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Smoke jumpers risk lives to put out fires

A smoke jumper reaches his destination in Boise, Idaho, on Thursday  

EMMETT, Idaho (CNN) -- Their names were Rufus Robinson and Earl Cooley, and on July 12, 1940, they did something no other human had done. They jumped out of an airplane to battle a blazing fire.

Robinson and Cooley were part of a small band of courageous firefighters, the smoke jumpers, who took home $193 per month for the 2 1/2-month fire season for doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

Today, more than 5,000 men and women are smoke jumpers, risking their lives during the hot and dry fire season to get up close and personal with raging wildfires to try to control them.

Forest fires predate humanity and the methods used to battle blazes are as old as mankind. But aerial methods are a very recent strategy.

CNN's Jeff Flock shows what the smokejumpers wear on the way down to the fire (May 3)

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Aerial fire patrols - planes flying in search of blazes -- began in 1919, and firefighters used planes to drop supplies to their colleagues on the ground beginning in 1929.

The idea of parachuting into a fire was considered, well, a little crazy. A professional parachutist made a few demonstration jumps in 1934, but the idea was just too outlandish for the times.

Not so in 1939, when David P. Godwin, assistant chief of fire control in Washington, D.C., approved conducting parachute experiments.

The result of those experiments was the smoke jumper program, launched after two weeks of training, between June 22 and July 3, 1940.

Training nowadays, with newer technology to work with, is more intensive. Watch CNN's Jeff Flock's report on the smoke jumpers' training facility near Emmett, Idaho.

Dry weather fuels record wildfires in U.S.
August 2, 2000

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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