Last survivor of Mann Gulch Fire dies

Mann Gulch Fire
Investigators on the Mann Gulch Fire looking south from Foreman Dodge’s escape fire.

The last of the three firefighters who survived the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire died Monday. Robert Sallee passed away from complications following open heart surgery.

Mr. Sallee was 17 when he parachuted into the Helena National Forest (map) above the fire along with 14 other smokejumpers from Hale Field in Missoula, Montana. As the crew worked their way toward the bottom of the fire at the Missouri River, the winds changed causing the fire below them to blow up and begin moving in their direction. As the crew retreated up the steep slope, Foreman Wagner Dodge lit an escape fire in the light fuels and told the rest of the crew to join him in the burned area, but none of them did. Mr. Sallee and another crewman, Walter B. Rumsey, took a different route than the other smokejumpers, squirming their way through a narrow crevice in a rim rock, finding much better conditions in a rock scree on the other side of the ridge. Foreman Dodge, when the main fire caught up with his escape fire, eventually followed the other two where the three of them had to keep moving around in the rock scree as the fire burned around them. The blowup burned about 3,000 acres, claiming the lives of 12 of the smokejumpers and one former smokejumper who had been fighting the fire for 4 hours before the jumpers arrived.

Foreman Dodge died five years later from Hodgkin’s disease, and Mr. Rumsey died in an airplane crash in 1980.

Norman Maclean wrote Young Men and Fire, a book about the smokejumpers and their demise in Mann Gulch. His son, John N. Maclean helped to edit and make some of the finishing touches on the book which was published in 1992, two years after his father’s death. John said that Mr. Sallee became a companion for Norman while he was collecting information for the book, and in later years was very generous in telling his story about the fire. John said Mr. Sallee had abundant social skills and “was almost courtly in his personal manner”. John later wrote Fire on the Mountain about the 1994 South Canyon Fire that killed 14 firefighters in Colorado.

About eight years after the Mann Gulch fire the “Ten Standard Firefighting Orders”  were developed and incorporated into firefighter training.

Funeral arrangements are pending at Hazen and Jaeger Valley Funeral Home in Spokane, Washington.

 

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Jay, Dave, Steve, Chris, and Shaun.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

2 thoughts on “Last survivor of Mann Gulch Fire dies”

  1. I had the opportunity to meet Bob Sallee in 2008 when he spoke at the Annual Conference of the Southern California Association of Foresters and Fire Wardens. What a nice person he was and I was in awe of him and the life he had led. I think I can speak for everyone in the fire service when I say we have lost a good friend and legend. Rest in peace Bob.

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  2. I had the opportunity back in the 1990s to spend a great evening with Bob Sallee at the Maclean cabin here in Montana, and then spend the next day hiking on the hillside at Mann Gulch with him; he was a real class act, and a wealth of good information about what happened in 1949. Glad for the chance to meet and know this historical wildland firefighter. Rest in peace.

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