Two Forest Service fire guards become the first smokejumpers to parachute into a forest fire in Washington on August 10, 1940.

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 3/26/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20748

On August 10, 1940, two U.S. Forest Service fire guards, Francis Lufkin (1914-1998) and Glen H. Smith (1914-1988), become the first smokejumpers to parachute into a forest wildfire in the state of Washington. The dual jump at Little Bridge Creek in the Chelan (later Okanogan) National Forest is the first time that a fire in the Forest Service's Region Six, encompassing Oregon and Washington, is fought by smokejumpers.

Birthplace of Smokejumping

In the fall of 1939, the Forest Service began trials using men with parachutes to reach forest fires from the air. The area selected for this testing was a small airstrip located between Twisp and Winthrop in the Methow Valley of North Central Washington.

The test jumps were successful and demonstrated how Forest Service firefighters could quickly and effectively be delivered to hotspots to stop fires at their source. The savings in time had a direct correlation with financial savings. In the same year the tests were being conducted, a forest fire in the Little Bridge Creek area was fought entirely on the ground at a cost of $44,000: in the words of Forest Service fire guard Francis Lufkin, "a pretty expensive fire" (Doig).

On June 11, 1940, a new class of 13 smokejumpers met for program training at the Winthrop Ranger Station. In the group were Lufkin, an experienced Forest Service smoke chaser who was previously assigned to the Eight Mile Guard Station eight miles outside Winthrop, and Glen Smith, an exhibition jumper and parachute rigger originally from Los Angeles. Both Lufkin and Smith had been involved in the 1939 trial jumps.

After one week, the group had completed a two-day ground training course as well as a series of training jumps using a Curtis Travelair airplane piloted by Dick Johnson. Johnson's air service, based out of Missoula, Montana, would fly smokejumpers for both Region Six and Region One (covering Montana and Northern Idaho) from 1940 to 1944.

The new smokejumper program now had groups ready in each region. Lufkin served as the squad leader for Region Six, whose area included the densly forested and mountainous terrain of the Chelan National Forest. Along with Lufkin and Smith, the six-member team for Region Six consisted of Al Davies, George Honey (1906-2001), Virgil Derry, and Richard Tuttle. Nine other smokejumpers made up the team for Region One based at Seeley Lake, Montana. Two of them made the Forest Service's first smoke jump to fight a forest fire on July 12, 1940, in the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho.

Blaze-prone Region Primed for Wildfire

The opportunity to put the program's training into practice in Washington came soon afterward, as fire conditions in the state worsened with the passing summer weeks. On August 10, Major C. S. Cowan, Chief Fire Warden for the Washington Forest Fire Association, made a public appeal to "week-end pleasure-seekers to use extreme caution while traveling in the wooded areas of the state" ("Forest Danger Emphasized").

Lightning strikes are historically a major cause of forest fires, and this prospect combined with the hot and dry weather during the summer of 1940 led to ideal conditions for fires in Central and Eastern Washington and in the northern Rocky Mountain region.

Little Bridge Creek is located approximately 10 miles southwest of Winthrop in Okanogan County, and has been described as "an unprotected wildland area south of the Sawtooth-Lake Chelan Wilderness area in the Okanogan National Forest ... approximately 13,000 acres" ("Little Bridge Creek ..."). In the area around the creek are steep ridges with stands of Douglas fir, Engelmann spruce, ponderosa pine, and subalpine fir. In 1940 there were no roads or trails into the area.

The State's First Jump

On August 10, 1940, the same day that the fire warden issued his warning, the call came in to the Region One smokejumpers base in Missoula to dispatch an aircraft to Winthrop. Walt Anderson was then the Chelan National Forest Fire Control Officer, and in overall charge of the Winthrop smokejumpers. A forest fire had been spotted in the Little Bridge Creek area in the Twisp Ranger District, and two smokejumpers were assigned to make the jump: Francis Lufkin and Glen Smith. It was the first time ever that smokejumpers would jump into an active fire in Washington.

