Siskiyou Smokejumper Base
The Siskiyou Smokejumper Base was the first aerial fire fighter bases in Oregon history and is one of the original four bases that were established when smokejumping first began. It is the only one of the original four bases still standing in its original location and condition. It now contains one of the most complete assemblages of historic smokejumper buildings in the nation including the nation’s oldest smokejumper parachute loft.
Smokejumpers are fire fighters that parachute from airplanes into the forest to fight forest fires that have been started by lightning in remote, mountainous regions. The idea is to get to a fire while it is small and easy for one or two fire fighters to put out. In this way they prevent fires from becoming catastrophic events that are both dangerous and expensive to put out.
The Siskiyou Smokejumper Base was established in 1943 at Cave Junction, Oregon about three years after smokejumping first began in America. It is one of the first four smokejumper bases in American history.
Some authors claim the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base was established at this location because of Japanese incendiary bombs dropped by an enemy plane near Brookings during World War Two in September 9, 1942. The plane that did the bombing was pontoon plane brought in by submarine and assembled off shore and flew from there to drop a bomb near Mount Emily about 30 miles west of Cave Junction. To this date, it is the only bomb dropped by an enemy airplane anywhere in the lower 48 states. The smokejumper base was established at Cave Junction the next summer and some believe it was the the bombing incident that prompted the base to be constructed in southwest Oregon.
The original landing strip was constructed in 1940 with Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers. It was a dirt landing strip until 1951 when the runway was paved.
Smokejumper operations were first set up in 1943 at a temporary base behind the Redwood Ranger Station in Cave Junction. This was necessary because, at that time, there was no running water, electricity, and buildings at the airport. Most “able bodied” men were over seas fighting battles during World War Two and, for this reason, the first smokejumpers at this base were conscientious objectors, mostly Mennonites.
During the next five years, smokejumpers worked on projects to set up the base at the airport. One of the first things they built was a hangar for their observation airplane. A warm up pad and fuel tank was installed in 1945 and a watchman’s cabin was set up. This cabin later became the pilot shack. A barracks was constructed in 1948 and the bath house and cook house were moved from behind the Redwood Ranger Station to the base in the same year. Construction on the parachute loft began in 1949. A training area was constructed around the same time.
The Cold War of the 1950s heightened fears that atomic weapons might cause extensive forest fires. This may be a reason for the increase in the number of smokejumpers hired at the base and the addition of a new barracks, cook house, and bath house in 1954. The last permanent structure constructed at the base was the south supervisor’s residence, completed in 1957.
At the end of the Vietnam war in the early 1970’s, there was a surplus of helicopters available and many were put to work in fire fighting operations. Helicopters offered some advantages over airplanes and smokejumpers because firefighters who were deployed in helicopters didn’t need the same rigorous training that smokejumpers needed and could be delivered at night. Some managers believed helicopter crews would replace smokejumpers and may have been one of the reasons the base was closed in 1981.
Singer Sewing Machine Magazine, Winter 1956
Throughout the history of this base, there were many sewing machines needed to repair parachutes. As many as 17 machines of different sizes were in operation at this base’s parachute loft, most of which were Singer Sewing Machines. The Singer Company noted this fact in an article that featured the Siskiyou Smokejumper Base in a 1956 edition of their company magazine.
Visitor Guide – Siskiyou Smokejumper Base
The training area for the base was in full view of tourist traffic on Highway 199 and enough curious people stopped to visit that the Forest Service produced a visitor guide.