February 28, 1998 in Nation/World

Exhibit Recalls ‘Fire In The Mountains’ Smokejumpers Honored At Bonner County Museum

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Joan Cramer typically answered the late night telephone call. Then she would wake her husband.

“Fire in the mountains,” came her familiar yell. It was time for her husband Albert, a smokejumper, to go to work.

For 32 years, starting in the early 40s, Cramer leaped from planes and led other firefighters into smoky forests to fight flames.

He managed to survive the fires, coming out only sore and bruised, unlike some fellow firefighters. At the 1949 Mann Gulch blaze in Helena, Mont., Cramer retrieved the bodies of 11 other smokejumpers.

“Some were identified by belt buckles and their rings. It was pretty hard on him,” Joan Cramer said. Only two of the 15 smokejumpers who parachuted into the remote Mann Gulch that day survived. One was Robert Sallee of Sandpoint.

Cramer’s career is chronicled in “Fire in the Mountains,” a new display at the Bonner County Museum. The exhibit also details the devastating 1910 and Sundance fires. The 1910 blaze swallowed half the town of Wallace, burning 100 buildings. It scorched 5 million acres and killed 79 firefighters in Idaho and Montana.

An old newspaper headline described Aug. 20, 1910, as the day “all hell broke loose.” Helpless fire crews fled from the mountains and sought shelter in streams and root cellars.

“Some survived by going in the mines around Wallace. Others got cremated in the mines. It was a hefty fire,” said Joan Cramer, who helped set up the exhibit in honor of her husband who died in 1991, at age 66. He was the first smokejumper to record 100 jumps.

Also on display is devastation from Bonner County’s Sundance fire, near Priest Lake. It was one of the fastest moving wildfires ever. Flames danced 16 miles and scorched 50,000 acres in about nine hours.

“It’s historical because no fire has ever moved that fast,” said Tom Rosenberg, a fire dispatcher for the U.S. Forest Service. Two men were killed in the blaze while trying to bulldoze a fire break. One man tried to hide under the bulldozer.

The history of the Sundance fire includes video from a 1967 NBC nightly news report on how the two men were killed.

Another article tells of a college-bound Sandpoint teenager who escaped the fire by sleeping on rubble from a rock slide. Randy Langston was posted in the Sundance lookout tower spotting fires. The blaze moved so fast it blocked his escape. He fled the tower to a nearby rock slide. The next morning a helicopter rescued him. The lookout tower survived, but the wildfire came within 50 feet of it.

“There are some fascinating tales and tragedy that are part of the Sundance fire,” said Connie Salesky, a museum trustee who helped organize the exhibit.

Reminiscing about the Sundance fire prompted museum workers to start hunting for old photographs and historical accounts, Salesky said. This spring the museum also expects to land a traveling smokejumpers exhibit from Missoula, Mont., a training base for smokejumpers.

“Most old-timers know about the Sundance fire, but there are others who have moved here that know nothing about it,” Salesky said. “It’s part of our history and goes with the territory. We want others to have a chance to walk into the past.”

Two mannequins dressed in smokejumper gear, their faces smeared with soot, lean on burned-out stumps at the center of the exhibit. Tools of the wildfire fighting trade surround them.

The Pulaski, a tool that’s half ax, half pick - invented by Edward Pulaski - made its debut in battling the 1910 fire. A “palouser” is also on display. The gadget was an old-fashioned flashlight. It consisted of a lard bucket with a hole cut in the side and a candle stuffed in it.

“Lots of things have changed since firefighting in those days,” said Rosenberg. Smokejumpers are still the initial attack force, but are backed by helicopters and planes carrying flame retardant.

Firefighters also now carry a small lifesaving pouch that unfolds into a fire shelter. Forest Service officials estimate the device has saved 200 lives.

“We still have some pretty good fires, but a lot less that escape,” Rosenberg said. Better forest management and quicker response to blazes help stop out of control wildfires such as the 1910 and Sundance fires.

Rosenberg helped with some of the exhibit and expects a good number of visitors.

“People like to see fires. It’s the fascination with what it can do,” he said. “It’s kind of like why some people go to car races, to see the crashes.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo


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