Wilderness AirfieldsRemote runways improved the efficiency of firefighting operations and wilderness rescues.
Aircraft were used by the Forest Service to improve efficiency of operations and an example of this were two crudely developed landing strips in the remote mountainous region about 25 miles west of Grants Pass.
All construction was done by smokejumpers from the historic Siskiyou Smokejumper Base near Cave Junction. The idea for developing these airstrips was to use airplanes to increase the efficiency of returning firefighters to their base after fires and be prepared for the next fire call.
The first airstrip was constructed in 1956 at Collier Bar on the Illinois River and one of the crew who worked on the project, Jim Oleson, recalled that four smokejumpers parachuted in to do the work. There was a lot of brush and trees that needed to be removed, many of which required excavating and cutting with hand tools below the level of the ground.
The second airstrip was located on the Fish Hook Peak and work on this began in 1959 with Al Boucher in charge of the project. Al returned to the field for several years to do maintenance work and probably has the best recollection of the field’s history. He recalled the following.
When the project started, the work crew was transported to Bear Camp on a Monday with expectations that they would finish and return by Friday, hopefully by airplane. They hiked 14 miles to Fish Hook Peak and arrived just as gear and supplies were parachuted in. By night-fall a camp had been set up by a spring on the east side of the ridge.
The following day they began work removing three large snags, cleared brush, and leveled hummocks of dirt to create the runway. On Friday, the smokejumper base pilot, Ed Scholz, landed a two-seat plane on the strip, probably a Super Cub, and hauled out the crew members one-by-one, taking them to Agness where another smokejumper pilot, Dick Foy, picked them up in a Cessna 180 and flew them back to the base near Cave Junction.
The next season, a small crew was taken by airplane to Fish Hook Peak to do maintenance work on the runway and expected to fly home a couple of days later in the same plane. They ended up hiking out to Bear Camp because a strong cross wind prevented the plane from landing.
The following year Al worked on a reseeding project in California and brought back enough seed with him to plant grass seed over most of the Fish Hook Peak airstrip.
Jim Oleson recalled parachuting with a crew to do maintenance work on Fish Hook Peak airstrip in 1962 but maintenance appeared to have stopped after that date. The reason may have been due to helicopters becoming more common and networks of logging roads being constructed into this area. The runway fell into disrepair and only a trace of it can be found today. The Collier Bar airstrip has fallen into similar disrepair.
The locations of the airstrips can be found at the following coordinates.
Collier Bar: 42.418957,-124.010867
Fish Hook Peak: 42.531499,-123.912288 No trace of the old runway is visible
Boucher, Al, 2013. Recollections of building the Fish Hook Peak airstrip. Personal communication.
Oleson, Jim, 2013. Recollections of building Collier Bar airstrip. Personal communication.