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Higgins Ridge Fire

“I looked up and the trees actually exploded,” said Dale Graff, 82, of Helena, shown here at the Missoula smokejumper training center in 1960.

Choked by smoke, hemmed by fire on a remote mountain in Idaho in 1961, Wade Erwin harkened back a dozen years to an infamous inferno in Montana.

It was a terrifying reference point.

“You just flash back to Mann Gulch when they all got burned up on that one, and you flash back to different places where hotshot crews were killed on fires, and so I’ve got to hang tough and do exactly what my squad leaders tell me to do,” Erwin, 80, said recently of his experience on the little-known Higgins Ridge fire.

On Aug. 4, 1961, 20 smokejumpers on Higgins Ridge narrowly escaped the fiery deaths that 12 smokejumpers and a Forest Service fire guard couldn’t at Mann Gulch north of Helena on Aug. 5, 1949.

“We came within seconds of not being here, of death, several times in that fire,” Roger Siemans of Silver Star, near Whitehall, told an interviewer in June. “We parachuted in and the fire went from an acre to 6,000 acres and we were in the middle of that sucker and couldn’t breathe and were falling down and catching on fire. A very touchy situation, very close to being another Mann Gulch except that in this case it would have been 20 smokejumpers instead of 12.”

Salvation at Higgins Ridge came from the sky. Time and again Rod Snider, an accomplished mountain flyer for Johnson Flying Service in Missoula, dropped a small Bell helicopter into a tiny smoke-screened landing point at the top of a mountain, fetching two to four grateful jumpers at a time and flying them out of danger.

“It was a hugely inspirational story,” said Lisa Tate, executive director of the National Museum of Forest Service History.

In late June the museum helped shed new light on the Higgins Ridge saga, hosting nine survivors of the fire for oral history interviews at the University of Montana and at a public forum at the museum's new pavilion west of the Missoula airport.

It was the first time many of them had gathered to share their stories of the great escape with each other.

“What happened was most of them went right out on other fires and they never had a chance to debrief in any meaningful way,” said Bob McKean of Portland, Oregon, the president of the National Smokejumper Association and moderator for the panel discussion.

The ex-jumpers, most of them in their 80s, came with their families from as far away as Georgia, where Ewin lives. Many of their children and grandchildren “never really knew that their father or grandfather went through something like that,” McKean said.

“Smokejumpers have lots of fires where things are dangerous, but this is a success story in the fact that 20 people faced disaster, behaved in a way that saved them, and had a pilot brave enough to come in and rescue them.”

Tour boats at Montana's Gates of the Mountains take sightseers and history seekers past the bottom of Mann Gulch several times a day, and hardy hikers can clomp up the steep mountainside past crosses and a Star of David marking where each firefighter fell 70 years ago. Guides and interpretive signs tell the story.

By contrast, Higgins Ridge is so far back in the backcountry of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests that many who lived through the horror in 1961 have a hard time locating it on a map. No roads lead to it, and the closest navigable stream, the Selway River, is half a dozen or more miles away.

Higgins Ridge is 30 miles straight across the Bitterroot Mountains from Hamilton. It's 23 miles south of Powell, Idaho, on the Lochsa River and 7½ miles northeast of the Moose Creek Ranger Station on the Selway.

As at Mann Gulch, the early August temperatures reached or surpassed 100 degrees. As at Mann Gulch, firefighters experienced a sudden, unexpected wind uptick that sent walls of flame in their direction.

Unlike at Mann Gulch, the crews obeyed their foreman and squad leader. They were told not to run from the fire but rather lie face-down, noses in the dirt or rock crevices, heads covered by their wet T-shirts as the flames passed.

Eight came from the jump base at Grangeville, Idaho, earlier in the day under squad leader Ross Parry. The late Fritz Wolfrum led the other 12 from Missoula. They took refuge in a backcountry landing pad at the top of the fire that had already burned.

“It was hard to find them,” said Snider, 89, a quiet man who received awards for his heroism but shuns the obvious mantle of hero.

He came to town for the June reunion from his home in Boise but had to leave early due to a family illness.

“The wind was really cooking in there and you couldn’t see the heliport all the time to get down. I had to come in high and drop down into it when I could see a little break,” Snider said in an oral history interview before he left town.

What made you risk your life to do it? an interviewer in Missoula asked.

“Oh, it had to be done. It had to be done,” Snider replied. “I don’t know. You just can’t leave guys down in the position that they were in.”

Parry, who attended the reunion from his home in Ogden, Utah, wrote about the Higgins Ridge fire in the January 2011 issue of Smokejumper Magazine. He’d taken five men to the back side of the mountain, while the rest worked the front under Wolfrum's watch. 

“We had been working for a couple of hours when the fire blew up,” Parry wrote. “It blew up so violently, furiously and swiftly that it defied description. Up ahead there was a roar and smoke billowing up as though from a volcanic eruption, and the fire started racing down around us faster than a man could run.”

Dale Graff, 82, of Helena called it a “fire tornado.”

“I looked up and the trees actually exploded,” he said in a June interview for the Forest Service museum. “I’ve never seen that before. The trees just blew up and it created a tornado effect and we were at the bottom, like a whirlwind going right up into the sky. It was just amazing, and we were at the center of it.”

Parry said he was usually a stickler for “hanging in there,” but now told his crew “we had better get the heck out of there.”

