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Earl Cooley, 98

Earl Cooley dies; one of the first smoke jumpers dropped into a fire

Earl Cooley with his gear in Missoula, Mont., in 1940, the year the U.S. Forest Service's smoke jumpers brigade debuted.
Earl Cooley with his gear in Missoula, Mont., in 1940, the year the U.S. Forest Service's smoke jumpers brigade debuted. (U.s. Forest Service)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 2009

Earl Cooley, 98, who was one of the first two U.S. Forest Service smoke jumpers to parachute into a forest fire and later was a spotter on the Mann Gulch fire that killed 13 firefighters, died Nov. 9 at his home in Missoula, Mont., of pneumonia.

As a 23-year-old outdoorsman who had built logging roads, lookout towers and a home for his mother, Mr. Cooley was as well prepared as anyone -- which is to say hardly prepared at all -- for the task of jumping from a propeller-driven plane into a lightning-triggered fire in Idaho's Nez Perce forest July 12, 1940. The first man out the plane's door was Rufus Robinson, followed closely by Mr. Cooley.

The wind was blowing so hard that afternoon that Mr. Cooley's load lines twisted up behind his neck. As he bent to look at the emergency chute, the lines unwound. He was nearly in a freefall, and as he drew closer to Earth, he clipped the limbs off a big spruce tree. He landed without injury, as did Robinson, and the pair squelched the fire by 10 a.m. the next day, then hiked 28 miles to the nearest ranger station.

That was the start of the Forest Service's storied corps of smoke jumpers who even today jump in hazardous, remote areas to quickly control fires that ground-based crews cannot reach. The idea of smoke jumping had been first proposed in 1934 and had been tried in Russia during that decade, but the act of dropping men into a wildfire with little more than shovels and pickaxes was considered something between experimental and insane.

On the flight in the 1940 Nez Perce fire, the man whose job was to shove supplies out after the smoke jumpers almost fell to his death. Merle Lundrigan's legs got tangled in ropes, and he was pulled out of the plane's door, barely hanging on to the doorstep. The pilot immediately banked, which tossed Lundrigan back aboard. From then on, cargo kickers had to wear parachutes.

"We didn't know what we were doing," Mr. Cooley told the Associated Press in 2000. His own training was rudimentary; the trainer had hung a parachute in a tree to point out the harness, shroud lines and release handles, then said: "Tomorrow, we jump." Still, Mr. Cooley said, the only bad part of smoke jumping was the walk home.

Mr. Cooley went on to make 48 more jumps. He was aboard the C-47 plane in 1949 from which a dozen smoke jumpers leaped into the Mann Gulch fire near Helena, Mont.

Mr. Cooley was the spotter, the man who found the landing site and tapped each jumper on the left calf to alert him it was time to go. The firefighters landed safely, the additional equipment fell to the ground, so Mr. Cooley and the plane went back to base. But the fire "blew up" and overran the men in what became the Forest Service's biggest tragedy until the 1994 South Canyon Fire in Colorado.

"Earl lived a very long time, and he was acutely aware of his place in the history of smoke jumping," said John N. Maclean, author of three books on wildland fires, including one on the South Canyon Fire, and the son of Norman Maclean, who wrote on the Mann Gulch incident.

John MacLean called Mr. Cooley's book about the early days of the Forest Service, "Trimotor and Trail: Pioneer Smokejumpers" (1984), "the most authoritative book from the inside about that period."

Mr. Cooley retired from the Forest Service in 1975. He had been a district ranger and superintendent of the smoke jumper base in Missoula as well as regional equipment specialist.

He was born Sept. 26, 1911, in Sarpy Creek, Mont., one of 11 children raised by homesteaders on the plains. After his family lost their farm and savings in a bank collapse in 1923, they moved to Corvallis, Mont., and started another farm. Mr. Cooley dropped out of high school for two years to work on the farm and run a trapline in the nearby rivers and creeks of the Bitterroot Range of the Rockies.

After he graduated from high school in 1930, he worked on ranches for $1 a day in summer and $15 a month plus board in winter. He joined the Forest Service and started college at the University of Montana in 1937, although he missed the first five weeks of classes because he was quarantined for of a case of smallpox.

One of his Forest Service jobs in the 1940s was to train conscientious objectors who joined the smoke jumpers as alternative service.

"Just when parachuting to fires had proved practical, we were hit by shortages of men and equipment," Mr. Cooley wrote in his book. "We managed to obtain military chutes rejected because of minor flaws."

Survivors include his wife of 68 years, Irene Cook Cooley of Missoula; five daughters; two siblings; 12 grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.


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