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'A war without bullets' - Sask smoke jumpers hold reunion commemorating 65th anniversary

by Braden Dupuis |

From 2,000 feet above fast-spreading forest fires, they made their descent armed only with hand-tools, backpacks and their trust in each other.

They protected Saskatchewan’s forests for two decades, in a time before water bombers and helicopters.

They were Saskatchewan’s smoke jumpers.

“It was like a war without bullets,” recalled Bill Dupré, at the reunion marking the 65th anniversary of the jumpers’ inception on Sunday.

Dupré was an active smoke jumper for three years, between 1961 and 1964.

He successfully completed 53 jumps, walking away with no major injuries to speak of.

“I had a badly bruised knee once, that’s all,” he said.

“I was very fortunate.”

In fact, serious injuries among the smoke jumpers were few and far between, thanks to their rigorous training.

“We used to have about two weeks training, sometimes three, and this included physical training … and all kinds of other things that may happen on a jump, like first aid and the whole works,” explained Frank Tomkins, former jumpmaster of the Saskatchewan smoke jumpers.

“There’s always danger in jumping, you know? But you can get around that with your training. It’s really not as dangerous as people think it is.”

Tomkins jumped for 17 years, completing “well over a couple hundred as a smoke jumper.”
As jumpmaster, he was in charge of putting the other jumpers through their paces.

The extensive training prepared the young men (smoke jumpers had an average age of 25) for their big test — the first jump.

“We had spent three weeks doing mock jumps and jumping off trucks and everything,” recalled Dupré, of his first jump.

“I was so keyed up, when the jumpmaster tapped me on the shoulder I just sprung out the door, and then I thought, ‘What the hell did I do this for?’”

At the time, smoke jumpers were paid about the same as construction workers.

“Which was pretty good,” Dupré said.
“The only bad thing was they paid just once a month. I’d be broke the first week of the month.”

But when you make your living parachuting into the heart of a raging forest fire, you’ve got other things on your mind than finances.
“It wasn’t the money,” said George Cox, who completed 56 jumps between 1954 and 1959.

“They gave you $7 and 85 cents a day, and gave you a big pair of boots and a pair of wings and made you think you were King Kong.”

For Cox, it is clearly much more than the money.

He’s spent nearly his entire life fighting forest fires, in one way or another.

He got his first taste at just 11 years of age, when a fire sprang up in his home province of Nova Scotia.

“I happened to be the first person on that fire, so I’m grabbing a limb from a tree, and I’m banging away on this fire, and along comes the resource people,” he recalled.

“They said, ‘When did you get here?’ … When they finished they took my name down.

About three months later I get a cheque from the Nova Scotia government (for 25 cents) … for two hours and a half of firefighting.”
For Cox, it was the beginning of a lifelong pursuit.

“You get the bug,” he said with a smile.
After his time as a smoke jumper, Cox became a pilot, and fought forest fires from the air as a water bomber.

He flew until he was 77.

“I had a long career. Ups and downs, a few scars,” he said.

“I have a lot of good memories. I think mostly the social part of it, which we don’t want to go into (laughs). They were a pretty rough bunch of guys. Most of them had been in the army, so we played pretty hard, but we worked damn hard when we worked.”

Though the effectiveness of the smoke jumpers could not be denied, by 1967 things had begun to change.

“We did a pretty good job. We didn’t lose so many fires,” Cox said.

“It was pretty effective actually, but the helicopters came along, and the helitech crew. Some won’t admit it, but it put smoke jumpers out of business.”

Jumpmaster Tomkins, who witnessed the decline firsthand, said it had more to do with politics and money than technology.

“Private enterprise had taken over water bombing, and they were more interested in making money than putting fires out,” he said.

“Our budget was $100,000 a year including 16 smoke jumpers and aircraft. The year they got rid of us there was one fire that was a $1-million fire right off the bat, and one of the fire patrolmen gave me a call and said ‘Frank, I wish we had smoke jumpers. I flew over with a helicopter, and I could have put it out with a shovel, but there was no place to land.’

“That fire moved seven miles that day, and it burned all summer.”

But despite the controversy surrounding the decline of the smoke jumpers, and the inherent danger that comes with skydiving into a forest fire, they all share a similar sentiment about their time as smoke jumpers.

“I look back on it as a wonderful experience,” Dupré said.

“I don’t regret a minute of it.”