On Aug. 4, 1961, the U.S. Forest Service sent 20 of its most elite firefighters – smokejumpers – to parachute into the Idaho wilderness to put out a wildfire burning on a mountain ridge. What looked like a routine fire from the air became a different story on the ground, as wind fueled the blaze into a blowup. The smokejumpers, many in their first season on the job, pivoted from battling the fire to fighting for their lives as the fire surrounded them. While they instinctively wanted to run to safety, they remembered the fate of 13 firefighters who unsuccessfully tried to outrun a fire in Montana's Mann Gulch 12 years earlier. With that tragedy in mind, the 1961 smokejumpers decided to shelter in place. Skilled backcountry pilot Rod Snider set out to find them in a Bell helicopter, but flying conditions were treacherous due to the wind, and visibility was poor due to the smoke. Now in his 90s, Snider revisits the unimaginable saga seared into his memory, revealing a story about bravery and brotherhood.

Smokejumpers suited up outside the Aerial Fire Depot in Missoula, Montana, in 1961. (Photo courtesy Ed Kurowski)

Pilot Rod Snider captured this photo above the fire from his helicopter. (Photo by Rod Snider)




Portraite of filmmaker Breanna McCabe

Breanna McCabe

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, McCabe 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.