While most people may look at the wildfires currently happening on the west coast with interest, Jim Darr sees it from a different point of view.

Darr, a retired educator from Redwood Falls, knows better than most what those fighting those fires are experiencing.

He literally has been there.

Darr spent several summers in the forests of Montana, Idaho and Alaska working as a smoke jumper, which meant he parachuted out of airplanes into places where fires were happening. He and those who were part of his team would work to stop fires from getting out of hand.

According to Darr, a fire needs three things – heat, fuel and oxygen.

“Our job was to take one of those away,” said Darr, adding when one of them is removed the triangle falls.

For Darr, work as a smoke jumper started in his hometown of Parkers Prairie. Three of the teachers in the school Darr attended as a student were working during the summers for the forest service. 

Darr said three teachers at the high school were working in camps that were working to address blister rust issues in the white pine trees of Idaho.

“White pines are a desirable tree because they are fast growing and are a good soft wood for mill work,” said Darr.

The blister rust was threatening the trees, and so crews would go in and try and remove it. Darr said blister rust has two hosts – white pine and a tree known in this area as gooseberry.

The crews would go in and remove the gooseberry trees.

As a junior, Darr applied to work, but in the end he could not go as he was not old enough. He applied again after his senior year and was not accepted, but then after his freshman year of college Darr headed west to get involved working for the forest service.

“There were four or five camps working to remove the trees,” said Darr, adding there were about 30 members in each team.

The teams would go out and start in an area working back and forth on their hands and knees cleaning out the trees. Darr said they would work 66 feet apart and would work their way up the mountainside.

“After a few years they discovered that if you didn’t get every piece of the tree it could take root and come back,” said Darr.

Another option to spray the blister rust with an antibiotic was also attempted, but it was discovered that the antibiotic was not effective on the fungus.

Darr recalled wearing studded boots, with studs similar to those one would have had on studded tires, which helped prevent them from slipping and sliding as they worked on mountain side.

When they began using the spraying technique Darr said they carried three-gallon packs on their back as well as five-gallon containers that were carried.

“Sometimes we took two five-gallon containers, because we had no idea how far we would get,” Darr said, adding the last thing you wanted to have happen was to run out of spray.

Of course, there were times when that meant carrying down what one had spent their time just carrying up the mountain.

While working to eliminate blister rust, Darr also received some fire training where he was working – the Coeur d’Alene National Forest in the Idaho panhandle.

Darr recalled one evening when he and others in his squad were called out to a fire.

“There were seven or eight of us who went out,” said Darr, adding they rode out on an old half-ton truck with benches on the side. “We drove about 10 miles to about a two-acre fire. We were out all night.”

While out in the forest, Darr noticed something.

A plane was flying near them and suddenly men were falling from that plane by parachutes.

“I thought that might be fun,” said Darr, who said that was his first experience seeing what are known as smoke jumpers.

So, he applied to join that elite group of men.

– Read more of Jim Darr’s story as a smoke jumper in part 2