Candidates for smokejumping are today required to pass rigorous physical examinations and undergo years of training. But when, on July 12 1940, Earl Cooley stood ready to jump from a small TriMotor aeroplane as it buzzed at 1,500ft over Martin Creek in the Nez Perce National Forest, Idaho, procedures were altogether more improvised. "Our training consisted of a man saying: \'This is your parachute. You know what fire is. We jump tomorrow\'," he recalled later.
Such rudimentary preparation seemed to invite disaster – and it duly arrived, as the lines of Cooley\'s parachute got tangled and it failed to open properly. His fall was, however, cushioned by the upper branches of a spruce tree and he – and the art of smokejumping – survived. Dusting himself down, he and his partner, Rufus Robinson, located the equipment and provisions that had been dropped in their wake, and made their way to the fire. Over the next 12 hours they successfully put it out.
Dousing the flames solely with water was not feasible for the lightly-loaded smokejumpers, but several other tactics were at their disposal. These included chopping down trees to create firebreaks, digging trenches, and starting controlled fires to deprive the wildfire of fuel. In this way conflagrations could be corralled before they exploded into blazes that stretched over hundreds of acres.
All such techniques were second nature to Cooley, who had spent almost his entire existence out of doors. Indeed, to him and his fellow firefighters, the challenges and dangers of quelling flames, once safely on terra firma, were completely normal. It was the parachuting that was new, though Cooley came to relish the thrill (after the breathtaking jerk of the \'chute opening) of floating gently towards the smoke.
In a dangerous job, adding an extra element of risk carried with it a certain perverse kudos, and he enjoyed recounting the assessment of one forester: "The best information I can get from fliers is that all parachute jumpers are more or less crazy – just a little bit unbalanced, otherwise they wouldn\'t be engaged in such a hazardous undertaking."
He was born Earl Everett Cooley on September 25 1911 to parents who led a simple life on the land at Hardin, Montana. One of 11 children, he went to school until he was 12 before being summoned away to help with family farming and hunting duties. He had a particular love of stalking elk and deer and returned to Corvallis High School only in time to graduate aged 19.
His outdoor upbringing made him a natural candidate for the US Forest Service, which he joined in 1937, graduating from the forestry school at the University of Montana four years later. By then he had made his pioneering jump, and smokejumping was becoming an accepted technique to tackle fires which broke out far from roads or trails.
Depending on the skills of the pilot and the weather conditions, the smokejumpers would jump from between 1,200 and 2,000ft, aiming to get a good "read" of the fire as they circled overhead.
Those next to Cooley in the plane were often men he had trained himself, and included Quakers and, during the war, conscientious objectors who sought non-combat service. Cooley himself was regarded as an expert at locating safe "dropzones" from which the jumpers could hike to the fire.
Sprained ankles and the odd broken bone were standard fare. But Cooley was proud that in the early years, despite its apparent dangers, smokejumping had not claimed a single life.
That all changed on August 4 1949, when a lightning storm passed over the Helena National Forest, Montana. In view of the dry weather, the Forest Service had rated the fire threat as "explosive". The following day three small fires were spotted at noon and it was decided that a team would be sent in.
Cooley was not to be one of the jumpers, but it was his job to choose a safe landing spot. Despite heavy turbulence, the team made it to a place he had identified known as Mann Gulch – a cleft in the land which shielded them from the fire – by 4pm. Their two-way radio, however, had been destroyed after its \'chute failed to open.
A few minutes later, and against all Cooley\'s expectations, the wind changed direction and the fire leapt across the gully – trapping the men. The 16-strong team retreated as fast as it could, dropping gear and fleeing, but the pace of the 50ft flames, which covered 3,000 acres in 10 minutes, outstripped the men.
The crew\'s foreman, R Wagner "Wag" Dodge, knew then that running was useless, and told his team to stop. He lit a new fire, as a break, in front of him.
Two others, Walter Rumsey and Robert Sallee, found a nook in which to shelter. The others continued to run from the flames, then just 100 yards away. Dodge, Rumsey and Sallee were the only survivors.
The event profoundly marked the Forest Service – and Cooley, who was initially plagued by fears that he had made an error in choosing the drop zone. But an inquiry cleared him. "I am sure I did the right thing that day, but I still look at that map and have thought about it every day since then," he said 45 years after the event.
Mann Gulch remains the most lethal disaster to have struck smokejumpers on active service. In a later simulation, the Forest Service was unable to reproduce the unique conditions which allowed the flames to cross the gully and kill the jumpers.
Cooley\'s own career as a smokejumper lasted 22 years, during which he was a district ranger in the Nez Perce National Forest. He was named smokejumper base superintendent in Missoula, Montana, in 1958. There he recruited, trained, and dispatched some 150 smokejumpers wherever they were needed.
"He was always friendly and helpful and put up with a lot," noted Tom Kovalicky, who was a jumper at the time. "Smokejumpers had a playful streak and liked a drink, which kept Earl on his toes." Cooley became an equipment specialist in 1971 before leaving the service in 1975.
In retirement Cooley, an easy-going but hands-on manager who commanded respect from his fellows, founded the National Smokejumper Association and was its first president. "Like a lot of us he loved the excitement and the difficulty of becoming a smokejumper," said the current president John Twiss. Today, such demands mean there are still only a few hundred active smokejumpers. Last year they made 1,432 jumps for the Forest Service. "They\'re viewed within the community as unique – the special forces of firefighting," said Twiss.
Earl Cooley is survived by Irene, his wife of 68 years, and five daughters.
After the Mann Gulch fire he made crosses for the dead men and installed one where each had died. He continued to make the steep climb to maintain them until a few years before his death.