Robert Sallee, smoke jumper who survived Mann Gulch fire, dies at 82
Late in the afternoon of Aug. 5, 1949, 15 young men working for the U.S. Forest Service parachuted into a remote area near the Missouri River north of Helena, Montana, on the eastern side of the Rockies, prepared to battle what they thought to be an easily manageable forest fire. They were tragically wrong.
The site, known as Mann Gulch, became infamous in the history of the Forest Service after the fire, which had been ignited by lightning, suddenly expanded, fanned by high winds. The men, who had been heading down the gulch toward the river, were cut off and chased by the flames, forced to scramble desperately up a steep, craggy slope.
Barely ahead of the conflagration, the leader of the group, R. Wagner Dodge, purposely lighted a new fire, a flash of emergency creativity that saved his life. The idea was to provide an escape hatch - to clear a patch of ground where the onrushing flames would no longer find fuel - and it worked.
Dodge lay down in the smoking embers of the cleared patch, and the inferno burned around him. He shouted at his men to join him, but whether they didn’t hear the order, didn’t understand it, didn’t believe it would save them or simply panicked, none of them did. Twelve of the 15 parachutists, known as smoke jumpers, along with a 13th man, an official from a nearby campground, were killed. (Two of them survived until the next day and died in a hospital.)
Two others, Walter B. Rumsey and Robert W. Sallee, crawled to safety through a crevice in the rock wall at the top of the canyon.
Dodge died in 1955, Rumsey in 1980. The last survivor of the Mann Gulch fire, Sallee (pronounced suh-LEE), who at 17 was the youngest of the smoke jumpers, lived to be 82. He died Monday in Spokane, Washington. The cause was complications after heart surgery, his son, Eric, said.
The Mann Gulch fire stirred a flurry of research into fire behavior and pushed the Forest Service to develop new training techniques and better safety measures for its firefighters.
But in the fire’s aftermath, the service faced a public outcry. It was accused of insufficiently preparing the smoke jumpers and sending them into Mann Gulch recklessly. Families of the dead filed lawsuits charging negligence. Among their claims was that Dodge’s "escape fire" strategy had further endangered his men.
The Forest Service defended itself aggressively, and some said corruptly by coaching or bullying witnesses and obscuring evidence.
Sallee, his son said, rarely spoke about the experience.
"I think there were two reasons for that," Eric Sallee said in an interview. "First, he was 17, and he’d had an absolutely traumatic experience. He helped haul those bodies off the mountain the next day."
Second, he said, the families of the dead were infuriated at the Forest Service and the government. "They thought the escape fire killed their kids, and my dad had to testify in court proceedings. The whole thing was a nasty experience."
After decades of relative silence, however, Sallee cooperated with the writer Norman Maclean, best known as the author of "A River Runs Through It," whose posthumously published 1992 book (he died in 1990) about the Mann Gulch fire and its legacy, "Young Men and Fire," won a National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction.
In 1978, both Rumsey and Sallee went back to Mann Gulch with Maclean, whose detailed account of their recollections and their court testimony fails to unravel precisely what happened; rather, it succeeds in illustrating the terror of being caught in such a monstrous natural maelstrom.
Maclean wrote: "Sallee talks so often about everything happening in a matter of seconds after he and Rumsey left Dodge’s fire that at first it seems just a manner of speaking. But if you combine the known facts with your imagination and are a mountain climber and try to accompany Rumsey and Sallee to the top, you will know that to have lived you had to be young and tough and lucky.
"And young and tough they were," he continued. "In all weather Sallee had walked four country miles each way to school, and a lot of those eight miles he ran. He and Rumsey had been on tough projects all summer. They gave it everything they had, and everything was more, they said, than ever before or after."
Robert Wayne Sallee was born on a farm near Willow Creek, Montana, between Bozeman and Butte, on Aug. 18, 1931. His family led a transient life during the Depression. His father, Noel, worked as a welder and a farmer at different times; his mother, the former Pearl Sannes, worked as a cook and at one time owned a restaurant. Robert began working summers for the Forest Service when he was 15, doing trail maintenance and other chores.
In August 1949, smoke jumping was still a relatively new method of battling fires, and Sallee had only just finished his training; his jump into Mann Gulch was his first. After surviving the fire, he jumped twice more that summer and continued as a smoke jumper the next year. He graduated from high school in Sandpoint, Idaho, and briefly attended the forestry program at the University of Idaho.