IN MAY, ROBERT SALLEE, a retired paper industry production manager in Spokane, Washington, died at the age of 82. He was also the last survivor of the smoke jumping crew decimated by the 1949 Mann Gulch fire, one of the worst loss-of-life events in fire service history and a tale documented by Norman MacLean in his seminal 1992 book, Young Men and Fire.
On the afternoon of August 5, 1949, Sallee, just 17—he’d lied about his age—made his first jump as a novice smoke jumper for the U.S. Forest Service. Sallee was one of 15 jumpers who parachuted in to fight a fire in Mann Gulch, a steep canyon in the Helena National Forest in western Montana. Turbulence over the fire forced the plane to take a higher approach than normal, causing the men and their gear to scatter widely. The fire covered about 60 acres, the humidity was very low, and the temperature was close to 100oF.
Shortly after 5 p.m., after gathering their gear, the crew was on its way from the head of the canyon, where they had landed, toward the Missouri River at the other end of the gulch. Before they reached their destination, however, the jumper foreman, Wagner Dodge, realized the fire had crossed the canyon to the side they were on and told his crew to go back the way it had come. It was 5:45 p.m.
After running about 300 yards, Dodge told his men to drop their gear so they could move faster. The fire was moving rapidly, with flames about 50 feet high, and the men made it another 200 yards before Dodge realized they were about to be overtaken. He lit an escape fire, hoping it would clear the area of brush, allowing him and his men to take refuge in the burned space. The rest of his crew, skeptical of Dodge’s unorthodox plan, kept running. Only Sallee and one other crew member made it up the rock face at the top of the canyon. Looking back at the fire from the top of the ridge, Sallee later told another smoke jumper, he could see flames “jumping above the trees, and the men…falling before the fire got to them.” Dodge survived unscathed in his burned area. It was later estimated that the fire covered about 3,000 acres in 10 minutes during this blow-up period.
Twelve smoke jumpers and a national forest ranger died in the event, which had a significant impact on wildland firefighter training nationwide. In 1994, however, the South Canyon Fire in Colorado killed 14 firefighters, and last year 19 members of a hotshot crew died in the Yarnell Hill fire near Prescott, Arizona.