“The forest knows their names and so will we.” – Always On Liberty
The mountains were shielded with a smokey sheer curtain. The smell of ash and burning wood permeated the air for miles in the Salmon Challis National Forest. Trucks and fire apparatus from different states filled small pull-off areas on the roadways. Smoke-stained yellow shirted gruff men with visibly charcoaled faces were seen napping on the ground or eating sandwiches around their vehicles. It was like something we’d seen in a movie.
Like meteorologists name hurricanes and cyclones, FEMA names the fires. This forest fire was burning so close to us was called the Comet Fire.
Summer of 2016…
While we were exploring the Salmon, Idaho area, we were faced with a scary situation. Because of the Salmon Challis National Comet Fire about 5 miles from our campground, we were faced with possible immediate evacuation. We were prepared to pack up and were ready to go.
We learned this was the way of life up there in the Bitterroot Mountains and the Salmon Challis Region. The forests are thick and the storms are wicked with lightening strikes that ignite the ground below causing several fires every year.
While we were there, the fire season was in full swing. Each forest fire is violent and takes prisoners. Oftentimes, those prisoners are men in hard hats and yellow shirts with picks and shovels. And sadly, some of those yellow shirts don’t make it home.
They…..are our forests unsung heroes; the Heli Repellers.
This is their story and it deserves to be told.
Dan discovered something…
One of the days we were there, Dan took his dual sport motorcycle out for a mind-clearing solo ride. A few hours later, he came back home and told me, ‘you’ve got to see something’ but he didn’t tell me what it was. We had to wait until the next day to go see what he was talking about.
The next day…
We mounted our scoots and made way a few miles south from the campground we were staying at in North Fork, Idaho. We turned onto River Road, the road that hugged close to the river for miles. About six miles down the road, there was a small brown wooden sign at the beginning of a driveway that read “Firefighter Memorial”. We turned into the old abandon Ranger Station and parked the bikes.
Once we disrobed from our protective gear, Dan took me about a hundred yards to a freshly-painted white small wooden arched footbridge. There was another small brown sign just like the one that led us to the site.
Dan and I have always been appreciative and supportive of our Nation’s Bravest; Firefighters. So this was something we’d visit anyway.
As we crossed the bridge that took us over a small creek, we were led into a small open field. It looked as if it was supposed to be a park of some sort; the grass was mowed. Straight ahead, there were informational placards.
But what caught my eyes to the left was something I will never forget.
I gasped and held my breath. There they were. Two life-size sculptures of Firefighters. I walked closer. There was a plaque permanently mounted on a rock at the end of the walkway.
We now learned their names. They were sons. One was a brother and a boyfriend and the other had tons of friends.
After reading the bronze plaque, my eyes lifted to what was before me.
They were so life-like. I studied every detail; the emotions on their faces and every crease in their clothing. I looked carefully at their gear and their helmets. Whomever the sculptor, they surely accomplished sculpting every detail of each of the men.
And there on the ground at their feet were wind-tattered American flags and small personal tokens, most likely left by their brothers of their team. A patch. A pin. An unopened beer. A perished bunch of flowers. What choked me the most was a weathered yellow shirt that looked like it had been there for years; perhaps one of theirs’.
I couldn’t help but weep. When it comes to the Fallen; whether it’s firefighters, police officers and our military, they receive our utmost of our respect and honor. They were our Country’s lifeblood. The good guys. They who ‘took care of us’. My tears were owed to these two selfless men who lost their lives ten years prior.
About the Fallen…
These brave men were so young; Jeff at 24 and Heath only 22 years old. Heath’s motto is much the same as one of ours, “Do what you love, so love what you do”. These men perished doing what they were destined and loved to do. One was about to graduate college. The other was making it a career.
As we were leaving after our hour-long visit, I turned around for one last gaze. It was then, I witnessed the most amazingly beautiful yet eerie site. Right above the heads of the two sculptures in garden were two large Monarch butterflies intertwining and rising with each other in flight like dancing fairies.
I will remember this place and those selfless men’s names for the rest of my life; Jeff Allen and Shane Heath. I will think of your mothers and fathers every July 22nd.
When we arrived back home after that somber ride, I researched their names and how it happened. I certainly wasn’t prepared to read this…
Excerpt borrowed from the Fema website:
Firefighters Allen and Heath rappelled off of a helicopter into a rugged part of the Salmon-Challis National Forest. The 2 were charged with establishing a helicopter landing zone to facilitate efforts to fight the Cramer fire. The fire was started by a lightning strike. The firefighters were dropped at the site at 0943hrs. They were contacted throughout the day by radio to assess their progress. At approximately 1500hrs, they made radio contact and requested that they be picked up. No helicopters were available at that time. A more urgent request for pickup was received at 1509hrs. At 1513hrs, the firefighters reported fire below them and that the fire was advancing toward them. A helicopter arrived at approximately 1524hrs but was unable to land due to smoke conditions. Observers on other aircraft witnessed fire progression and extremely high flame fronts in the area of Firefighters Allen and Heath. Further attempts to contact the firefighters by radio were unsuccessful. The bodies of both firefighters were found together by other firefighters later in the day. Both firefighters carried fire shelters but neither shelter was found fully deployed. The cause of death for both firefighters was listed as massive burns.
So, if you ever see these memorials, stop and visit them. They are there for purpose. They are there to remind us of their sacrifice.
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