal peril personified. The drive, desire and determination required to put oneself in great physical danger is not an easy thing to understand for most people, but it is, undoubtedly, the key to smokejumpers’ success.
The country’s largest active training facility for smokejumpers is located on the outskirts of paradisiacal Missoula, Montana. Refurbished in 1992, the Smokejumpers’ Visitor Center at the depot offers simplified displays, murals, dioramas and videos connected to the seventy-five-year history of fire suppression techniques. Guided tours include visits to the parachute loft and training headquarters.
Presently 85 smokejumpers, men and women, ranging in age from their early twenties to late fifties, exert themselves at the base. These risky, distinguished individuals, soaring through the air angelically, are important national resources. Jumpers, who work from approximately June 1 through October, trek all over the country, from California to Alaska. They provide savvy, practiced skills for swift, initial attacks on far-off, wildland fires. Fire fighting gear and provisions are released by parachute to the smokejumpers as they set up operation close to the flames. Smokejumpers are remarkably noted for self-sustainment for the first 48 hours.
Seven miles west of town, adjacent to Johnson-Bell Airport, the Smokejumpers’ Visitor Center provides a unique chance to learn about and understand this extraordinarily dangerous air-delivered occupation. The tour includes a visit to the National Smokejumper Memorial, a look inside a replica of a 1930s Forest Service lookout tower, and a perusal of the smokejumper loft, where the smokejumpers lounge or labor when not battling blazes. The visit also allows for the exploration of the ready room and load masters’ room, where smokejumpers plan and set up for fire calls.
At the Smokejumpers’ Museum, we learn that smokejumping was first conceptualized by a Forest Service Inter-mountain Regional Forester named T.V. Pearson in the 1930s . He projected that a willing band of men could be utilized as a method to speedily provide initial assault on forest fires. By dropping in via parachute, the self-reliant group could arrive ready and able for the backbreaking duty and hardy terrain ahead. We, too, learn that the history of actual smokejumping officially got underway as a conduct test in the Pacific Northwest Region in 1939, and the original fire leap was carried out on Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest’s Northern Region in 1940 .
Over 270 smokejumpers are working (and risking their lives) from Forest Service smokejumper stations. In addition to the Missoula, Montana base, facilities are located in California, Idaho, West Yellowstone, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. There, too, exists a pair of Bureau of Land Management-supervised smokejumper centers; one in Boise, Idaho, and the other in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Located at the Aerial Fire Depot by Missoula International Airport, the Missoula Smokejumpers’ Base and Center is situated at the west end of the airport, along with the Region One Fire Cache, the Interagency Fire Science building, and the Northern Region Training Center. Free tours are presented at 10:00 am and 11:00 am, 2:00 pm, 3:00 pm, and 4:00 pm daily. During the winter, appointments and reservations need to be made at least two days in advance. Contact: 406-329-4972