History of the fire beater

This historical photo shows a smokejumper beating flames with a burlap bag during an era when safety policy regarding personal protection equipment was much different. File photo provided by Alaska smokejumpers.

by BLM Alaska Fire Service

How smokejumper ingenuity led to the development of a tool widely used by Alaska wildland firefighters. Story by Jeff Cramer, BLM Alaska Fire Service smokejumper crew supervisor.

Long before there were Alaska smokejumpers, people were beating out fires in Alaska.

Because much of the organic layer in Alaska is too deep to make digging fire line an effective way of controlling a wildfire, it must be extinguished with water or by beating it. In the early years of organized firefighting in Alaska, the primary ways of beating out fires were primitive. People used small spruce trees and burlap bags. Eventually a tool was developed by BLM Alaska Fire Service smokejumpers and called the “beater.”

When spruce trees were available, smokejumpers selected a tree approximately 6-8 feet tall with a bushy top. Firefighters then cut all the lower limbs, leaving the top foot or two of branches to swat the flames. Burlap bags were used when no spruce trees were around. These coarse, heavy, plain-woven fabric bags require constant soaking in water, wore out quickly, and required the jumper to get close to fire to extinguish it.

Alaska smokejumpers have protected federal, state and private lands in Alaska and the lower 48 from the threat of wildfires since 1959 utilizing high performance fixed-wing aircraft and specialized parachutes. All their gear and equipment, except for parachutes, are manufactured by smokejumpers in their loft at BLM Alaska Fire Service facilities in Fairbanks, Alaska. Because smokejumpers’ lives depend on their equipment, safety is paramount, and ingenuity is encouraged.

The development of the modern beater, which began on a fire north of the remote village of St. Mary’s in western Alaska in the summer of 1987, is a perfect example of this resourcefulness.

These tools, made of rubber strips attached to flexible shafts, are used to beat a surface fire into submission by lightly swatting out the burning edge. When the flapper hits the ground, the oxygen supply to the flames is stopped and the fire is smothered. These beaters, designed and modified by Alaska smokejumpers over the years, are now used by firefighters throughout Alaska and occasionally in the lower 48.

Tony Pastro, an Alaska smokejumper from 1977 until his retirement in 2010, recalls the story of how the beater came to be.

“We were on top of rolling hills beating in tundra and through patches of alder. No spruce boughs, just burlap bags and no water to wet them in,” Pastro recalled. “In the alder, we had to get on our hands and knees and pat the fire out.”

Working with Pastro were smokejumpers Pat McGrane and Tom “Troop” Emonds. Smokejumpers carried several burlap bags to replace any that burned while extinguishing the fire. The extra bags kept catching on fire due to the close proximity to the flaming edge, causing the smokejumpers to redirect suppression efforts to the pack. While trying to beat the wildfire out, Emonds lamented that there had to be a better, safer way to extinguish the fire.

“I think this is when (Emonds) started thinking about a beating tool for Alaska,” Pastro said.

Soon after this fire, Emonds – who started as a rookie smokejumper in Cave Junction, Oregon in 1966, transferred to Fairbanks in 1981 – began to develop the prototype of the modern beater.

“He started with a fiberglass splitting maul handle, a beating head made of strips of conveyer belting, and a Pulaski head and worked on a system to connect the heads to the handle,” Pastro said. Emonds’ design became the long-strap Dragon Swatter in the Universal Wildfire Tool Kit.

In 1991, Emonds left the Alaska Smokejumpers and Pastro took over the development of the tool. He first brought a spruce bough beater to a smokejumper crew meeting and asked jumpers what they liked and disliked about it. The resulting prototype was a beater with a “light and flexible handle” and a completely redesigned head allowing the jumpers to use the same beating technique as a spruce beater. This version was in the field in 1992 and within the next several years became a standard tool deployed with a load of smokejumpers in Alaska.

Only minor changes were made throughout the 90s. The handles were modified to become collapsible in the early 2000s, allowing the beaters to fit into the fire packs instead of being tied on the outside. This eliminated the potential interference with cargo chute deployment and breakage upon hard landings. This design has withstood the test of time and is used today.

For more information about BLM Alaska Fire Service, go online at blm.gov/alaskafireservice.