Bill Gabbert’s introduction to firefighting – and motorcycles

by Wade Ward

I first met Bill Gabbert in a forestry economics class in 1968 at Mississippi State where we were both forestry majors. The professor of the class coordinated summer jobs with the students and the Forest Service. The previous summer I had taken one of those jobs: a hotshot position with the Chilao Hotshots in southern California. I told Bill about the experience and he decided he wanted to go the next summer. 

We went to see the professor who advised us, but he said he currently had only fire tower lookout positions and some timber stand improvement positions. Bill and I took the timber stand improvement positions, and we ended up in northern California at the Log Springs Ranger Station on the Mendocino National Forest, where we spent the summer running chainsaws and thinning trees. Twice our crew was sent to fires, where I assume someone thought chainsaws were needed. Both times we were not put on the fireline. Bill was disappointed. 

Haight & Ashbury
Wade Ward (left) and Bill Gabbert (right) on an early trip to California.

We returned to Mississippi State and rented an off-campus duplex where we lived the following year. I graduated and was immediately drafted into the Army – as I won the 1969 draft lottery. Bill dropped out of school lacking only a one-hour credit to graduate; he returned to California as a member of an engine crew in southern California, where he could actually fight fires. He did not have to worry about the draft as he’d got a high number. He also eventually took another course and received his degree.

When I finished my Army stint I traveled by motorcycle to Lake Elsinore, California to visit with Bill. He was in love with his job, and he stayed with the Forest Service until transitioning to the Department of the Interior. I never visited him while he was in Indiana, but did so several times while he was in Hot Springs, South Dakota. I rode my motorcycle out there.

On one trip we made Bill decided to buy a bike, and he did that immediately. He and I made numerous bike trips together through the years, and I think perhaps the only thing he liked better than the bike trips was his career and his associates in the wildfire community. So it’s quite fitting that his ashes will be spread in National Parks … Paul Mims and I, along with another friend, will be taking some of Bill Gabbert’s ashes by bike to Rocky Mountain and Wind Cave National Parks. Family members and other friends will help spread his ashes in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

Bill Gabbert (center) with Paul Mims (left) and Wade Ward (right) on one of their bike trips. Bill completed an Iron Butt Association ride – to qualify you need to ride 100 national parks within a year.
Bill Gabbert (center) with Paul Mims (left) and Wade Ward (right) on one of their bike trips. Bill completed an Iron Butt Association ride – to qualify you need to ride 100 national parks within a year.
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4 thoughts on “Bill Gabbert’s introduction to firefighting – and motorcycles”

  1. Tomorrow, 5/18, I’m going to Rapid City, SD. On Friday, 5/19, in a scenic tranquil spot, I will set my part of Bill free. As I do I will reflect on both the many miles Bill and I rode together and our work experiences we shared.

  2. You are a good friend and a fine human, Bill Blake. Catch us a few photos if you can.

  3. Thanks for these sweet recollections. There really lovely and heartfelt to read.

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