top of page

Smoke Jumping Through College

By Jillian Kellerman

Steve Henry of Alexandria was a smokejumper during his summers from 1963 to 1967. He is pictured holding a picture of a Ford Trimotor, the plane that dropped the smokejumpers near wildfire areas. The print was produced for the National Smokejumper Association. Photo by Jillian Kellerman

Smokejumpers have had a unique and important job in the fight against wildfires for more than 80 years. These specially-trained firefighters jump out of planes and parachute close to wildfires. When they land, they gear up, make a plan, and then do their best to put out the fire on the ground, typically without access to water.

Steve Henry, 79, of Alexandria, was in his 20s when he made his first jump as a smokejumper. Henry had graduated from Parkers Prairie High School in 1962 and was looking for a summer job the following summer. A highly respected teacher/coach told Henry that he thought working for the United States Forest Service in Montana and Idaho was the greatest summer job ever. 

“So in 1963 I started in the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho on a blister rust crew more than 20 miles from the nearest town,” he said. 

Blister rust is one of the early invasive species from Asia in the early 1900s and attacks white pine. Henry said it was a hopeless job, as acres of forest were infected, but it was a good way to get started. His first jump came after three weeks of training on the ground and another week in the plane. 

“The siren would go off and they’d call off the names who were on top of the jump list,” said Henry. “We wore a heavy nylon rip-stop jumpsuit, a football-type helmet with a wire mesh facemask, gloves, and heavy boots. The main parachute was on our back, with a reserve chute on our belly. We always jumped static line, never free fall. You didn’t want to be drifting. You needed to get near the fire, not in it. 

Each smokejumper carried a 100-foot nylon tape in their leg pocket in case they landed

in a tree.

A couple of smokejumpers in Steve’s team jumped into the forest. Contributed photo

“You could tie that end to the parachute, pop your capewells and slide down the tape,” he said. “But you always had to go back and get that chute. They were very strict about that. Even if your parachute burned, you had to find the clip with the number on it.”

There was always a spotter in the plane in charge of assessing the fire, smoke and wind. Working with the pilot, the spotter was charged with finding a clearing within a couple hundred yards of the fire where they could jump. Colored streamers were thrown from the plane to determine the precision of the landing spot and they would adjust accordingly until the plane was lined up.

“They had it lined up, you’d get in the doorway, and we usually jumped in pairs of two,” Henry said. “So the first person is in the doorway, you had your line hooked for your parachute, when you got to the right place, the spotter slapped your leg and you jumped out of the plane and the guy behind you jumps out of the plane.”

The smokejumpers used 32-foot parachutes.

“They had two slots on the sides with toggles you could steer,” he said. “You could make a 360-degree circle in nine seconds. You had seven-miles-an-hour forward speed. Compared to the chutes that skydivers use today, these were really dogs. But we thought they were pretty good and they were. They worked really quite well … at the time.”

Once on the ground, they would use streamers to lay out two “L’s” on the ground that let the people in the plane know that everybody was okay.

“On rare occasions we had a radio,” he said, “but that didn’t happen very often.”

The jumpers left the plane between 800-1,200 feet from the ground. Then the plane would circle back and kick out the cargo just a couple hundred feet off the ground.

“The cargo had a 28-foot chute and you did not want to be around where that was coming down because it came down pretty fast and hard,” he said. “That had our food and tools.”

Steve Henry and the other smokejumpers were approaching a large fire in Alaska. Contributed photos

After the gear was rounded up, Henry and his crew would size up the fire and start putting out flames. The primary tool used was a Pulaski – an ax head on one side and a grub hoe on the other side. Henry said they worked their way around the fire, knocking down all the brush, and making a firebreak line that was 18-24 inches wide down to bare ground.

“Very rarely with these small fires was it up burning in the trees. You could knock them down and get it under control,” he said. “We rarely got to use water – if there was a good stream nearby, sometimes they would drop you a pump sprayer, but very seldom. Just dirt and knock it down. You didn’t drown it, you suffocated it.”

After everything was put out, the smokejumpers had to stay on site another 24 hours. Henry said the average stay was three days, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter.

