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North Cascades Smokejumper Base Winthrop WA
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| 09/07/2020 | Blog, Methow Valley, Outdoor Tours, Tours-Indoor

North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop WA

Roni Freund, August 2020 

Two air-horn blasts, loud enough to be heard in every corner of camp brings a scurry of activity at North Cascades Smokejumper Base. The men and women stationed here have two minutes to don their protective jump suits and gather at the airfield. 

Safety checks are performed, and the team climbs aboard the aircraft with over 100 pounds of gear including main and reserve parachutes, helmet, gloves and personal fire pack. They strive to be in the air, flying toward the fire within 15 minutes of the air horn. 

Smokejumpers are called that for one reason: they jump out of airplanes through the smoke to perform initial attack on forest fires burning in terrain too difficult for accessing with vehicles. 

Once the team is on the ground, the “jump ship” drops cargo packs with shovels and cross-cut saws, as well as provisions for the team for up to 3 days. If additional supplies are needed, they are often brought in by horseback or mule train.

The smokejumpers go straight to work creating a fuel break, cutting trees and clearing brush, making a containment line along the edge of the fire. Their efforts to quickly attack these fires go a long way in reducing damages and costs of suppression. 

Across Eastern Washington over the years hundreds of thousands of acres have burned in forest and wildland fires. The Methow Valley is where “smokejump” testing began in the 1930’s. The first Forest Service aircraft, and SR-10 Stinson along with specially constructed parachutes from Eagle Parachute Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania were used to make experimental jumps. The test was to see if firefighters trained as parachute jumpers could safely land deep in the forests of high mountain terrain. After 58 successful jumps in 1939 two operational bases were constructed, one in Winthrop and one near Missoula, Montana. 

Over the next 20 years bases in Idaho, Oregon, California and Alaska were implemented. Today more than 400 smokejumpers operate out of nine locations in the western US and Alaska. 

Barracks at North Cascades Smokejumper Base

Birthplace of Smokejumping

Birthplace of Smokejumpers sign at NCSB

Using aircraft to fight forest fires goes back to 1919 when aircraft pilots would fly patrols over the national forest lands following lightning storms. The US Forest Service did not own their own planes, or have trained pilots, so they employed civilian pilots. Over the next few decades, experiments with water and chemical bombs and other efforts were used as initial attack methods, with fair results. 

In the 1930’s the Forest Service began building airfields and bases in remote forestlands, for staging and organizing equipment for the purposes of fighting forest fires. This still required difficult and time consuming transportation of supplies using mules, or backpacking to the burn areas, so they trained on air drops of cargo into these locations. By 1936 these efforts were perfected in the Pacific Northwest, and became a standard deployment option for the US Forest Service. Everything from axe-handles, wash pans, radios, and food supplies including eggs were delivered with very little breakage. 

In 1939 the first tests for manned smokejumping began, using dummies and parachutes designed by Eagle Parachute Company specifically for navigating jumps into challenging terrain. Next, accomplished parachuters were deployed, and finally, in fall of 1939, proof of concept was complete when men trained to fight fires were successfully dropped out of the sky into the remote areas of the Methow Valley. Two of the test smokejumpers had never worn a parachute before the testing. 

By 1940 two bases were established, the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, WA, and one at Johnson Air Service near Missoula Montana. The first jump was on a forest fire was in July of 1940, from the Montana base. A wildfire on August 10, 1940 was the first opportunity for jumpers from NCSB to deploy.

Life as a Smokejumper

It was intense work. Potential smoke jumpers originally had to be single males, between the ages of 21 and 25. They had to be in incredible physical condition and had to have firefighting experience. A 10-day training program separated the men from the boys, and graduates of the program earned $193 a month. 

Training included a physical-fitness regime that rivals any “Insanity” workout. Early on the North Cascades base had a training area with body-building aids, an eight-foot scaling wall, overhead ladder, horizontal bars, just for the maintaining their physical conditioning for the rigors of the aircraft jump, landing, and then fighting fires in extreme heat and brutal conditions. 

You can still see the training tower at North Cascades Smokejumpers Base where they practice jumping and landing. 

Training exercise photos by Jim Allen and Bill Yesnen

Training Tower and sign at North Cascades Smokejumper Base

Jumping on a fire

Jumping on a fire

Smokejumpers were deployed to the fires wearing a two-piece padded suit designed to prevent catching on tree limbs during descent, and a football helmet with a wire mask to protect their face. An equipment pack they jumped with included:

  • 200-foot coil of rope (to lower themselves to the ground if the parachute was caught in the tree tops)
  • Orange streamers (to signal aircraft)
  • A two-way battery-operated radio
  • Leather gloves
  • Knife (for cutting tangled parachute lines)
  • A Main and a backup parachute.

Firefighting tools and supplies would be dropped separately after the team landed.

Washington state’s Worst Fires

Two of the worst fires in the state have been in Okanogan County and the Methow Valley in recent years. 2015 saw over 300,000 acres burn in Okanogan County, but the 2014 Carlton Complex fire was the largest single fire in recorded history of the state of Washington.

Four separate lightning strikes on July 14th 2014, caused fires that merged into one giant fire covering over a quarter million acres and destroying over 350 homes from Pateros at the mouth of the Methow River, north up the Methow River valley and east along the Columbia River. That year almost 400,000 acres burned in a variety of wildfires throughout Eastern Washington, mostly caused by a few massive lightning storms in July and August. 

Burned property after Carlton Complex Fire in 2014

Contemporary facility photos: https://freundsphotography.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/PeteFreundPhotog

Content and historic image sources: Spotfireimages.com and http://www.northcascadessmokejumperbase.com/

Carlton fire photo: Wikimedia