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Smokejumpers:
A Canadian First


By Collections Curator Ruth Bitner

Saskatchewan boasted Canada’s first smokejumpers when they took to the skies in 1947.

Jumping from an aircraft at 2,000 feet and landing near a roaring forest fire is no pink tea affair, but that's the occupation of eight young men in Prince Albert who make it their business to "smoke jump" on forest fires... - The Leader-Post, August 9, 1947

Jumping out of an airplane into a forest fire zone was risky business. Saskatchewan’s smokejumper squad, created by the provincial Department of Natural Resources, was the first line of defence in fighting forest fires. The idea was to parachute firefighters onto the scene while a fire was still small enough to be put out with hand tools. For the next 20 years, Canada’s first smokejumper team battled to save Saskatchewan forests.


Smokejumpers parachuting from Norseman CF-SAM,
Prince Albert area, 1959
Saskatchewan Environment photo

Getting Ready

We had to run somewhere around five miles, without stopping, before breakfast...During the day we had to jump frontwards and backwards off the back of a truck doing 15 miles per hour...
- Ben Poudrier, smokejumper trainee, 1950

Training began at the Prince Albert airport in June, 1947. Eight young men, “temperamentally stable,” physically fit and no more than 79 kilograms (175 pounds), learned first aid, fire control, parachute packing and how to land properly when hitting the ground.

Training was tough–eight kilometre (five mile) runs; vigorous exercises; jumping off the back of a moving truck to practice backward and forward rolls. Then there were practice jumps from the bush plane. Jumpers aimed for a target, a nine metre (30 foot) circle. There was lots of friendly competition–like seeing who could land closest to the case of beer in the centre of the circle.

After training, smokejumpers were stationed in La Ronge to be closer to northern fires.

Smokejumpers’ morning training, Prince Albert, 1952
WDM photo, Ben Poudrier collection

Tools of the Trade

Each jumper was equipped with two parachutes, one which opened automatically, and a reserve chute in case the first did not open. He wore a white padded suit, crash helmet, and carried a compass, knife, first-aid kit, signals to alert the pilot of a safe landing, a 27 metre (90 foot) rope to let himself down from a tree in case he got hung up, and a 3.7 metre (12 foot) release rope to help him get out of his harness.

A two-man pack of tools was dropped separately. Armed with the basics like a map case, shovels, 22 litre (five gallon) canvas backpack with hose, pruning saw, Pulaski tool–a combination axe and grub hoe, bedrolls, mosquito repellent, ration kit and mess tins, flashlights and a small two-way radio, the smokejumpers prepared to do battle with fire. A team usually consisted of four men with two packs.


Suiting up for a shift, Prince Albert, 1952.
WDM photo, Ben Poudrier collection


Ready to jump, Prince Albert area, 1952.
WDM photo, Ben Poudrier collection

Airborne

Many a smokejumper made his first jump from CF-SAM, a single-engine Norseman then owned by Saskatchewan Government Airways. After a fire was under control, the jumpers waited for the plane to pick them up–sometimes it was a long hike to the nearest spot where the plane could land.


Jumping from a plane, northern Saskatchewan, 1952.
WDM photo, Ben Poudrier collection

The Last Jump

The Saskatchewan smokejumper unit was disbanded in 1966. Instead of jumping out of planes, firefighters could be flown by helicopter to the scene of a fire. However, some former smokejumpers contend that politics played a part in the unit’s demise. Firefighting may be different today, but protection of Saskatchewan’s forests remains vitally important.


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