Remembering A Pioneering Smoke Jumper

Laird Robinson, a former smoke jumper, talks to Melissa Block about Earl Cooley, who was with the first National Forest team that jumped into a fire in 1940. Cooley died Monday at 98. Smoke jumpers are elite teams who fly out over raging wildfires in the West, parachute down into the burning forests and battle the flames until they're under control.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Major League Baseball has its All-Stars, the military has the Special Forces and firefighters have the smokejumpers. These elite teams fly out over wildfires in the West, parachute into the burning forests and battle the flames until they're under control. Earl Cooley was with the first National Forest Service team that jumped into a fire in 1940, and he stayed with the Forest Service until 1975. Earl Cooley died on Monday in Missoula, Montana, at the age of 98. Laird Robinson was a smokejumper for more than 10 years and worked for Earl Cooley in the Forest Service. He joins us from his home in Missoula.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. LAIRD ROBINSON (Former Smokejumper): Thank you.

BLOCK: And Im trying to picture that very first jump back in 1940: July 12th, Earl Cooley and another smokejumper jumping out of a plane to fight a fire for the very first time, what that must have been like.

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, you know, I think it would have to be described as uncertain. There were a lot of unknowns that were - they dealt with on that jump into Marten Creek on the Nez Perce Forest.

BLOCK: And is it true that Earl Cooley landed from, like, 140 feet up in a spruce tree?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, lets just say he landed in a spruce tree.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: Im not sure that I would go 140 feet. There are many spruce trees in the Nez Perce Forest that Id be aware thatd be 140 feet tall.

BLOCK: I see. But he did hit a tree?

Mr. ROBINSON: Yes, he did. He hung up on a tree.

BLOCK: Earl Cooley once told the writer Norman Maclean for his book "Young Men and Fire," he said, I dont know why but I was never afraid to jump. It keeps others awake at night. I wonder where that fearlessness came from?

Mr. ROBINSON: I dont think Earl was afraid to jump. There were those in the Forest Service at higher level, much higher, that said this was absolutely lunacy. He was crazy. Anybody that would jump out of an airplane had to have a little mental problem. I didnt ever see that in Earl Cooley. I saw that he was more than game to take on a challenge. He was a bulldog of an individual. Theres no question. And I think that bullheadedness just said, you know, if anybody can jump from airplanes into a fire, I can do it.

BLOCK: Now, Earl Cooley back in 1949 was the spotter on the airplane over Mann Gulch Montana. This was the famous fire. Twelve smokejumpers were killed when that fire overran, and he was up in the plane spotting for that group, picking the spot where they jumped. Did he talk to you about that lost of life on that day?

Mr. ROBINSON: You know, he didnt. He knew individually, every individual who died in Mann Gulch. He knew, for the most part, their parents, their background, where they were from. I didnt ever see that there was - what would say - remorse or a lot of sadness in Earl. I think it went with the job, and Earl couldnt turn it around.

BLOCK: When you think back to those early days, those first jumps that Earl Cooley was part of, what did they bring - what did he bring, do you think, to the future of smokejumping and firefighting?

Mr. ROBINSON: It went a long way, Melissa, from where it was. Things were what Id call today very crude. Earl was at the (unintelligible) project out here. They developed tools. They developed the retarding program. Earl was involved in many facets of development of this program. It went on to become one of the most effective firefighting tools in the Forest Service history, in all of our history as far as firefighting.

BLOCK: Thats former smokejumper Laird Robinson, remembering the smokejumping pioneer Earl Cooley who died on Monday in Missoula, Montana, at age 98.

And Mr. Robinson, we should mention Earl Cooley had a nickname, the Whistler.

Mr. ROBINSON: Ah, yes. And I thank you for reminding me. Out of the base, the jumper base in Missoula, most of the individuals out there had a nickname. Earl would often be seen walking around, observing what people are doing and whistling. And I must say, he wasnt even a good whistler.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: It was kind of a dull, low whistle but you heard him coming. And when he did, you thought, Id better be working.

BLOCK: Mr. Robinson, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. ROBINSON: Thank you very much, Melissa.

(Soundbite of music)

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