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Smoke jumpers share stories

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News from the Miracle of America Museum

POLSON— The Miracle of America Museum’s monthly second Thursday evening program in October was well attended with the showing of the 1952 feature length movie “Red Skies of Montana” starring Richard Widmark and Richard Boone. It was based on the tragic 1949 forest fire at Mann Gulch near the Gates of the Mountains 20 miles north of Helena in which 12 smoke jumpers lost their lives. Most died of suffocation and smoke inhalation when high winds caused new fires to encircle them and caused a fire blow up.

The honored guest at the program was Hal Samsel. Hal joined the Forest Service in 1949 and served as a smoke jumper for 30 years. He was the first to earn the “over 250 fire jumps” pin. In the later years, he also served as foreman of the parachute rigging loft, and worked in the equipment and development program where they designed and tested better and safer methods and equipment.

But for a Yellowstone Park fire he was sent to on the Aug. 5, 1949, he might have upped the casualty count of the Mann Gulch fire tragedy the next day.

Another special guest at the museum program was Wanda Wildenberg, who made 75 fire jumps in a four-year span. She shared feelings of being a woman smoke jumper and showed some of her personal gear. She always carried her own pack and gear of 130 pounds, which outweighed her. She was honored to meet and shake hands with Hal and referred to him as a brother in the service. 

“There is an awful lot of trust you have to have for one another, whether packing chutes or on the fire line,” she said.


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