May 29, 2014 in Idaho

Last survivor of Mann Gulch fire Robert Sallee dies

By The Spokesman-Review
File photo

Robert Sallee, the last survivor of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire, died Monday.
(Full-size photo)

Robert Sallee, the last survivor of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire, which killed 13 smokejumpers in one of the U.S. Forest Service’s worst firefighting disasters, died Monday.

Sallee had been in poor health following heart surgery, said his sister, Theodora Sallee. He was 82.

The Spokane Valley resident was a 17-year-old smokejumper during the Montana fire, memorialized in Norman Maclean’s best-selling book, “Young Men and Fire.” The deaths led to reforms in wildland firefighting and safety training.

For decades, Sallee remained silent about his experience at Mann Gulch. “I think it was too traumatizing,” Theodora Sallee said. “Not only did he survive, but when the rescue crews came, he had to identify the bodies, which would have been horrific.”

Another tragedy – the death of 14 firefighters at Colorado’s Storm King Mountain in 1994 – renewed interest in the Mann Gulch fire. People started contacting Sallee for his insights, and he began giving public talks to firefighters.

“I think he realized the history of it, and the lessons learned from it that needed to be discussed and improved on,” Theodora Sallee said.

Sallee, a Sandpoint native, was two weeks shy of 18 on Aug. 5, 1949, when he and others parachuted into the forest along the Missouri River, about 20 miles north of Helena. Sallee had lied about his age to be hired. He was a rookie smokejumper, making his first parachute jump on a fire.

In a 2004 interview, he recounted what happened when the routine, 60-acre fire blew up. Gusty winds had carried embers from the main fire, igniting spot fires in front of the men. As the smokejumpers retreated, they emerged from the timber onto a grassy slope. The fire picked up speed in the dry grass, racing toward them.

Crew boss Wag Dodge yelled at the men to drop their tools and 20-pound packs, but some continued to carry them as they ran from the fire. Dodge stopped and lit a backfire.

Sallee and another rookie, Walter Rumsey, were trapped by the backfire. They ran straight up the slope, reaching a wall of rimrock. Sallee spotted a crevice, which offered passage to safety on the other side.

Sallee looked back to see Dodge jump the flames of his backfire to reach the safety of the burned area. Dodge yelled and waved his arms at the others to join him. But they kept running uphill and were overtaken by the flames.

Sallee and Rumsey took shelter on a rock slide. “The fire roared up the mountain, leaped over that area where they were and went down the other side,” Theodora Sallee said.

Of the 16 firefighters, 11 died in the fire, and two died the next day at a Helena hospital from their burns.

Sallee made four more fire jumps before leaving the Forest Service. He made a career in the pulp and paper industry, later earning an accounting degree at Eastern Washington University so he could advance in management. Sallee retired from Inland Empire Paper Co.

When Maclean started working on “Young Men and Fire,” he contacted Sallee and persuaded him to accompany him to Mann Gulch. But Sallee had a dispute with the Forest Service’s official record over where he and Rumsey had taken shelter, and Maclean ended up using the Forest Service’s version, Theodora Sallee said.

In that regard, Sallee said “Young Men and Fire” was a good read, “but it wasn’t accurate,” his sister said. The book was published in 1992, two years after Maclean’s death.

Sallee was frequently asked to talk about the Mann Gulch fire at firefighter meetings and training classes. He was a quiet-spoken man with a powerful message, said Steve Harris, a forester for the Washington state Department of Natural Resources.

“It really brought home the importance of fire safety,” Harris said. “His goal in telling the story was to make sure it never happened again.”

In addition to his sister, Sallee is survived by his wife, Bertie, and a son, Eric.

Arrangements are pending at Hazen and Jaeger Valley Funeral Home.

Material from The Spokesman-Review archives is included in this report.

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