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Canadian Smokejumpers, Smithers, British Columbia, 1998

by Jack Demmons (MSO 1950) |

Many smokejumpers and pilots do not know that Canadian Smokejumper history dates back to days at Prince Albert, Saskatchewan , around 1942-1949, and that those Canadian jumpers trained at Missoula. Even more unknown is the history of the Canadian jumpers who were based at Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, where the Liard River flows into the Mackenzie, east of the Selwyn Mountains.

International Forest Fire Systems (IFFS) had a contract with the Northwest Territories government for a smokejumper program , which existed from 1976-1979.

Kusawa Contracting took over from 1980-1981 at Fort Simpson. The aircraft used in that operation were a Twin Beech and a Twin Islander (produced by the Britain Norman firm). In 1981 Northwest Territories said it was no longer interested in a smokejumper program.

One of those who jumped out of Fort Simpson was Mark Fletcher, who has been a member of our Association since 1993. He had taken jump training in 1978 at a facility operated by IFFS at Revelstoke, British Columbia-about 200 air miles west of Calgary, Alberta. However, there weren't any fire jumps that year. In 1979 he took rappelling training and in 1980 took smokejumper training as a "real rookie" at Fort Simpson.

In 1984 the Yukon Territory Smokejumper Program began, and was based at Whitehorse, the provincial capital, with a Douglas DC-3 aircraft. It too was under a private contractor . Mark was there from 1986-1993 and was base manager from 1990-1993. The Yukon operation lasted through the summer of 1995.

The Alaska and Canadian jumpers are closely united, in that some Yukon jumpers took training at Fort Wainwright, and Alaska jumpers were in Whitehorse at times. The two jumper units had an agreement about fighting fires some miles across the border in each other' s territory, and at times Canadian and Alaska jumpers fought fires side by side.

During the period 1981-1986 Mark did much rappelling from Bell 206 Long Range helicopters in British Columbia. From 1993 to the present time, Mark has been "Bird Dogging," flying in lead aircraft to help guide air tankers to safe routes and approaches to fires.

Mark and four other experienced Canadian jumpers, who are undergoing refresher training at the Missoula base this spring, as this article is being written, have helped convince the British Columbia provincial authorities that smokejumpers are needed. The program will be under B.C. governmental control, and not private contractors, as previously done in Western Canada. Jim Dunlop, Director of Protection (forests), based in Victoria, B.C., is the top authority and the one who said "let's do it." The jump ship will be a Shorts Sky Van and Mark will be acting as spotter, as well as being an active jumper. The base is located at Smithers. British Columbia along Highway 16, which runs from Prince George to Prince Rupert. Smithers is situated between the Bulkly Ranges and the Skeena Mountains.

Tom Reinholdt, who was a Canadian jumper from 1989 to 1995, will be base manager. In addition to Mark and Tom, experienced jumpers Pete Lainge, Dan McBee and Jeff Strange will assist as overhead. For the first year of the operation there will be 20 rookies, or new men. In the future there could be some cross-the-border exchanges of American and Canadian jumpers on fires. That would be good to see.

The American jumpers found the Canadians to be a very friendly , congenial group, who took jumper refresher training very seriously. This week they first jumped on April, 15 near the Missoula base, from a DC-3-C, and gave a good account of themselves. They depart for Canada on Saturday, April, 18.