MISSOULA, Mont. – Fighting wildland fires is grimy, exhausting, dangerous and impressive. When smokejumpers do the work, parachuting in to wage the initial attack on fires in remote, rugged places, the wow factor is even stronger.
The smokejumper training base in Missoula gives visitors a look at the preparation and skill required of men and women who work as smokejumpers. Throughout the summer, tours are offered six times a day at the Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumper Center just west of Missoula International Airport.
The training base is also a fascinating place to start a Missoula stay of a weekend or longer. The city embraced by the Rockies invites riverside strolls, fishing, carousel rides, gallery browsing and a not-too-taxing ascent up part of the University of Montana’s mountain. People who come to Montana for one of its biggest attractions, Glacier National Park, will find Missoula an easy springboard. The park is 155 road miles from here.
The smokejumper base, one of nine in the western states and Alaska, has parachutes spread out for repair and repacking, and a “ready room” that gets busy fast when a crew mobilizes for a fire. Visitors can also view exhibits of firefighting gear and learn some of the history of smokejumping, now the seasonal work of about 470 men and women employed by the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
About 60 smokejumpers are based in Missoula. If some of them make practice jumps during a tour, visitors get to watch.
The first descent in smokejumping history was in 1940, over Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest. That was five years after a Forest Service regional boss sent a letter to higher-ups in Washington criticizing the idea of “dropping men from airplanes” to fight fires and suggesting 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.” The letter is on exhibit at the smokejumper center.
There’s also a mock-up of a fire lookout. The small structures are still staffed in national forests, but they’re less important thanks to better ways of detecting fire through aviation and technology. Furnishings include a bed used by the late Norman Maclean at Seeley Lake, north of Missoula, when he wrote A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, about fishing, and Young Men and Fire, about the loss of 13 men, 12 of them smokejumpers, overrun by Montana’s Mann Gulch fire in 1949.
The smokejumper base is part of a Forest Service complex of buildings also occupied by the agency’s Missoula Technology and Development Center. Work there has contributed to the design and construction of the clothing firefighters wear, and the personal safety shelters they carry.
Missoula specialists in the shelters’ development and use went to Arizona in July to assist in the investigation after a 19-man ground crew died June 30 while battling the Yarnell Hill fire southwest of Prescott, Ariz.
Tours by appointment are available at the technology and development center, where work ranges from testing chemical fire retardants to designing gate latches and campground water pumps for people with disabilities.
Missoula’s highly walkable downtown is less than 10 miles from the smokejumper base, and there are plenty of things to do in and around the city.
For a view from above, take a 30-minute hike part of the way up Mount Sentinel, overlooking the University of Montana, to a 125-foot-long “M” positioned 620 feet above the Missoula Valley floor. The remaining trail from the whitewashed letter to the mountaintop covers about a mile, and an elevation gain of 1,338 feet.
From the base of Mount Sentinel, it’s a short walk through the campus to paths on both sides of the Clark Fork River.
The path on the south bank fronts a historic former railroad depot, now the national headquarters of the Boone and Crockett Club, a hunting and wildlife organization. Just inside the front door stand taxidermied specimens of an Alaska brown bear, a musk ox and other wild vertebrates. Displays highlight some of the contributions of club pioneers Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell, who was one of the Audubon Society founders and a key figure in establishing Glacier National Park 100 years ago.
Across a bridge with a walkway, the Caras Park carousel with hand-carved horses spins on the river’s north bank. Within view of the carousel, anglers cast their lines on the Clark Fork and kayakers maneuver through its engineered whitewater, called Brennan’s Wave, which drew the U.S. Freestyle Kayaking Championships in 2010.
Caras Park, a summer place for food fairs and special events such as art festivals, is adjacent to the downtown shopping district and nicely endowed with restaurants and galleries. The first Friday of each month is Gallery Night, when artists are on hand to meet the public and some of the galleries set out food and wine. In the summer, street performers and vendors settle into spots on the sidewalks.
Missoula’s lodging downtown and beyond offers assorted chains, some locally owned motels and a few bed-and-breakfast inns. For people who plan ahead with reservations and are willing to do some driving, old fire lookouts that the Forest Service rents out – places akin to the replica at the smokejumper base – are an option for memorable, primitive accommodations. They’re a destination, not a place for evening arrival after a city day.
Rentals include the Lolo National Forest’s West Fork Butte Lookout, about 50 miles from Missoula. On the ground rather than elevated, the 14-by-14-foot (lookout available for $30 a night offers expansive views of the Bitterroot Mountains and has a wood-burning stove, dishes, cookware and an outhouse. Renters supply the bedding or sleeping bags for the bunks, and build the memories.