“Then you had to get out,” he said. “The whole idea of smokejumping was to get there quick, and go where you couldn’t get there by the road. We were eight, 10, 15 miles from the nearest anything, sometimes more than that. If everything was dry and clean, you probably had about 65 pounds on your back walking out. If it rained and things got wet, it was, I would say, close to 100 pounds. That’s a brutal weight, especially if there were no trails and you had to trek cross country, crawling over logs and things like that.”

Henry continued to smokejump through his college years. In 1964, he was on a “Hotshot” crew out of Slate Creek Ranger Station on the Salmon River in Idaho, located between Grangeville and Riggins. Henry said it was not necessarily a good fire season to be a smokejumper because they didn’t get to fight many fires that year.

In 1965, he was selected to the Missoula Montana Smokejumper Base. While the whole business started there in 1942, the idea of getting to the fires quickly by parachuting in had really caught on.

Steve spent time at the Smokejumper Base Aerial Fire Depot, a division of the U.S. Forest Service.

“The whole program is set up to get to these fires early and get them out before they start to spread. I think to a large extent we did that,” he said. “I would say less than 10 percent of the fires we jumped on got away and got to be those hundreds of acres fire. It was in some ways kind of a sweetheart deal, because if the fire did explode and get away, usually we got taken off because the ground crews would come in and we needed to be ready for that next small fire, so it didn’t get to be a big fire.”

Henry graduated early from the University of Minnesota in 1966 with a chemistry major and math minor. He said fire crews that go to Alaska go early because their fires are mostly caused by lightning hitting the previous year’s dead plant growth and starting it on fire. So, he went out to Missoula to get ready to head to Alaska.

“It was really quite amazing, because I got to Missoula with about 15 other guys who were going to train and go to Alaska and we ended up getting two fire jumps, one in Montana and one in Idaho, before we left,” he said. “It was just unheard of. There’s never fires that early. So this was a very good start. We got to Alaska and had eight fire jumps in about six weeks. We came back to Missoula in mid-July and the fires just exploded.”

To finish out the busy year of 1966, Henry came back and started medical school at the University of Minnesota. His last year of smokejumping was 1967.

“I’m very proud that I never missed a jump,” he said. “We had a fair number of people with sprained ankles, broken wrists, other injuries that would knock them out. I can’t say I never got banged up, but I never missed a jump! So, that’s one of my claims to fame.”

While Henry never had to use a reserve chute, he did have a couple malfunctions … one of which involved his chute being inverted.

“The tails were in front, and I was going seven miles an hour backwards. It took me a few seconds to figure it out,” he said, laughing.

Henry said each smokejumper was required to weigh between 135 and 175 pounds. He learned once why a smokejumper needed to be that heavy.

“We were jumping in Alaska, Denali Park, in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, on a big rock face. As you came down you had to come over the rock face to get down to the jump spot. With the heat rising off that rock face, one of the lighter guys  came over that rock face three times... and he would go right back up. He was up there kicking and screaming,” Henry said laughing. “He finally had to land up above the rock face.”

Steve Henry all geared up, standing in front of a DC 3 plane. Contributed photo

Henry graduated medical school in 1970 and spent over 36 years practicing medicine, two years at the Indian Health Service in Red Lake, Minn., 26 years at the Alexandria Clinic in Alexandria, and 10 years at the Henning Clinic in Henning, Minn. (branch of Tri-County Hospital).  He wasn’t the only smokejumper to become a doctor. He said there was a smokejumper two years ahead of him and another two years behind him.

Now retired, Henry still volunteers on a ground crew clearing trails in the wilderness. He has cleared trails for eight years in Montana and Idaho and another four years in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota. This year, he plans to clear trails in Idaho.

“We have cleared a lot of trails. In the wilderness areas you can’t use power equipment so we use crosscut saws, but they’re good crosscut saws, we’ve used them for a long time and we’re pretty good at it. We don’t probably work quite as fast or as hard as we did back then, but it’s still fun to go out there and I get my mountain fix.” 

Henry met his wife, Diane, in a classic “medical student meets younger nurse” at Hennepin County General Hospital in 1968. The couple married in 1969. They have two children and five grandsons.

18 views0 comments


bottom of page