Accessibility links

Breaking News

Earl Cooley: Remembering an Early Smokejumper

Earl Cooley, who died November 9 at age 98, helped to develop the profession of sending firefighters by parachute to battle forest fires. Transcript of radio broadcast :/em>

Correction attached

This is the VOA Special English Agriculture Report.

Years ago, a young forester took an unusual new job. Earl Cooley became one of the first smokejumpers. Smokejumpers parachute from airplanes. They fight fires that crews cannot reach quickly or easily from the ground.

Earl Cooley worked for the United States Forest Service, an agency of the Agriculture Department. The Forest Service had a plane that it wanted to use to drop water bombs onto wildfires. But that idea failed. So the agency decided to use the plane for what was then a new practice: smokejumping.

The first fire jump in the United States took place on July twelfth, nineteen forty, in the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho.

Another smokejumper, Rufus Robinson, went first. Then out came Earl Cooley.

As he later described it, the plane was not much more than half a kilometer above the trees. The day was windy, and the jump was not as good as others he had made.

He began to turn over in the air when his chute opened, and there were problems with the lines at first. But he chose a large spruce tree to land in near the fire, and climbed down.

With hand tools, he and Rufus Robinson threw dirt on the fire and dug a line to contain it so the flames would not spread. They worked through the night and had the fire controlled the next morning, when other men arrived from a camp in the area.

Earl Cooley always said he was not afraid being a smokejumper. Over the years, he worked to develop the profession. He served as the first president of the National Smokejumper Association. He also wrote about his experiences. But not all had happy endings.

On August fifth, nineteen forty-nine, he was involved in a disaster at a forest fire near Helena, Montana. He had to choose where a crew would jump. But the wind changed and the fire grew unexpectedly, taking thirteen lives.

Many years later, Earl Cooley told a newspaper that he still believed he had made the best decision he could. He retired from the Forest Service in nineteen seventy-five. But he continued to visit the mountaintop where the men were buried, until he could no longer make the climb.

Earl Cooley died on November ninth in Missoula, Montana. He was ninety-eight years old.

Today, more than two hundred seventy men and women are smokejumpers for the Forest Service. Smokejumpers are also used in Russia and other countries.

And that's the VOA Special English Agriculture Report, written by Jerilyn Watson. I'm Karen Leggett.


Correction: The smokejumpers killed on a mountain in August 1949, in what was known as the Mann Gulch fire, were not buried there, as this story incorrectly said. Earl Cooley would visit the memorial crosses that were placed where each body was found.