While exploring the Salmon, Idaho area in the summer of 2016, we had to prepare ourselves and our RV for possible immediate evacuation due to a forest fire inching closer to our campground. Should we stay or should we leave? But there’s more to this story. It’s not so much about the fire evacuation possibility but the firefighters that battle the wildfires.
Similar to meteorologists naming hurricanes, cyclones and tropical storms, FEMA names forest fires. This particular forest fire called the Comet Fire, was burning so close to us. As we would drive from our campsite in North Fork to Salmon, Idaho to pick up provisions, we’d gaze silently at the smokey sheer curtain along the Salmon River. But when we learned it hit National news; even our son (who lived in Colorado at the time) warned us to ‘get out of there’.
The burning woods permeated the air for miles in the Salmon Challis National Forest along the Salmon River. Trucks and fire apparatus from different states filled small pull-off areas on the roadways. Yellow Shirts, as we call them, were young gruff firefighters with charcoal-stained faces scarfing down sandwiches around their vehicles or propped against tires resting from utter exhaustion.
It was like something we’d see in a movie. At that moment is when we learned about those young gruff forest firefighters who don those yellow shirts on to help save our forests, wildlife and all those who live there. Also called Smoke Jumpers, Hotshots, Helitack Crews and Heli-Rappellers, we grew to appreciate and respect them for the job they do. These firefighters are a special breed.
Forest Fires: A Way of Life of Those Living in the Forests and Mountains
Wildfire firefighting is a way of life up for those who live and work in the forested mountains. The forests are thick and the storms preys upon them. And lightening strikes that ignite the ground below causing several fires every year is a normalcy. A single burning ember or firebrand can travel from one-quarter to one mile in the wind.
Each forest wildfire is violent and nonselective in taking her prisoners. Some of those prisoners are the very men and women in yellow shirts and hard hats who fight those raging wildfires with picks and shovels.
Some don’t make it home to their loved ones. This is their story.
Adventure leads to Appreciation
Call it coincidence, but one of the days we were camped in North Fork, Dan went for a short solo motorcycle ride along the Salmon River near North Fork. He wanted to see if there were some good forestry roads where I could hone my adventure riding skills on dirt trails.
Not an hour later, he came back home and told me, ‘you’ve got to see something’. He wouldn’t tell me what it was but I envisioned it was something super spectacular for him to want to share this with me. Since it was late in the day already, we had to wait until the next day to see that something.
Early the next morning, we dressed in our PPE and mounted our two Yamaha XT225s for the ride. Leaving our campground in North Fork on Idaho Route 93, we turned right at the post office onto River Road that hugs close to the river for several miles. About eleven miles down the road, there was a small brown marker on the right side of the road at the beginning of the driveway of old Indianola Ranger Station. (Exact location and coordinates listed at the end of this article). The sign read: Firefighter Memorial.
Once removing our motorcycle riding gear, we walked about a hundred yards to a freshly-painted white footbridge with another small brown marker just like the one that led us to the site.
As we crossed the bridge that took us over a small creek, we entered a small freshly-mowed open field and noticed a couple large informational placards on the edge of the field. They were about the Heli-Rappellers and the forest fires.
Upon reading them, we turned to the left along the woods line and saw an incredible display that will be etched in my mind forever.
There were two life-size sculptures of Heli-Rappeller firefighters highlighted in the informational placards. I slowly approached and gasped; even holding my breath. I walked even closer to read the permanently-mounted, unscripted plaque on a rock at the end of the walkway that shined in the sunlight.
We now know their names. They were sons. One was a brother and a boyfriend and the other was an amazing friend. One was about to graduate college. The other was making forest firefighting a life-long career. They were yellow shirts. They fought and lost their lives in the Cramer Fire.
“Do what you love, so love what you do” -Shane Heath, Indianola Helitack Crewmember
After reading the bronze plaque, my eyes lifted to what was before me; two life-size bronze sculptures that appeared as they appeared to be repelling from the heavens above.
Whomever the sculptor, they surely accomplished highlighting every precise detail of each of the men. I studied their every featured detail from the emotions on their faces to every crease in their clothing. I studied their gear , their gloves and their helmets.
But there were other things that made me step back with wonder.
There on the ground at their feet, a few wind-tattered American flags and small personal tokens; most likely left by their Heli-Rappeller brothers. Also laying there; a patch. an unopened beer, a unit pin and a bunch of spent flowers. But what choked me the most was a much-weathered yellow shirt that looked like it had been there for many years.
One question of curiosity, was it one of theirs’?
I couldn’t help but weep for them and these two forestry firefighters and their families. Tears fell silently down my cheeks because as former first responders ourselves, we knew and appreciated their ultimate sacrifice.
Forestry Firefighters Allen and Heath and all those like them are are our Country’s lifeblood. The saying goes, ‘good guys wear white hats’. Well, ‘good guys also wear yellow shirts’.
Home of the Brave
After what seemed to be about an hour-long visit, as we were heading back to that little white foot-bridge, I turned around for one last look at the two sculptures. But to my amazement, I witnessed the most beautiful yet eerie sight! Flying right above the heads of the two firefighters sculptures were two of the huge Monarch butterflies intertwining and rising in flight as if they were repelling back up into the heavens above. (Seriously, I’m not making this up!)
Upon returning from our ride, I instantly researched their names to learn more about them. But, nothing could prepare us for 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 0943 hrs.
They were contacted throughout the day by radio to assess their progress. At approximately 1500 hrs, 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 1524 hrs 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.”
Read the Cramer Fire OSHA Briefing Paper Citation.
Visiting Firefighter Memorials…
So, anytime you ever happen upon small memorials like these, please take a moment to visit them. They are there for purpose and share their story of heroism. These memorials, big or small, are there to remind us of their ultimate sacrifice. And, that we all can sleep a sweet dream when we lay down our heads. Because they laid down their lives for wildlife, and humanity.
I will remember this place and those selfless men’s names for the rest of my life; Jeff Allen and Shane Heath. Every July 22nd, I will think of your mothers, fathers, and their fellow Yellow Shirts.
How to get to the Cramer Fire Firefighter Memorial
Marker is near North Fork, Idaho, in Lemhi County. You can reach the Marker from Salmon River Road (Route 30 at milepost 11), 11 miles west of Lewis and Clark Highway (U.S. 93), on the right when traveling west. Look for the Ranger Station. Turn north on the Station driveway, parking is available west of the station. Click here for map.
Marker is at or near this postal address: US Forest Service Indianola Ranger Station, North Fork ID 83466, United States of America. Click here for directions.
Park and cross the footbridge over Indian Creek. The memorial is also visible from Indian Creek Road, Forest Road 36, immediately west of the Station.
BLOGGER’S NOTE: For those bicycle and motorcycle riders and tent campers, there’s a great campground in North Fork that we stayed that has RV sites, tent sites as well as cabins to rent.
Check out other memorials we’ve visited: