Museum Musings: Dennis Kelly and the Saskatchewan Smoke Jumpers

Prince Albert resident Dennis Kelly, pictured here with Johnny Sinclair on a Canso 1950 airplane, was instrumental in creating the Saskatchewan Smoke Jumpers in 1947. Photo from the Bill Smiley Archives.

As recent municipal and provincial government announcements have suggested, Saskatchewan’s forests are one of our most valuable resources.  This renewable natural resource, properly managed, can provide economic benefits for individuals working in tourism, logging, and manufacturing.

During its first term in office, the CCF government recognised the need to ensure our forestry resources were being properly managed.  As a result, they called for a Royal Commission on Forestry which, when it reported in 1946, raised concerns indicating that drastic measures were required to preserve those valuable provincial forest reserves, including especially protecting the northern and remote forests from the ravages of fire. One of the suggestions for providing such protection included the use of smoke jumpers, similar to those being used in the United States.

As a result of this recommendation, the Fire Control Supervisor, E.J. Marshall, and Ansgar Aschim, assistant supervisor, both with the provincial Forestry Services, visited the U.S. National Forest Service in Missoula, Montana. Their report to the Minister of Natural Resources, the Honourable J.L. Phelps, resulted in a decision by the provincial government to establish the Saskatchewan Smoke Jumpers, Canada’s first aerially deployed fire suppression team.

 Having arrived at the decision, it was incumbent upon the Department of Natural Resources to implement a plan to hire and train a team of men to combat the problem.  One individual, already employed by the department, stood out as being the person to lead this innovative team.

Dennis Kelly, the son of Forrest and Elise Kelly, was born in Prince Albert on November 20th, 1926.  Growing up on the east hill, he attended King George School and Prince Albert Collegiate Institute, and early on in life displayed a love for physical activity and the great outdoors.

In his sixteenth year, Dennis followed his older brother Raymond into the Canadian army.  He became one of the first group of individuals willing to volunteer for the 1st Paratroop Battalion.  As a result, Kelly was required to travel to Fort Benning, Georgia to take special training at the paratroop training base there.

This training prepared Kelly for his role in World War II, parachuting into enemy territory.  He was soon promoted to sergeant, and became the battalion jump master, as well as taking on the role of physical training instructor.  Like another Prince Albertan, Tommy Settee, during his military career Kelly was an active and proficient boxer, participating in and winning many in-service fights.

After the war, Kelly returned to Prince Albert and joined the Department of Natural Resources, where he was working at the time of the establishment of the Smoke Jumpers in 1947.  His war time experience made him the ideal candidate for the position as the team’s first Jump Master.  Not only did Kelly train the recruits, but he also helped to establish the procedures for fighting fires in areas where there were no roads to provide access.

Kelly was known as a precise and demanding instructor, but was highly regarded as he would not expect any trainee to do anything which he himself was not willing and able to do.  The recruits were required to become physically very fit before being considered ready to serve.  Kelly’s instruction, a six week course, included the packing of parachutes, and the theory of jumping (including avoidance of tall trees and escaping them if one failed to do so).  As well, the recruits were taught how to fight fires, and the basics of first aid.  Rolls when landing were practised at the Prince Albert air port, both from the back of moving trucks and from a 9 metre tower.  Later, after the team relocated to La Ronge for their summer duties, they continued their training and practice in the muskeg north of the town site.  Rolls of toilet paper were often used in their training in order to measure wind direction, a matter of vital importance for the safety of the jumpers.

Kelly’s tuition was so successful, as was his supervision of their actual jumps, that the Saskatchewan Smoke Jumpers became known world-wide for their safety record.  They recorded no deaths and only a few broken bones, of which only one was considered to be serious.

In 1958, after successfully training up dozens of men as smoke jumpers, and expanding the crew from four teams of four men to eight teams of four men, Kelly chose to resign his position as Jump Master.  His love of the north and its outdoor life style led him into ownership of two fishing camps, North of La Ronge Camp and Reindeer Lake Trout Camp.  He later owned Reindeer Airways with a fleet of two Cessna 180s.

Unfortunately for Kelly, his wife Gladys, and their seven children, Kelly’s life came to a sudden and sad end on Saturday, June 24th, 1961.  The fit and active man, who so enjoyed the outdoor life in the north country, died as a result of an airplane accident.

Reports indicate that, while flying to a newly opened camp on Great Bear Lake, Kelly misjudged the height of his air craft on a glassily smooth lake and crashed the plane into its icy cold waters.  In an attempt to obtain assistance, Kelly chose to swim to shore.  Although a strong swimmer, he was overcome and drowned.  His body was never recovered.  As a result, no funeral was held but a memorial service was conducted at Prince Albert’s St. George’s Anglican church on October 21st, 1961.

Great Bear Lake is approximately 1,370 kilometres north of Edmonton, and is the largest lake fully contained within Canada.  It has a maximum depth of 446 metres, and its average depth is nearly 72 metres.  Temperatures in June have an average range between lows of 4 degrees and highs of 11 degrees.  It is not unusual for the lake to be covered with ice into the month of June.

For further information on the Saskatchewan Smoke Jumpers, you might wish to visit the local Historical Museum to view our exhibit about them.  We also have copies of Hope Pederson’s book on the Smoke Jumpers for sale in the Museum’s Gift Shop.  The Museum is open Monday through Friday (except holidays) from 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m.  Access is through the east door.  Just ring the door bell.