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Teacher spent summers as smokejumper

Redwood Falls man fought fires out West 11 summers

Jim Darr at his home in Redwood Falls, wearing a 75th Smokejumpers reunion cap of. Photo by Scott Thoma

Jim Darr at his home in Redwood Falls, wearing a 75th Smokejumpers reunion cap of. Photo by Scott Thoma

When summers roll around, the majority of school teachers utilize their time off for such things as family vacations, relaxing at home, recreational sports, or even a chance to sleep in late.

Jim Darr, who taught school in Redwood Falls for 35 years before retiring in 2000, didn’t exactly fall into any of those categories. For 11 summers over 12 years, he was jumping out of planes and fighting fires in the western United States.

“As soon as school was out for the summer, I would head out to Missoula, Montana,” said Darr, 74. “And I would fight fires in Yellowstone, Glacier National Park and other places.”

Darr and others like him were called “smokejumpers,” the name referenced from forest rangers sitting high atop their lookouts looking for curls of smoke that could lead to forest fires if not caught early enough.

The rangers would pinpoint the area the smoke was spotted and send for planes to travel to that area. Once there, smokejumpers would parachute as close to the fire as they could get.

“I never really got hurt or burnt,” Darr said. “It was exciting, but it was also very hard work.”

Darr was born in Nebraska and lived on a farm there until he was in eighth-grade. His family then moved to Parkers Prairie and became dairy farmers.

While still in high school, a trio of Parkers Prairie teachers spent their summers working for the Forest Service Program in Idaho.

“One was also the football coach, one was a wrestling coach, and the other a track coach,” said Darr. “Two of them worked as cooks, and the other was a camp boss. That got me interested in doing that, too, so I applied.”

Darr was accepted to a camp that assists in saving white pines, a desirable tree by lumber companies because of its straight grain and few knots, from a fungus that was killing them. But he soon learned workers were required to be at least 18 years old and had to show proof of their age.

“I was only 17 at the time so I couldn’t go,” he said.

“The one thing I learned is that I didn’t want to milk cows for the rest of my life,” laughed Darr. “So after I graduated in 1961, I went to college for education at the University of Minnesota, Morris.”

During his freshman year of college, Darr applied again and was accepted for employment at St. Joe National Forest in the panhandle of Idaho.

This time he made the trip to the Gem State to work with the forest program saving the trees. He was one of 30 in his group that would don backpacks that housed a three-gallon spray tank.

“We would walk up and down along the mountainside and spray the trees for fungus,” Darr explained. “It was hard work because you would walk and crawl through brush and trip and fall down a lot. We were paid $1.92 an hour.”

Members of the camp were also trained to dig fire lines. If a fire were to break out, eight to ten men would load in a truck and then dig a fire line as close to the fire as possible in an attempt to keep in under control.

“And once the fire line was dug, we would start mopping up, which is basically working the outside of the fire and moving inward,” said Darr.

One morning in camp, Darr was at an overlook area where you could see for up to five miles. He noticed curls of smoke coming up in a forested area. Not long after that, an airplane flew over that area and parachutes started popping up.

“I later learned a lightning storm had gone through, but there wasn’t much rain,” he said. “It looked exciting to see the men parachuting down, and it made me interested.”

Darr found an address to inquire about becoming a “smokejumper” and was sent a four-page application form to fill out. One of the requirements, though, was that applicants needed to have two years of firefighting training, and he had only one at the time.

So Darr returned to work at the Forest Service Program camp the following summer of 1963 and was placed on a “hotshot” crew, whose main purpose was fighting fires.

The following summer, Darr was accepted to become a smokejumper. First, though, the group was put through a rigorous training camp, similar to a military boot camp, at the Regional Forest Service Base in Missoula, which is 200 miles west of Helena, Mont.

“We had four weeks of militaristic training,” he said. “We had to be in good shape to parachute into trees and be able to get down. And we had to be in good shape to fight fires for days. So we had obstacle courses and a high ‘A’-frame to practice landings and rolls. It was quite challenging.”

Following the four-week course, the rookie smokejumpers began practicing jumps and landings in full gear. Their padded jump suits featured pants, a high-collared jacket, and a helmet with a wire mask.

