Krysta Tsangarides is a young intern guide at the Missoula Smokejumpers Visitors Center, and she knows her limits.
Once they’re on the ground at a forest fire, smokejumpers have to carry 85-pound packs, minimum, up and down mountains, she told her 1 p.m. tour group Tuesday.
“I can’t even lift one,” admitted Tsangarides, a junior at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island who gets college credit for working at the smokejumper base.
She also knows that her summer job depends much on Earl Cooley, though she didn’t mention him by name.
When smokejumping was proposed in the late 1930s, the U.S. Forest Service was not on board.
“They thought you had to be insane to want to jump out of a plane into fire,” she explained. “I do not blame them. It sounds really crazy.”
When the Forest Service brass finally assented, the first test jumps were made in Winthrop, Washington, in 1939. The following July, in a remote part of the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho, Cooley followed Rufus Robinson out of a Johnson Brothers Travelair to become the first Forest Service employees to jump on a fire.
The strings of Cooley’s parachute tangled and when they finally straightened out, Cooley landed smack in a spruce tree. He scrambled down 100 feet to the ground and joined his fellow pioneer, Rufus Robinson, to attack the fire.
“If he would have died on that first jump, the program might have died with him,” Tsangarides said.
That means she wouldn’t have been ushering 14 men and women, split evenly between locals and out-of-staters, around the base west of the Missoula airport on Tuesday.
They wouldn’t have rubbed shoulders with strapping smokejumpers sewing or packing or inspecting their chutes, or just hanging out waiting for a fire call.
Fire season in Montana will start next month, but some of the 70 jumpers based in Missoula are helping out on a fire in New Mexico.
Fourteen rookies were scheduled to graduate Tuesday from training school, which is usually a five-week regimen. That got stretched to six this spring when uncooperative weather delayed the required 25 practice jumps per trainee.
If not for successful early jumps more than 75 years ago, would there still be spam? The meaty kind, we mean?
“It is a sort of smokejumping tradition for rookies to cook the meals while they’re off on a fire, and they will make it a competition who can make the best spam,” Tsangarides said. “I’ve heard things like spam sushi, spam tamales, spam in ramen — anything you can imagine they have probably made it. I can’t imagine all of it is good.”
For Dick Molstead of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, his first visit to the smokejumper center reminded him of his own firefighting days for the Forest Service in Idaho in the late 1950s.
“A lot of sweat and tears. It’s a band of brothers,” said Molstead, who’s in town this week to volunteer for the AOPA regional fly-in at the airport.
Tom Allen recently retired and moved to Kalispell. He took the tour Tuesday with his brother Rich, who lives in Mesa, Arizona.
They grew up on a ranch not far from the airport between Mullan Road and the Clark Fork River.
“Johnson Flying Service used to practice over my dad’s ranch in their Ford Trimotors, so since I was a little kid, smokejumpers were a big deal,” Tom Allen said.
The smokejumper visitor center remains one of Missoula’s top attractions for people from elsewhere. It figures to be a magnet this weekend, as hundreds of flyers from across the west come to the airport for the AOPA fly-in. Around and giving tours since the old Hale Field days of the 1930s-1950s, it remains an unvisited treasure for a lot of locals.
Guides such as Tsangarides and Gwyn Schueler, her fellow intern from Kansas State University, conduct six 45-minute tours each day, seven days a week, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The tours start at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and on the hour in the afternoon from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
There is no charge and they're kid-friendly. Tsangarides said when things heat up, there might be an added enticement.
“We’re told if we’re conducting a tour and they do get a fire call, as long as we’re out of the way, we can actually watch the guys gear up,” she said.
But you have to catch them quick.
Smokejumpers train to get into their jumping gear in 2 minutes. They’ve got 10 minutes from the bell to be on the plane that waits out the back door.
It’s a vital part of smokejumping, when every minute counts getting to a backcountry fire.