On June 23 we stopped in Missoula, Montana to visit the Smokejumper School. Our already-existing interest had been heightened by having read a book by Timothy Egan. As indicated by the title — The Big Burn — the book is about a wildfire that occurred in 1910 that burned about three million acres in northeast Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana — the largest wildfire ever in the United States. The book also details some of the political issues, focusing on Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot (the first Chief of the United States Forest Service from 1905 until his firing in 1910). The discussion of Theodore Roosevelt’s rise to power and the formation of the U.S. Forest Service provide the setting and background in which the action occurs. Pioneering the notion of conservation, Roosevelt and Pinchot created the idea of public land as our national treasure, owned by every citizen. But critical politicians, under the sway of powerful and moneyed capitalists, accused the Service of governmental meddling into the rights of private business to exploit natural resources. As a consequence, the Forest Service was slowly starving to death from lack of funding when the fire broke out. The fire resulted in raising public awareness surrounding national nature conservation and highlighting the forest rangers and firefighters as public heroes. And so, even as TR’s national forests were smoldering they were saved: the heroism shown by the rangers turned public opinion in favor of the forests. Hence, the subtitle to the book: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America.
At the Smokejumper Visitor Center , tourists can see many displays explaining firefighting procedures, smokejumping history, and other fire related issues. We took advantage of a guided tour which lasted about an hour and took us through the working facility of the smokejumpers, used for both training of new smokejumpers and as a smoke jumping base. The tour gave an in-depth look at the profession of smokejumping and allowed us to learn about jump gear, parachutes, cargo and aircraft.
Time well spent.