The Mann Gulch fire took her brother

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  • Millie Heister holds a photo of her brother, William James Hellman, one of 13 firefighters who died in the Mann Gulch fire on Aug. 5, 1949. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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    William James Hellman, one of 13 firefighters who died in the Mann Gulch fire on Aug. 5, 1949. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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    The gravestone of William James Hellman at C.E. Conrad Memorial Cemetery in Kalispell on Thursday, Aug. 1. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

  • Millie Heister holds a photo of her brother, William James Hellman, one of 13 firefighters who died in the Mann Gulch fire on Aug. 5, 1949. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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    William James Hellman, one of 13 firefighters who died in the Mann Gulch fire on Aug. 5, 1949. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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    The gravestone of William James Hellman at C.E. Conrad Memorial Cemetery in Kalispell on Thursday, Aug. 1. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

Millie Heister of Kalispell experienced two strong reactions when reading the Aug. 5 feature story in the Daily Inter Lake about the 70th anniversary of the Mann Gulch wildfire.

First, Heister felt grateful that the 13 young men who died that day were not being forgotten.

An even stronger reaction focused on the reality that the story included only a single sentence about the death in August 1949 of her brother, William Hellman, 24, and another young man from Kalispell, Henry Thol Jr., 19.

The article focused primarily on the reflections of a Kalispell woman, Andre Anderson, whose sister lost her husband that day. Stanley Reba, 25, burned to death after the wildfire blew up and raced uphill at a remarkable speed. His wife, Julie, never recovered and eventually took her own life.

Thol died on the day of the fire, Aug. 5, 1949.

Hellman suffered terrible burns yet survived the fire. He did not live long, however, dying Aug. 6 in a Helena hospital. He had celebrated his 24th birthday on Aug. 3. Survivors included his wife, Geraldine, and an infant son, Gary. The son died in December 1949 at age 5 months.

Millie Hellman Heister, 95, grew up in Kalispell. The oldest of five children, she was two years older than the brother she and her family called “Willie.”

Their father, James “Jim” Hellman, worked for the U.S. Forest Service. He worked with Henry Thol Sr.

Willie Hellman and Henry Thol Jr. were smokejumpers, as were 10 of the other men who died in the Mann Gulch fire. During the school year, Hellman was studying to become a teacher of botany.

Accounts of the events of Aug. 5, 1949, suggest the smokejumpers initially thought the Mann Gulch wildfire would present routine challenges.

But the fire blew up as winds intensified on a hot, dry August evening. Estimates suggest the lightning-caused blaze covered 3,000 acres in 10 minutes.

“Flames were estimated at 50 feet high and were moving 50 yards every 10 seconds,” according to a U.S. Forest Service history of the tragedy.

The fire was east of the Missouri River and about 20 miles north of Helena in what is now the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness in Helena National Forest.

After the fire blew up, the smokejumpers and Jim Harrison, a forest and recreation guard for the Canyon Ferry Ranger Station, attempted to flee uphill. Two smokejumpers, Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey, outran the fire, finding refuge at the top of the ridge and a crevice in the rocks.

The only other survivor was Wagner “Wag” Dodge, foreman of the smokejumper squad.

As he and his men tried desperately to flee from the fast-moving, wind-driven fire, Dodge decided to light an “escape fire,” intending to burn a clearing in advance of the fire, providing refuge for him and others as the fire burned past. Accounts of that day report that Dodge tried to convince others to join him in the burned out clearing but no one did.

Henry Thol Sr., an experienced forester, reacted angrily after the death of his son to the original decision to send the smokejumpers in and, more particularly, to Dodge’s escape fire.

Two books written about the fire, Norman Maclean’s celebrated “Young Men and Fire” and Mark Matthews’ “A Great Day to Fight Fire,” both describe the elder Thol’s beliefs that errors by the Forest Service and Dodge led to the death of his son and the other men who died that day.

Maclean wrote, “Not only was the father’s grief almost beyond restraint, but he, more than any other relative of the dead, should have known what he was talking about. He was a retired Forest Service ranger of the old school, and soon after the fire he was in Mann Gulch studying and pacing the tragedy.”

Matthews wrote, “Henry Thol Sr. never forgave the Forest Service for the death of his son. He was convinced that the agency had needlessly put the men in a dangerous position from which they could not escape, and he harshly criticized Wag Dodge’s judgment.”

Seventy years later, Heister said she still shares some of Henry Thol Sr.’s anger, believing the death of her brother was unnecessary.

And that belief is in conflict with her childhood, she said.

“I grew up being a Forest Service kid,” Heister said.

In the years that followed the Mann Gulch fire, Dodge’s escape fire was ultimately vindicated.

Maclean wrote, “The one invention that came out of Mann Gulch and was immediately made a part of training courses for firefighters is the escape fire. It was spectacular and had saved Dodge’s life and soon became a permanent part of the common knowledge of forest firefighters.”

On the day of the fire, Hellman was second-in-command. Some people later criticized Dodge for putting Hellman in charge while Dodge went off and spent time with Harrison, who had been battling the fire alone until the smokejumpers arrived.

Maclean wrote, “In the Smokejumpers, the foreman is nearly always in the lead and the second-in-command is in the rear. On the march, the foreman sizes up the situation, makes the decision, yells back the orders, picks the trail and sets the pace.”

Heister said she heard about the Mann Gulch fire on the radio and that her brother Phil later let her know that their brother had died in the hospital in Helena.

Maclean’s book described Hellman after the fire, “His pants and shoes were burned off, and his flesh hung in patches...Once burned, though, like a wounded deer, he had started downhill for water but had collapsed after a few hundred yards.”

Heister said she has read “Young Men and Fire” and that the descriptions of her brother’s burns pierced her heart.

She said he asked that their mother be told “that he was really sorry he didn’t go to church more.”

When Heister shared this anecdote, she wept.

Hellman’s casket was closed during the funeral, she said.

“That was a really hard time for my family,” Heister said.

She has lived in a neat, smartly furnished mobile home in the Meadow Manor Village mobile home park in Evergreen for 23 years.

Her love for her long-dead brother remains palpable.

“I want people to know he was a good father, a good husband and a wonderful brother,” Heister said.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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