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.