When Earth and Sky Burn – RIP Robert Sallee

“It is easy for us to assume that as the result of modern science “we have conquered nature,” that nature is now confined to beaches for children and to national parks where the few remaining grizzly bears have been shot with tranquilizers and removed to above the timberline, supposedly for their safety and our own. But we should be prepared for the possibility, even if we are going to accompany modern firefighters into Mann Gulch, that the terror of the universe has not yet fossilized and the universe has not run out of blowups.” ~ Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Photo courtesy of Story of the Day - Climbing Higher

Photo courtesy of Story of the Day – Climbing Higher

Robert Sallee died a week ago at age 82 on Monday, May 26, 2014. Does this mean anything to you? It didn’t to me either until I bumped into his obituary two days ago. In 1949 15 men were dropped into the Gates of the Mountains in Montana to fight the Mann Gulch Fire; Salle was one of only three smokejumpers to survive and was the last surviving member to pass on. The Mann Gulch Fire was one of the worst tragedies in the history of the U.S. Forest Service. It was Sallee’s first and last jump.

Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey after the Mann Gulch Fire, Photo courtesy of Peter Stackpole, Life

Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey after the Mann Gulch Fire, Photo courtesy of Peter Stackpole, Life

Photo Courtesy of Wild Fire Today

Photo Courtesy of Wild Fire Today

As I ran up into BLM land just behind my house today, the scent of juniper thick in the hot desert air, I thought of recent fire blow-ups that cost lives; the most recent being the Yarnell Fire in Arizona in 2013 that took the lives of 19 firefighters. While we can analyze events in hindsight and question decisions and subsequent actions, the truth is, fire is a reality, it is normal and it can be managed, but it is also and always dangerous. Though firefighters love what they do, whether it is the adrenaline rush, out-smarting the fire, problem solving, or traveling around the country rather than sitting in an office, none of them goes into a fire to give their lives. They are all equipped with the training and tools to do their jobs and all expect to be successful and drink a cool beer at the end. As Norman Maclean wrote in Young Men and Fire,

“Jumping (wildland firefighting) is one of the few jobs in the world that leads to just one moment when you must be just highly selected pieces of yourself that fit exactly the pieces of your training, your pieces of equipment having been made with those pieces of yourself and your training in mind.”

But with the effects of global warming and radical or bleak weather, drought, bark beetles, invasive grasses, and low budgets set by Congress, it appears even more daunting a task to be a wildland firefighter these days, even with the right pieces and training. As we on the sidelines watch the evening news and catch glimpses of the battles being fought in our forests and across our lands, we must recognize that our one vote and voice does matter – it matters where it counts most: money allocation.

While Congress cannot control the weather or events that take place on the ground, they do control the purse strings which should provide adequate funding for personnel and resources. Unfortunately, land management agencies routinely get their budgets cut and these agencies have to do more with less – less firefighters, less gear, less equipment. We have a responsibility to turn to our representatives and demand that they fund these agencies accordingly, and if their records show a history of voting for cuts to budgets, to get rid of them.

We all have a stake in our land – whether it reaches the boundaries of our property or not. We also have a stake in providing funding to the men and women who choose this profession. If we can’t control the weather, the wind, or the fire, we can at least control the money flow while we enjoy the great outdoors that so many manage, work on for our enjoyment, and protect.

Luckily today the smell of juniper was not a thick blanket of smoke hoping to choke me out or burn up my lungs – it was just the warm, earthy scent that naturally rises off the plants and seemingly out of the ground. It was a beautiful, if not hot, day. But if this fire season turns out the way that many are predicting, it may feel like the world and sky is burning. It is good to learn the names and remember the people who choose to do this job and who face greater risks and more fires in the future. With scarce water and ever mounting CO2 being blown into the air by burning forests, we have a stake in their success. It could not be more appropriate as fire season ramps up that Robert Sallee died on Memorial Day 2014. May he rest in peace.

“For many former Smokejumpers, then, smoke jumping is not closely tied up with their way of life, but is more something that is necessary for them to pass through and not around and, once it is unmistakably done, does not have to be done again. The “it” is within, and is the need to settle some things with the universe and ourselves before taking on the “business of the world,” which isn’t all that special or hard but takes time. This “it” is the something special within that demands we do something specials, and “it” could be within a lot of us.” ~Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Robert Sallee, Photo courtesy of The Spokesman Review

Robert Sallee, Photo courtesy of The Spokesman Review


For a look at the South Canyon Fire where another 14 firefighters died in Colorado:


Posted on June 2, 2014, in Profiles of the Southwest and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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