Posted By admin on November 17, 2009
Earl Cooley, who died Nov. 9 at his home in Missoula, was actually the second man to jump from a plane to fight a fire for the Forest Service. The late Rufus Robinson proceeded him by a minute or too, in the Marten Creek region of what’s now the Bitterroot-Selway wilderness in Idaho.
Here’s a description Cooley wrote of the jump soon after. It appeared in the 1941 University of Montana’s Forestry Kaimin:
“After completing ten day’s training, we moved to Moose Creek Ranger Station for actual fire suppression service. On July 12, 1940. Rufus Robinson and I were scheduled to jump on the first actual fire to be fought by parachute fire-fighters.
Rufus jumped first, but due to bad air conditions missed his spot, a small alder patch near the fire, by about a quarter of a mile. I tried to compensate by going further against the wind, but had to cross a ridge. By doing so, I was caught in a different ground current and was carried almost a quarter mile to one side of our target. Rufus landed in a short tree, his feet nearly touching the ground, while I got hung up in a 150-foot green spruce, about ten feet down from the top. The chute caught on the side of the tree as I was drifting westward from the fire at a rate of about fifteen miles per hour. My momentum carried me through the limbs on one side of the tree. On my return swing I caught a broken branch and pulled myself toward the trunk of the tree. From here I unsnapped my risers, coming down the tree which had limbs clear to the ground.
Rufus had contacted the plane by the use of his small radio. On getting my exact location he walked toward me. The plane then came down to within 500 feet of us to drop our fire packs by means of an old condemned army chute. We shouldered our packs and were ready for immediate action. It was just forty-five minutes from the time we left the Moose Creek Ranger Station until we started to build fire line. This remote spot was about twenty miles from any available ground crew. To reach the area by foot would have meant a long, strenuous hike, requiring possibly ten hours’ travel time.”