Feature

Earl Cooley

The firefighter who pioneered smoke jumping

Earl Cooley
1911–2009

Earl Cooley was one of the first two men to ever parachute from a plane to fight a raging forest fire. That same day, July 12, 1940, he also almost became the first man to die smoke jumping when he landed in the top branches of a spruce tree in northern Montana. But the fire was extinguished, and he went on to become superintendent of the smoke jumper base in Missoula and a founder of the National Smokejumper Association.

One of 11 children raised by homesteaders in Sarpy Creek, Mont., Cooley grew up fishing and hunting, said The Wall Street Journal. In 1937 he joined the U.S. Forest Service. Previously, the agency had rejected the idea that smoke jumpers could halt a blaze by digging trenches and cutting down trees. When the Forest Service changed its policy in 1939, Cooley was among the first applicants accepted into the smoke jumpers program. He was still a novice when he was “called to fight his first fire.”

That day, lightning had ignited a fire in Idaho’s Nez Perce forest, and the wind was blowing so hard that “Cooley’s load lines twisted up behind his neck.” As he searched for the emergency chute, the lines gradually unwound. He was in a virtual free-fall when he clipped
the spruce tree. Uninjured, he quickly rejoined his partner and the pair “squelched the fire.” They then hiked 28 miles to the nearest
ranger station.

“I don’t know why,” Cooley once said, “but I was never afraid to jump.” Cooley retired from the Forest Service in 1975 and opened a real estate firm.

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