Robert Sallee, smoke jumper who survived Montana’s deadly Mann Gulch fire in 1949


Robert Sallee, the last living survivor of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire near Helena, Mont., that killed 13 firefighters, shown in 1991. He died May 26 at age 82. (AP)
May 31, 2014

Robert Sallee, who was the last survivor of the Mann Gulch fire, which claimed the lives of 13 firefighters on a Montana mountainside in 1949 and has lived on in memory as one of the worst tragedies in the history of the U.S. Forest Service, died May 26 at a hospital in Spokane, Wash. He was 82.

His death was reported in funeral announcements in the Spokesman Review newspaper in Spokane. He had complications from heart surgery.

Mr. Sallee (pronounced sah-LEE) was only 17 in the summer of 1949 and had lied about his age in order to join an elite group of parachuting firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service known as smoke jumpers.

His group was stationed in Missoula, Mont., on Aug. 5, 1949, when word arrived at 1:50 p.m. of a fire in a forested spot known as Gates of the Mountains Wilderness about 20 miles north of Helena, Mont. Mr. Sallee was one of 16 jumpers to board a C-47 aircraft, a military version of the DC-3. It was the first time he had parachuted from a plane to fight a fire.

The temperature in Helena was 97 degrees, the hottest day of the year. The fire appeared at first to be confined to an area of about 60 acres in a canyon called Mann Gulch, just east of the Missouri River. It had been ignited by a lightning strike.

“When the Mann Gulch fire was first spotted from the plane,” Norman Maclean wrote in “Young Men and Fire,” his best-selling 1992 book about the disaster, “the pilot, the crew foreman, and the spotter sized it up as a fairly ordinary fire.”

As the plane passed several times over the canyon, 15 smoke jumpers leaped out and assembled on the ground. (One jumper was too sick from the bumpy flight and stayed on board the airplane.) It was 4:10 p.m. when the C-47 waggled its wings as it headed back to Missoula.

The 15 smoke jumpers, helped by rangers on the ground, moved into position on the steep mountainside just as the wind began to pick up. The flames shot higher, and the smoke grew thicker as the fire advanced from timberland to an open meadow.

Within 10 minutes, the blaze had engulfed about 3,000 acres, jumping from one ridge, with flames 200 feet high. The foreman, R. Wagner Dodge, tried to move his crew to a lower, safer spot on the mountain, as the fire advanced on them from three directions.

Dodge lit a “backfire,” in the hope that the larger fire would leap over the a 100-foot circle of safety and allow the smoke jumpers to survive. Dodge ordered his firefighters to jettison their heavy equipment and seek shelter, but not all of them did. One paused to take snapshots of the fire with a small camera.

The roar of the flames was so great, Mr. Sallee and another survivor, Walter Rumsey, later recalled, that they could not hear anyone speak on the mountain.

Between 5:40 and 6 p.m., members of the crew scrambled to escape the flames. Mr. Sallee and Rumsey climbed toward the top of a rocky ridge.

“I got to the top,” Mr. Sallee told a former smoke jumper, Carl Gidlund, for a 1966 master’s thesis at the University of Montana, “and looked back. Flames were jumping above the trees and the men were falling before the fire got to them. The ridge was solid rimrock, 10 to 15 feet high and straight up, like a cliff.”

Mr. Sallee, Rumsey and a third smoke jumper, Eldon Diettert, ran along the ridge top, looking for an opening to take away from the flames, then only 500 feet away.

“We ran on not knowing where to go or what to do, when suddenly looming ahead of us in the smoke was a rock slide several hundred feet long and perhaps 75 feet wide,” Rumsey wrote in a 1961 statement that his son released many years later.

“We stumbled into it exhausted and gasping for breath. … We lay there for two or three minutes watching the fire come towards us. It was nearly 6:00 p.m., and we could see the red circle of the sun through the smoke.”

Mr. Sallee soaked his hat with water and held it to his mouth as he lay face down in the rocks. After a few minutes, the fire passed them by and silence returned. Mr. Sallee and Rumsey looked around, but Diettert was no longer with them.

They heard weak cries from lower on the mountain and went to find a member of their team conscious but struggling for breath. Dodge, the foreman, survived the fire by staying in the circle he had burned in the grass.

Mr. Sallee and Rumsey stumbled down to the river, where they hailed a pleasure boat and asked for help. They returned to the mountain to offer what comfort they could. It was after midnight before rescue crews arrived.

Ten smoke jumpers and a ranger fighting the fire from the ground died on the mountain. Two more died the next day in a hospital. All but one died of smoke inhalation.

When the sun dawned the next day, smoke rose from the mountain. Mr. Sallee was called on to identify the bodies.

Robert Wayne Sallee was born Aug. 18, 1931, on a farm near Willow Creek, Mont. His family moved around during the Depression, and he grew up mostly in Idaho.

He began working for the Forest Service at 15 before becoming a smoke jumper. Ten days after the Mann Gulch fire, he was back to work, parachuting onto another fire with Rumsey.

Of the three survivors of Mann Gulch, Mr. Sallee lived the longest. Dodge died of Hodgkin’s disease in the 1950s. Rumsey was killed in a plane crash in 1980.

Mr. Sallee tried several occupations before graduating from Eastern Washington University in 1973. He then worked in the paper industry, setting up paper mills around the world. He retired in 2000 as production manager for the Inland Empire Paper Co. in Spokane.

His first wife, Alberta Jones Sallee, died in 1990. A son died in 2000.

Survivors include his second wife, Bertie Brown Sallee of Spokane; a son from his first marriage; two stepchildren; three sisters; and two brothers.

The Mann Gulch fire led to reforms in firefighting techniques and in how firefighters are trained.

Mr. Sallee said little about the fire until he was invited by Maclean, the author of “A River Runs Through It,” to revisit Mann Gulch in 1978. Maclean’s book about the disaster was published in 1992, two years after the author’s death, and is considered a nonfiction classic.

“The victims were young and did not leave much behind them,” he wrote, “and need someone to remember them.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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