USA– Earl Cooley, 98, who was one of the first two U.S. Forest Service smoke jumpers to parachute into a forest fire and later was a spotter on the Mann Gulch fire that killed 13 firefighters, died Nov. 9 at his home in Missoula, Mont., of pneumonia.
As a 23-year-old outdoorsman who had built logging roads, lookout towers and a home for his mother, Cooley was as well prepared as anyone which is to say hardly prepared at all for the task of jumping from a propeller-driven plane into a lightning-triggered fire in Idaho’s Nez Perce forest July 12, 1940. The first man out the plane’s door was Rufus Robinson, followed closely by Cooley.
The wind was blowing so hard that afternoon that Cooley’s load lines twisted up behind his neck. As he bent to look at the emergency chute, the lines unwound. He was nearly in a freefall, and as he drew closer to Earth, he clipped the limbs off a big spruce tree. He landed without injury, as did Robinson, and the pair squelched the fire by 10 a.m. the next day, then hiked 28 miles to the nearest ranger station.
That was the start of the Forest Service’s storied corps of smoke jumpers who even today jump in hazardous, remote areas to quickly control fires that ground-based crews cannot reach. The idea of smoke jumping had been first proposed in 1934 and had been tried in Russia during that decade, but the act of dropping men into a wildfire with little more than shovels and pickaxes was considered something between experimental and insane.
On the flight in the 1940 Nez Perce fire, the man whose job was to shove supplies out after the smoke jumpers almost fell to his death. Merle Lundrigan’s legs got tangled in ropes, and he was pulled out of the plane’s door, barely hanging on to the doorstep. The pilot immediately banked, which tossed Lundrigan back aboard. From then on, cargo kickers had to wear parachutes.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Cooley told the Associated Press in 2000. His own training was rudimentary; the trainer had hung a parachute in a tree to point out the harness, shroud lines and release handles, then said: “Tomorrow, we jump.” Still, Cooley said, the only bad part of smoke jumping was the walk home.
Cooley went on to make 48 more jumps. He was aboard the C-47 plane in 1949 from which a dozen smoke jumpers leaped into the Mann Gulch fire near Helena, Mont.
Cooley was the spotter, the man who found the landing site and tapped each jumper on the left calf to alert him it was time to go. The firefighters landed safely, the additional equipment fell to the ground, so Cooley and the plane went back to base
But the fire “blew up” and overran the men in what became the Forest Service’s biggest tragedy until the 1994 South Canyon Fire in Colorado.
“Earl lived a very long time, and he was acutely aware of his place in the history of smoke jumping,” said John Maclean, author of three books on wildland fires, including one on the South Canyon Fire, and the son of Norman Maclean, who wrote on the Mann Gulch incident.
John MacLean called Cooley’s book about the early days of the Forest Service, “Trimotor and Trail: Pioneer Smokejumpers” (1984), “the most authoritative book from the inside about that period.”
Cooley retired from the Forest Service in 1975. He had been a district ranger and superintendent of the smoke jumper base in Missoula as well as regional equipment specialist.