Smokejumping trailblazer Earl Cooley dies at age 98

Smokejumping trailblazer Earl Cooley dies at age 98

12 November 2009

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USA– “I will remind you that you wrote some time ago about J.B. Bruce’s scheme of dropping men from airplanes for firefighting. I am willing to take a chance on most any kind of a proposition that promises better action on fires, but I hesitate very much to go into the kind of thing that Bruce proposes. In the first place, the best information I can get from experienced fliers is that all parachute jumpers are more or less crazy – just a little bit unbalanced, otherwise they wouldn’t be engaged in such a hazardous undertaking.”

– Regional Forester Evan Kelley, July 1935

Pioneer smokejumper Earl Cooley once told a newspaper reporter the only bad part of parachuting into a forest fire was the walk home.

Considering that his chute nearly failed to open and he landed 140 feet up a spruce on the Forest Service’s first-ever jump on a wildfire, it’s fair to wonder why the practice of smokejumping ever got a second chance.

But Cooley and fellow jumper Rufus Robinson had their fire under control by the next day when a team of ground-pounders finally arrived. Then they all hiked the 28 miles back to the ranger station.

Sixty-nine years after he made that historic jump into the Nez Perce National Forest on July 12, 1940, Cooley died in Missoula on Monday at the age of 98. He left behind plenty of “silk stories” from his days as a smokejumper, U.S. Forest Service district ranger and Missoula real estate broker.

“There wasn’t the safety consciousness there is today,” author John Maclean recalled of the man his father, Norman Maclean, interviewed extensively for the book “Young Men and Fire.” “You took the risks, and nobody paid attention to that anyway until Mann Gulch. Smokejumping didn’t need to be sold because it worked. There were lots and lots of fires you couldn’t get to and you had to get to.”

Cooley’s smokejumping career included the Mann Gulch tragedy, where he was the spotter for 12 jumpers who later burned to death when the fire overran their escape route. Danger was part of the job for the men who established the techniques later used by the U.S. Army Airborne troops in World War II.

“He was acutely aware of his place in the history of smokejumping,” Maclean said of Cooley. “By the time my dad started investigating the Mann Gulch fire, there was a dwindling number of primary sources. We are all better off because Earl put down on paper that early history. No one else could have done it.”

Cooley also helped found the National Smokejumper Association and served as its president for three years. In 1984, he chronicled much of the Forest Service’s early smokejumping history in his book “Trimotor and Trail.”

Fire consultant Bob Mutch recalled in 1953 spending hours hiking to a fire in the Salmon River drainage only to meet a smokejumper already there. The next year, he joined the smokejumpers, and jumped on the Mallard Creek fire in Idaho’s Red River District.

“It was in August, but it started snowing,” Mutch recalled. “We had to build small fires to keep warm. Earl Cooley was the district ranger then, and he was already a living legend in the fire world. He came riding by on his horse – this mythical person on a huge horse – and he had this drawl. He said ‘Well, boys, this is a good time to mop up this fire, not sit and warm yourselves.’ “

Cooley returned to Missoula in 1958 to serve as smokejumper base superintendent. He built his own home on Queen Street, which included a regulation bowling alley in the basement.

In 1975, he retired from the Forest Service and started Cooley Realty. Mutch relied on Cooley for a land purchase in the West Fork of the Bitterroot.

“My boys were 10 and 12 years old then, and when we went to see the property, Earl brought fishing rods with him to cement the sale,” Mutch said. “We drove out there, and he said ‘Before we see the property, let’s go over here and catch some trout.’ And we did.”

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