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Last survivor of Mann Gulch fire recounts fiery tale for state's emergency responders

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Robert Sallee, the last living survivor of the Mann Gulch fire, was one of the featured speakers on the opening day of the Washington Incident Management Team annual meeting in Yakima yesterday.

YAKIMA - One of the highlights of the opening day of the 2005 Washington Incident Management Team annual meeting in Yakima was a presentation by Robert Sallee.

The Washington Incident Management Team is a group of five teams of emergency responders from across the state that deals with critical incidents, such as wildfires.

What made Sallee's presentation so notable yesterday is that he is the last living survivor of one of the most prolific events in the history of fire fighting.

Sallee was part of the doomed smoke jumping team that was sent to fight the Mann Gulch fire on Aug. 5, 1949 on the grounds of the Helena National Forest in Montana. Sallee was one of three firefighters from a group of 15 that survived the Mann Gulch incident.

Sallee was 17 at the time he made the historic and still much talked about jump into the Helena National Forest.

"I still don't understand why it is getting so much attention after all these years," admitted a reluctant Sallee.

The Mann Gulch fire started at the top of a ridge in the area of Meriwhether Canyon. The area is roughly 20 miles north of Helena.

"The weather had been extremely hot and the fields were very dry," said Sallee.

Sallee compared the dry fields to being as flammable as paper.

Sallee said the weather was about 97 degrees in Helena that day, but he expects that it was much hotter in Mann Gulch.

"The mystery about Mann Gulch is how it (the fire) spread from top to bottom (of the ridge)," said Sallee.

Sallee said when the smoke jumpers parachuted from the plane the fire was comfortably burning at the top of the ridge. But by the time the smoke jumpers made their way down the fire had spread to the bottom of the ridge.

"It looked like something we were going to handle easily," said Sallee.

Mann Gulch is relatively small in size, running less than two miles in length, said Sallee. However, there are long, steep sides in the canyon that would prove to be the undoing for the some dozen men who lost their lives that day.

Mann Gulch is also a notable incident in the history of the United States Forest Service, which up until that point had not experienced any fatalities in a decade of smoke jumping.

Sallee deatiled how the smoke jumpers experienced problems getting to the fire, as the pilot ran into rough turbulence. As a result of the strong winds, the pilot was forced to drop the crew's gear 1,500 feet further away from the site that had been chosen.

The smoke jumpers landed on the ground at 4:10 p.m., said Sallee, but weren't able to get their gear until 5 p.m.

The crew began its ill-fated mission with plans to make their way down to the nearby river to battle the blaze. The idea, said Sallee, was the river would serve as a safe area for the jumpers if the fire somehow got out of hand.

But the group would never make it to the river as the fire burst out of control before their very eyes.

"At that time, we weren't firefighters any more, we were refugees," said Sallee.

Sallee said it has been estimated the fire spread through the gulch at a rate of between 10 to 15 miles per hour.

"It was pretty obvious we were in serious trouble," said Sallee. "You could see trees bursting into flames."

Sallee chillingly recounted how the fire surrounded the group and was extremely loud. He compared the roar of the blaze to the loud noise an airplane engine makes.

Foreman of the group, R. Wagner Dodge, made a daring move during the fire that Sallee said took him years to comprehend. Dodge started a fire that ran into the initial fire. This would prove to be a wise move later on, as Dodge was able to utilize the charred ground from the fire he started to find shelter when the blaze roared even further out of control.

"The fire was meant to serve as a buffer with the other fire," said Sallee.

Sallee recounted the thoughts that were going through his young mind at the time of the fire.

"I didn't go to church when I was a young boy, but I was praying at the time," said Sallee.

Sallee and another smoke jumper were able to make their way to safety through a boat route in the area. Dodge found shelter in the charred grounds of the fire he had started. Two other smoke jumpers were brought out of the fire alive, including one who completely had the clothes burned off his body, but died the next day at a hospital in Helena.

The Mann Gulch fire helped develop some of the survival equipment and training that forest fighters use today.

Sallee said the way the Mann Gulch fire got out of control is the mystery behind the fire, and it changed the course of how wildfires are fought today. Four books have been published on that fateful August day in the Helena National Forest, said Sallee.

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