They dropped their tools and scampered to a rock pile they’d passed earlier. The six of them hunkered down, and within three or four minutes the fire swooped over from the northeast. 

“We had so many holes burned in our clothes, the embers that landed on tightly stretched cloth would be detected and slapped out quickly, but those that landed in creases or on loose clothing would smolder and sometimes begin to blaze before being detected,” said Parry, whose crew eventually made it the final 300 yards to the helipad to be rescued.

As the fire blew up, Wolfrum told his men to drop their tools and led them up to the helipad, where the flames had come and gone but chaos still remained in the form of smoke, wind and falling trees. They carried one five-gallon water can, said Tom Kovalicky, 84, of Grangeville and Stanley, Idaho.

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“There was a lot of confusion because you can’t see and the wind’s blowing and the trees are popping and trees are being blown over by the wind,” Kovalicky said in an interview earlier this year with Brett Rogers, safety officer for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests. 

Kovalicky was a rookie jumper who later became supervisor of the Nez Perce National Forest.

“It kept getting hotter and hotter and finally we got to the point where we had to lay down to breathe,” he said. “You couldn’t breathe standing up. Of course we knew what would happen if we tried to run. We were going to get killed with the hot air.”

Still, he said, a couple of men told Wolfrum they were going to make a run for it.

“He says, ‘No, you’re not,’ and they gave him kind of a strange look and actually started out,” Kovalicky said. “A couple of other guys grabbed them and told them, ‘You’re staying here.’”

A dozen years earlier the victims at Mann Gulch “just couldn’t outrun the fire. It was too fast,” said Siemans. “On Higgins Ridge we had no place to run.”

In a June 1 interview with Rob Dean, a journalist from New Mexico who was at the Missoula reunion later in the month, Siemans said the terrain was heavily timbered with steep canyons in all directions.

“Where the hell are you going to go?” he said. “So Fritz said, ‘The only thing we can do is go into the burn, and that was the one way, into the burn. You knew it had been burning all morning, so that those fuels had pretty much burned out.”

It’s “very easy” to panic and forget your survival training at a time like that, Kovalicky said.

“If we didn’t work as a team I don’t think the ending would have been so good,” he said. “We were taught teamwork is the most important part of being a smokejumper on a fire. You’re always working to keep the guy next to you in good shape. And we did that.”

Kovalicky estimated Wolfrum’s men lay face-down for an hour and a half before they dared to look around. The heat and smoke were still intense and trees were “crackling like crazy,” he said.

That’s when they heard the helicopter.

“But we didn’t have any idea it was a helicopter. We thought it was the wind,” Kovalicky said.

Snider was flying out of the Moose Creek Ranger Station with Ranger Bill Magnuson, who wanted to check on the jump crews he’d called for earlier.

“I flew along the edge of the fire line and we couldn’t find them for a long, long time,” Snider told Dean.

Firefighters were issued orange shirts for the first time that summer. Finally Snider caught a glimpse of a couple.

“I thought, 'My gosh, they’re in the fire'” at the top of the mountain, Snider said. “I couldn’t believe it. It looked like it was burning all around them, so I tried to get in and maybe land in there.”

It took him five or six attempts, under full throttle.

“I was finally able to finally come in and use a lot of power to stop the helicopter, because I was landing downwind into it,” Snider said.

On the ground he saw one man’s pants catch fire, and another come over and pat it out. Canteens were strewn around the hillside, smoking. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to get these guys out of here but I don’t know how I’m going to do it.'”

As he sat in the three-passenger helicopter, two smokejumpers climbed in. Rasmussen climbed out. Snider took off through the smoke.

“I couldn’t see anything for a long time," he said, "but I got 'em out and took 'em to a ridge that was open and the fire wasn’t going to get to,” he said.

Snider estimated it took 10 minutes to get there. Even as conditions worsened on Higgins Ridge, he gave no second thought to going back in for more. He said he knew two at a time wouldn’t cut it, so for the next flights in the high winds and smoke he directed two jumpers to get in with him and two more to lie down on the cargo trays on either side of the chopper and hold on. All were set down safely.

His helicopter, a Bell 47G-3 that Snider christened "Red Legs" for its painted landing skids and support legs, was one of the first with a supercharger. But the overload was nonetheless hard on it, he said.

“I felt a little uneasy, because I knew I’d over-boosted everything, But when they gave an inspection later on they couldn’t find anything wrong with it,” Snider said.

Both he and the copter were back in the air the next day. The smokejumpers were transported to a staging point where they were picked up by a Forest Service truck and took the long ride back to Missoula. They were checked out at St. Patrick Hospital, released with minor burns and scars, and sent back to the base at the Missoula airport to resume their work in the intense fire season.

The following year Snider received the Pilot of the Year Award from the Helicopter Association of America in Dallas and the Carnegie Medal for Heroism.

In 1976, the nation’s bicentennial year, Kovalicky successfully nominated Snider for the North American Forest Fire Medal, which was being revived for the first time since 1956. Snider and his wife were flown to New Orleans for the presentation that October. And in 2002 he was inducted into the Museum of Mountain Flying Hall of Fame.

Was he proud of his actions that day 58 years ago? Dean asked Snider.

“Yeah,” the old pilot replied. “I was proud of that helicopter. That’s what I was proud of, because I didn’t think it could take the punishment that it did.”

“There was an angel on my shoulder that day,” Graff said. “Everyone says the same thing. Otherwise we’d have ended up like Mann Gulch, you know?”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian