Smokejumpers who survived a 1961 wildfire on Higgins Ridge in Idaho will recount their harrowing experience in a film on Monday on Montana PBS. The Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell reported that “Higgins Ridge,” named for the location of the fire in Idaho’s Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, will air January 30 at 8 p.m. Mountain Time.
The U.S. Forest Service sent 20 smokejumpers to what looked like a routine fire from the air, but an afternoon cold front blew the blaze to an inferno on the Nez Perce National Forest. The jumpers, 8 from Grangeville and 12 out of Missoula — many of them rookies — shifted from fighting the fire to fighting for their lives. They instinctively wanted to run to safety, but they remembered the fate of 13 firefighters who had tried to outrun a fire in Montana’s Mann Gulch 12 years before.
With that tragedy in mind, they decided to hold up. As the wind increased to 50 mph the supervisors of the two squads, Dave Perry and Fred “Fritz” Wolfrum, instructed the firefighters to remain calm and to clear an area for themselves in the black.
In the film, 12 of the 20 men who jumped the fire on August 4, 1961, share the story of how the fire surrounded them, showered them with embers, and forced them to shelter in place. After about three hours, helicopter pilot Rod Snider managed to land his Bell 47B-3 on Higgins Ridge, about 83 miles southwest of Missoula, despite heavy smoke and wind, and he shuttled the jumpers to safety. Snider, then a pilot with Johnson Flying Service who is now 92 years old, is featured in the documentary along with many of his original photos from 1961.
“This is a story that, for 60 years, never was shared beyond a few smokejumper circles,” producer Breanna McCabe said. “I didn’t believe it when I first heard it. But when a dozen men who were there all corroborate the same series of unbelievable events, I knew it was time for the public to hear it.”
Many of the interviews were collected in 2019 as part of the National Museum of Forest Service History’s Higgins Ridge Oral History Project. The museum partnered with Montana PBS producer Breanna McCabe for technical assistance recording the interviews, and McCabe collected additional interviews and materials to weave the stories into one captivating hourlong film.
Bill Gabbert wrote a detailed story on this fire three years ago.
About the producer: Montana PBS producer Breanna McCabe draws from 16 years of video storytelling throughout the West and beyond. She is eager to bring “Higgins Ridge” to audiences in 2023, a historical story that’s grounded at the Missoula Smokejumper Base in McCabe’s hometown. She remembers watching smokejumpers practice landing on the hill behind her childhood home, and today she enjoys hearing “silk stories” from her brother-in-law, an Alaska smokejumper. As a producer at Montana PBS, McCabe contributes stories to the program “Backroads of Montana.” Her last documentary, “Ghost Forests,” took viewers into high elevations to examine the threats facing whitebark pine. McCabe graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism in 2009, and returned to earn her master’s degree in environmental science and natural resource journalism in 2020. In between, she worked as a broadcast news reporter for CBS News affiliates KPAX-TV in Missoula and KREM 2 News in Spokane. When she’s not asking senior smokejumpers to see their slide collections, she enjoys exploring trails, rivers and shores with her husband and their two pint-sized, high-spirited rescue dogs.