The two smokejumpers both made the jump without incident, landing in an open space in the forest near where the blaze covered about a quarter of an acre. They were able to put out the fire before it spread significantly. Lufkin described the event in a 1970 interview, shortly before his retirement from the Forest Service:

"We were only there probably five or six hours until a packer came in, and we had it about mopped up. So we loaded out stuff on a couple of mules and brought it out" (Doig).

The following day, August 11, two other Region Six smokejumpers made another jump into a different fire, located at Twentymile Creek near Winthrop. George Honey and Virgil Derry were able to quickly extinguish the fire in spite of an unexpected landing, which Honey described as a "wet one ... we thought we were hitting a nice, green meadow, but it was a lily-pad lake, and we were up to our waists in water" ("Smoke Jump History to Be...").

The following year, both Lufkin and Honey went to Missoula for refresher training before returning to Winthrop. Region Six smokejumpers from Winthrop made jumps on July 18 through 20, 1941, to fight three fires, in the Weasel Creek, Spanish Camp, and Company Creek areas.

Legacy of Two Original Smokejumpers

According to former smokejumper Fred Cooper, from 1942 to 1944 Lufkin continued in the program as a spotter in Winthrop for smokejumpers who were dispatched from Missoula; he also directed cargo airdrops to firefighters on the ground. With World War II underway, these cargo drops also serviced posted lookouts watching for the threat of incendiary balloons deployed across the Pacific Northwest by the Japanese military.

In 1945, Lufkin became the first manager for a new North Cascades Smokejumper Base and training facility established that year in the Methow Valley at Winthrop. In 1949, 10 years after the first testing of the smokejumper concept, Lufkin commented on the efficiency of the smokejumpers:

"Virtually all of the lightning-set fires started in the area we serve have been controlled before they have covered ten acres by speedy smokejumper action. Man-caused fires are our biggest problem now. They start in the darndest places at the worst possible times" (Forbes).

Lufkin continued as a smokejumper until the 1950s, then served as a program administrator in charge of the base until his retirement in 1972.

Except for a two-year hiatus while he served in World War II, Glen Smith continued to be a Forest Service smokejumper and parachute rigger at the Region One base in Missoula until 1950. Both his sons followed in his footsteps and became career smokejumpers.

The North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop continues to oversee Little Bridge Creek, the site of the first firefighting jump in the state, as part of its area of response during the fire season in Washington.


Sources:

Joseph N. Hessel, "Attacking Forest Fires from the Air," Southern Lumberman, December 15, 1941, pp. 1-4; "Forest Danger Emphasized," The Seattle Times, August 11, 1940, p. 3; Bob Forbes, "Paratroopers of the Forests," The Seattle Times, June 12, 1949, Sunday Pictorial, p. 3; Ivan Doig, "Washington's First Smoke Jumper," The Seattle Times, July 5, 1970, Sunday magazine, p. 12; "Smoke Jump History to Be Topic of Film," The Seattle Times, October 5, 1997, p. B-8; "Little Bridge Creek -- July 22, 2000: Pacific Biodiversity Institute's Unprotected Wilderness Report," Pacific Biodiversity Institute website accessed February 2, 2019 (http://www.pacificbio.org/publications/wildlands_roadless/Little_Bridge_Creek_Wilderness_Study_Report_2000.pdf); Fred Cooper, "Chapter 12: The Smokejumping Program goes Operational," unpublished manuscript, 2019, pp. 1-4, copy in possession of Fred Poyner IV, Issaquah, Washington; Fred Poyner III, email to Fred Poyner IV, January 28, 2019, in possession of Fred Poyner IV; Fred Cooper, email to Fred Poyner IV, January 31 and February 10, 2019, in possession of Fred Poyner IV; "Smokejumpers," U.S Forest Service website accessed February 3, 2019 (https://www.fs.fed.us/science-technology/fire/smokejumpers); Smokejumpers: Firefighters from the Sky, documentary video (National Smokejumper Association, 2000).


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