FROM THE FILES: Saskatchewan forms a smokejumper unit

"Smoke jumpers on guard in north to pounce quickly onto forest fires’

Source: The Leader-Post, August 9, 1947

Jumping from an aircraft at 2,000 feet and landing near a roaring forest fire is no pink tea affair, but that's the occupation of eight young men in Prince Albert who make it their business to "smoke jump" on forest fires and by swift suppression prevent destruction of valuable tracts of commercial timber in northern Saskatchewan.

These eight "smoke jumpers" are the members of the provincial government's first parachute group, organized in June to provide an effective and economical way to extinguish fires in their early stages. First in Canada to form a "smoke jumping" school, Saskatchewan holds the lead over other provinces with its crew of well-trained men standing by in Prince Albert, ready to be transported in a float-equipped Norseman aircraft.

Within two hours after a fire has been reported, "smoke jumpers" are dropped near the blaze to extinguish it before it has opportunity to spread.

E.J. Marshall, director of forests, with the assistance of Owen Hargreaves, forester, chose the eight men who were to compose the first class from the department of natural resources., the Saskatchewan forestry school and the general public. The eight were: A. Fremont, Prince Albert; D.E. Pryce, Moosomin; K.A. Smith, Garrick; H.C. Maycard, Saskatoon; W.D. Kelly, Prince Albert; H. Knutson, Birch hills; A. Larsen, Aylsham; and D. Hansen, Prince Albert. Their average age is 25 and they were chosen for their forestry experience and firefighting ability.

The course began June 1 and finished July 15. Before being accepted, the men were required to pass a strict medical examination, be between the ages of 22 and 32, weigh not more than 175 pounds and be "tempermentally stable".

During seasons when fire hazards are at a minimum, the men will be given other work with the resources department.

Before jumping began, the students were given special instruction in first aid, forest fire control, parachute packing and the theory of parachute jumping. they were taken into the forest, put through special "limbering" up" courses, made "bush wise" and were taught how to escape from high trees by ropes they would carry when "smoke jumping".

They were taught how to tumble properly after hitting the ground and were given a stiff course in gymnastics to put them in top physical condition.

Before boarding the aircraft, a "smoke jumper" dons a white padded suit heavy and durable enough to protect the body against falls and wears a crash helmet not unlike a football helmet.

Once the Norseman is in the air, the "jumpmaster" leans out from the open door, where the "coal scuttle" is located and by using his hand indicates the exact direction the pilot should take in lining up the plane with the target. When the aircraft is directly over the target a drift chute, with a rate of descent the same as a man, is dropped to assist the jumpmaster in determining prevailing winds.

The plane then circles, returning to drop its human cargo. It is not necessary for the "smoke jumper" to pull a rip cord for a cable fastened to a static line and to the parachute performs this function. However, in case his chute fails to open, each jumper wears a chest parachute which he may open by pulling an iron handle.

Just before the plane is over the "target", the jumper leaves his seat and sits on the edge of the "coal scuttle" . When the aircraft has reached the proper position over the target, the jumpmaster taps the jumper on the shoulder and he slides along the "scuttle" over the float and begins his descent to the ground.

The jumping part of the operation is actually the easiest part; the most difficult being the landing.

When the man hits the ground, his fall is similar to jumping from a 10-foot fence and unless fully experienced he may easily suffer a broken leg or ankle. Another problem to overcome is the billowing parachute, which must be rapidly brought under control before it fills with air and drags the jumper along the ground.

However, the men seem more worried about failing to hit the target dead-centre than about injuring themselves. An experienced jumper can land within 200 feet of the target.

After the "smoke jumpers" hit the ground in a real fire, they immediately come together and make plans to fight the blaze. Their first step is to gather up the two-man fire packs containing all the necessary equipment, which have been dropped separately from the plane. The jumper himself carries no equipment other than a compass, a sheath knife, a small first-aid kit, two signal streams to let the pilot know he has landed safely, a 90-foot letdown rope, to be used by the jumper to extricate himself from trees and a 12-foot release rope to aid him escape from his harness.

The two-man fire pack is the fire fighter's equipment and it weighs from 40 to 75 pounds, depending on what materials and supplies are carried. Each 75-pound pack contains a six-foot cross saw, a map case, two shovels, a bedroll for two men, two one-gallon water bags, a protractor set, a pruning saw, a 15-meal ration, two pulaski tools, an axe, two pack sacks, two mess tins, two bottles of mosquito oil, a container of salt tablets, two headlights and a small radio weighing 28 pounds.

With this equipment, the "smoke jumper" must either put out the fire or keep it under control until help arrives overland.