During the training period for rookie smokejumpers, they practiced the basics, such as aircraft exiting procedures, parachute maneuvering and emergency procedures, parachute landing rolls, timber let-down procedures, parachute and cargo retrieval, and tree climbing.

Besides being required to be in top physical condition, smokejumpers must also possess a high degree of emotional stability and mental alertness. There are also some height, weight and health requirements.

“We practiced first on the ground,” said Darr. “Since smokejumpers landed in trees about a third of the time, we had to learn how to get down. We had D-shaped rings on the front of our jump pants, and we had 100 feet of rope. We would use the parachute (hooked in the tree) as our base, and we would tie the rope to the parachute and the D-rings and get down that way.”

 Jim Darr’s Missoula Smokejumping group from 1966. Jim is in the back row, third from the right. The plane behind them is a Twin Beech that they jumped out of. Contributed photo

Jim Darr’s Missoula Smokejumping group from 1966. Jim is in the back row, third from the right. The plane behind them is a Twin Beech that they jumped out of. Contributed photo

The rookies then practiced jumping for two weeks out of DC-3 planes, which are among the planes used to deploy smokejumpers for actual firefighting missions.

“We would jump two men at a time,” Darr recalled. “We had a spotter that would slap us on the leg to signal that it was time to jump. We were only up about 1,200 feet because the planes needed to stay low to drop us as close to the fire as possible. If we were in higher altitude, the wind might throw us off course.”

For safety reasons, a spotter would always be aboard the plane to communicate essential information to the pilot and jumper about the wind, fire activity and terrain.

After leaving the aircraft, the smokejumpers’ parachutes would open automatically after three seconds because there was not enough time or distance for freefall. The jumpers’ time of descent was only a minute.

“We had to keep our feet together and bend our knees slightly when we landed,” explained Darr. “And then we would roll to one side.”

After the training session, and during periods of fire inactivity, smokejumpers are assigned to various natural resource projects away from the base. That may include brush piling, prescribed burning and other fuels management projects, construction and maintenance of facilities, or trail maintenance.

Darr became a biology teacher at Redwood Falls High School (later called Redwood Valley) in 1966 and would return to Montana for his summer job as a smokejumper.

From 1964-75, Darr made approximately 30 actual jumps to fight and contain fires in forested areas in the majority of the western United States.

The only year during that stretch of time that he didn’t jump was in 1968 when he and his wife, Barbara, were married and had their home built in Redwood Falls.

“We only carried our personal gear when we jumped,” said Darr. “When we landed, we would make sure everyone was okay. And once all the men were on the ground, the planes would drop fire packs that would contain food and water for three days, plus sleeping bags, sheets of plastic to make a shelter, a cross-cut saw, a short-handled shovel, and a pulaski.”

The pulaszki used by the smokejumpers to dig fire lines and to chop trees. Photo by Scott Thoma

The pulaszki used by the smokejumpers to dig fire lines and to chop trees. Photo by Scott Thoma

A pulaski is a tool with a long rigid handle with an axe on one side of the head and an adze on the other. The pulaski is a versatile tool for constructing firebreaks that can be used to both dig soil and chop wood.

Smokejumping was first proposed in 1934 by the U.S. Forest Service as a means to quickly provide initial attack on forest fires. By parachuting in, as opposed to foraging through the forest floors, self-sufficient firefighters could arrive fresh and early and ready for the strenuous work of fighting fires in rugged terrain.

The smokejumper program began in 1939 as an experiment in the Pacific Northwest, and the first fire jump was made in 1940 on Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest.

For the past 10 years, Darr has worked as a bailiff for the 5th Judicial District at the Redwood County Courthouse in Redwood Falls.

“It’s a very interesting job,” he said. “My duties are to oversee the jurors between the jury room and the courtroom so they don’t make contact with any witnesses or attorneys. Or if the jurors are deliberating and have a question, they will write it down and give it to me, and I’ll hand it to the judge.”

Darr is still involved with a retired Smokejumper organization that puts out newsletters four times a year and that meets for reunions every five years at various locations. Over 800 people attend each year, including former smokejumpers and their families.

“If I could jump again, I would do it in a heartbeat,” he said, smiling.

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