Bill Gabbert’s fire legacy

Longtime fire journalist Bill Gabbert left us way too soon last year, and many of us will miss him and his contributions to the world of wildfire for a long time to come.

It was pancreatic cancer that took him, and he had a rough go of it for his last year or so, but then he was one of the fortunate few who go quietly and easily in their sleep.

Bill Gabbert, Canada Icefields Parkway
Bill Gabbert on a road trip, Canada Icefields Parkway

When the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) accepted Bill’s generous offer to continue the form, format, and platform of his wildfire journalism websites, we were hoping for many conversations with him, with more time to absorb his advice and knowledge.

Those conversations were far too few, though, and the time far too short. But we are now pleased to announce the BILL GABBERT FELLOWSHIP in Wildfire Reporting, which will fund and mentor and publish the sort of innovative wildfire reporting that Bill exemplified.

An initial donation from a longtime supporter of Wildfire Today helped launch the program. Building on an auspicious start, the IAWF is now accepting donations to honor Bill’s work by developing and supporting a funded program to encourage innovators in wildfire journalism.

To remember Bill and support his legacy into the future, just use the red “Donate Online” link at – unless you specify otherwise, all donations to IAWF this year will support the BILL GABBERT FELLOWSHIP.

Later this year, officers will announce an application process to screen people and projects that feature reporting by fire-savvy writers and innovative media projects for Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation, with some articles jointly produced with Wildfire magazine.

In the next few posts — by Chuck Bushey and Wade Ward — we  share a few memories  from Bill’s friends and colleagues. Let us know if you have more.

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.

A bit of Bill Gabbert history

We got a note yesterday from Marty Parish, who knew Bill Gabbert years ago. He was amazed to see names here from his IHC days; he said he met Bill when he was with the Laguna Hotshots in the early 1980s, when Bill was working in Prevention and lived at Camp Ole, near the Laguna IHC camp.

Marty sent us this photo that was sent to him by another firefighter. He does not know where or when it was taken.  But that’s for sure Bill Gabbert at far left. Who can identify more of the guys in this photo?

Radar Squadron on Mt. Laguna
Radar Squadron on Mt. Laguna

“At 17 I became a Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC) member in late 1978,” wrote Marty. “We were based out of a work camp located off the same highway (Sunrise Hwy) about two miles north of Camp Ole (Al Bahr Shrine Camp, now gone after the 2013 Chariot Fire). We worked closely with the USFS as part of the program. I was hired in ’79 as an Engine Crewman (Corral Canyon) while working as a YACC with Mert Thomas in Recreation (Mert got me the job!) and I finished the second half of the season that year ending in early January of 1980. I returned in the spring to Camp Ole for my first Hotshot season.”

“I didn’t really know Bill well,” added Marty.  “We had lived for a short time in the same USFS realm on the Cleveland National Forest-Descanso District; he had left suppression before we met and was working in Prevention. He lived in one of the USFS employee residences at Camp Ole (on Mt. Laguna, San Diego County).”

“I was a Laguna Hotshot for three years, but not sure he was there all three years (we relocated for a year to Descanso, then returned to Camp Ole, only to relocate back to Descanso permanently after I left for FHS).”

Marty, who was also with the Flagstaff Hotshots 1983-1985, added this. “Not sure who is in this photo, but that’s definitely Bill on far left side. Again, my condolences for your loss. A couple of others from that era recently passed too, including my dear friend Brian Connelly from LHS and MCB/Camp Pendleton Fire. Let me know if you pick up other names of people in the pic.”

Hit us up if you recognize any of the other guys in this photo or can provide other details — just click “Leave a comment” under the headline above. THANKS!