MISSOULA – Earl Cooley, a pioneering smokejumper who took the Forest Service’s first leap into a flame-riddled wilderness, died Monday in Missoula. He was 98.
Cooley made the jump into the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho on July 12, 1940. His chute nearly failed to open and he landed 140 feet above ground, stuck in a spruce tree. Still, Cooley and fellow jumper Rufus Robinson had the fire under control by the next day.
Cooley was interviewed extensively by famed author Norman Maclean for the novel “Young Men and Fire,” which focused on the Mann Gulch tragedy north of Helena that killed 12 jumpers in 1949. Cooley was the spotter on that fire.
“There wasn’t the safety consciousness there is today,” recalled John Maclean, son of Norman Maclean. “You took the risks, and nobody paid attention to that anyway until Mann Gulch. Smokejumping didn’t need to be sold because it worked. There were lots and lots of fires you couldn’t get to and you had to get to.”
Cooley once told a newspaper reporter the only bad part of parachuting into a forest fire was the walk home.
In 1958, Cooley was named the smokejumper base superintendent in Missoula. He retired from the Forest Service in 1975 to start Cooley Realty.
Cooley also helped found the National Smokejumper Association and served as its president for three years. In 1984, he chronicled much of the Forest Service’s early smokejumping history in his book “Trimotor and Trail.”
“He was acutely aware of his place in the history of smokejumping,” Maclean said of Cooley. “By the time my dad started investigating the Mann Gulch fire, there was a dwindling number of primary sources. We are all better off because Earl put down on paper that early history. No one else could have done it.”