Saskatchewan smoke jumpers get their stories told

Matt
Matt Gardner
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After years of effort that saw the project pass through multiple authors, Saskatchewan’s smoke jumpers are finally ready to have their stories told.

With the release of her book The Saskatchewan Smoke Jumpers, author Hope Pederson -- wife of former smoke jumper Olaf “Swede” Pederson -- has preserved for posterity the adventures of the men who for years served as Saskatchewan’s first line of defence against wildfires in remote areas.

“The reason for the book is that they’re a part of our history -- a definite part of even Canadian history -- and I just didn’t want it to fade away and never be heard of again,” Pederson said.

“I wanted them to know that these guys did a good job and that they worked hard and they played hard, and they were a colourful part of our history.”

As part of the book’s official launch, Pederson will appear for a book signing this Tuesday, July 22 at the Prince Albert Historical Museum between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Copies of the book will be available by cash or cheque for $75.

The author described smoke jumpers’ main responsibility as the quick suppression of small fires to prevent them from becoming major fires.

In the event that smoke was observed, the smoke jumpers would parachute into close proximity to the fire and either extinguish the blaze or hold it at bay until ground crews were able to arrive.

While requiring a high level of physical fitness, the job tended to attract a certain type of recruit -- what Pederson described as “very adventurous, high-flying young hotshots,” primarily in their late teens or early twenties.

The heyday of the Saskatchewan smoke jumpers was the two decades from 1947 to 1967, during which 125 smoke jumpers worked to quell wildfires throughout the province.

Of those, Pederson’s book includes the stories of approximately 72, including her husband, who served as a smoke jumper in 1954, 1955 and 1956.

“There’s a story on as many guys as I could find there,” she noted.

The publication of the smoke jumpers’ stories represents the culmination of a long process that Pederson carried over from multiple predecessors.

“I never thought I’d be writing the book,” she said with a chuckle.

The initial impetus for The Saskatchewan Smoke Jumpers came from Saskatchewan’s first female conservation officer, Rosemary Nemeth, whom Pederson’s book is dedicated to.

At the time, Nemeth was working at setting up a museum for the Department of Natural Resources.

“She discovered that there was hardly anything about the smoke jumpers,” Pederson recalled. “They were kind of just had been there and nobody knew anything about them. So then she decided she was going to write the book and have a reunion … for the smoke jumpers.”

Nemeth had been working on the book for about two years when tragedy struck.

In 1995, she was killed in a car accident that put the future of the project in doubt.

“Everybody thought that was the end of our reunion and everything for the smoke jumpers,” Pederson recalled.

As a memorial tribute, Nemeth’s fiancé decided to go ahead with the smoke jumpers’ reunion, which became a successful three-day event in La Ronge.

They’re a part of our history ... and I just didn’t want it to fade away and never be heard of again. Hope Pederson

Still, the desire to complete the book lingered. Former “jumpmaster” Frank Tomkins hired a historian to help complete the book in 2004, but personal developments for the latter meant he could no longer dedicate any time to the project and Tomkins had no choice but to follow suit.

Subsequently, Olaf and his friend and fellow smoke jumper John “Scotty” Neill made their own effort -- doing research and gathering up information on the current whereabouts of former smoke jumpers.

When Neill became ill and eventually died of cancer, the book once again went into limbo.

But with a great deal of preliminary research complete, and invaluable assistance from historian Darren Prefontaine, the project finally found a new guide in the form of Pederson herself.

“I thought, ‘Well, I think it looks like it’s up to me to write the book,’ and so that was three years this coming September that I started it,” the author said.

“It was a joy to do,” she added. “It was really a fun mission to get accomplished and … getting to know all these guys again.”

The resulting book represents a sweeping survey of Saskatchewan’s smoke jumpers, including some harrowing adventures dealing with large fires or efforts to cross long distances walking on thin ice.

While smoke jumpers remain prevalent in Montana as well as parts of British Columbia and the Northwest Territories, they have largely vanished from the Saskatchewan landscape.

“Some of it was, I believe, because the helicopters came in and the water-bombers,” Pederson said. “But you talk to an old smoke jumper and he’ll say that they could have had two fires out by the time they get the big bomber out there and then they’ve got a huge fire going.

“So I still think there would have been a place for the smoke jumpers, but some of it was, I think, political. There were different ideas -- they felt that because of the helicopters and that kind of thing that maybe they weren’t necessary anymore.”

After Olaf’s own smoke jumping experience, he moved to British Columbia with his wife, where he worked in a pulp mill for three years.

The couple then returned to Weldon, where they originally hailed from. Olaf -- now 81 -- spent later years farming, while Hope worked as a dental assistant and various home-based businesses while dabbling in poetry.

Her first published book appears to have garnered a favourable reaction from its main subjects.

“A lot of the fellows have seen the book,” Pederson said. “I had a luncheon one day just for the smoke jumpers that are still here in Prince Albert and they were all quite thrilled with the book -- and I was pleased to know that, because you’re always a little apprehensive when it’s your first book.”

She added, “I think they’ll be remembered with it.”

Organizations: Prince Albert Historical Museum, Department of Natural Resources

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, British Columbia, La Ronge Montana Northwest Territories Weldon Prince Albert

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