Remembering the 70th Anniversary of the Mann Gulch Fire

Fromberg boy’s mission to honor 13 fallen smokejumpers
By Alastair Baker News Editor  and Sam Korsmoe 
Director GYAS
Thursday, July 11, 2019
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Colt Barnard placing flowers on crosses at the site.

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Courtesy photos
Colt Barnard

Colt Barnard, an 11-year-old Montana boy from Fromberg and the son of a wildland firefighter, is on a mission. He wants Montanans, and really everyone else in America, to never forget that 70 years ago 15 smokejumpers parachuted out of a C47 airplane to fight a wildfire.  They met up with another firefighter who was already on the ground to form a band of 16 wildland firefighters, but only three of them returned home. The other 13 perished in the Mann Gulch fire Aug. 9, 1949.

On June 10, Colt and his firefighter mom, Audrey Walleser visited the Mann Gulch fire site just off the Missouri River near the Gates of the Mountains, near Helena. They hiked the paths to each of the 13 white crosses and Colt placed flowers on each one.  He became upset though about something that he saw.

“It was sad to see how the crosses have deteriorated so much. It was like everyone had forgotten about these 13 smokejumpers,” he said.

“I asked my mom what we could do about the crosses and she suggested that we start a fund to raise the money needed to replace all the crosses,” said Colt.

Colt’s story caught the attention of Sam Korsmoe, the race director of the Greater Yellowstone Adventure Series (GYAS) in Ennis.  The GYAS is a six-race series in Madison County. Each year, the series chooses a cause or nonprofit to support. 

“The decision to support Colt’s project was easy. We had already decided that the theme for our 2019 race season was going to be wildland firefighters. Colt’s project combined with the 70th anniversary of the Mann Gulch fire made this a slam dunk,” says Korsmoe.

Earlier this year, the GYAS commissioned artist Sarah Morris of Ennis to create a painting of a Montana wildland firefighter (See above). The painting would form the design for the shirts for each of the GYAS races for 2019. Every athlete who completes a race receives a race shirt, race medal, and a SWAG bag.  Both the bag and the shirt features the firefighter painting. 

The original painting is on display at the Ennis Chamber of Commerce office on Main Street. It will be auctioned off in a silent auction during the GYAS race season (June 1 to Aug. 4). The proceeds of the art auction will go to Colt’s Mann Gulch project.   Supporters can place a bid for the painting, and thus support the Mann Gulch project, by visiting the Chamber office in Ennis or by contacting Sam Korsmoe directly.  Current bids, as well as contact information to place a bid, is on the GYAS website at

The remaining GYAS races are the 12th Annual Madison Marathon on July 20, the 5th Annual Big Sky Marathon on July 21, the 8th Annual Madison Triathlon on Aug. 3, and the 3rd Annual Tour de Gravelly on Aug. 4.  All the races are headquartered in Ennis.  The race series attracts several hundred athletes from across the United States as well as several foreign countries. Details on each race are posted on the GYAS website.  Montanans are encouraged to sign up for the races and/or volunteer as a means to support the Mann Gulch project and to honor the state’s wildland firefighters.

The goal is to raise $50k over the next 5 years and be able to have the area fully restored by 2024 for the 75th anniversary.

Colt’s interest stems from his parents.  

Audrey told him of a smokejumper who his family knew of and had died in Colorado in 1994.  

In a letter, he explained that because his mom was gone so much he “wanted to learn as much as I could about wildland fires and firefighters. I learned that there are many different kinds of wildland firefighters. There are engine crews, hand crews, hotshots, and smokejumpers. I really got interested in the smokejumpers.” 

On YouTube, he found a video on the Mann Gulch Fire tragedy.    

“The first thing I noticed was the “haunting” picture of Joseph B. Sylvia,” said Colt. “He was one of the firefighters that died. There was something about his military picture that made me want to know more. The video also said, “we will never forget.” However, the problem is that almost everyone has forgotten even though 13 firefighters had died.” 

Colt followed up his research by reading ‘Young Men and Fire’ by Norman Maclean and watched a film based on the incident called ‘Red Skies of Montana’ as well as a documentary on the History Channel. 

Maclean’s son, John, recently sent Colt a signed 2nd edition of the book.

Through this research, Colt learned that “many people blamed Wag Dodge for his men dying.” 

“He was the crew boss on the fire. I have a different opinion,” said Colt. “They just didn’t listen to him. I have been to a lot of trainings with my mom and know about the 10s & 18s, LCES, and the importance of setting backfires as an escape route. Wag Dodge created that. I also learned that because of Mann Gulch the Forest Service created the Fire Science Laboratory in Missoula and the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.”

Dodge’s decision that day changed the entire scope of firefighting across the world.

Every year before Colt’s mom goes out on fires for the season, they take a trip. 

“She lets me pick where we go and so this year, I chose Mann Gulch. I wanted to see the place where 13 firefighters had died,” he said. 

There is no road or path to the site so they ended up hiking about 8 miles tracing the paths and visiting every cross for each of the 13 firefighters. 

“I brought white flowers to put on each of the crosses. I also ran up the steep slope which the two survivors, Walter Rumsey, and Robert Sallee, used to escape the main fire. It was a backfire corridor set up by Dodge,” he said. 

Colt beat the ‘clock’, the amount of time that Rumsey and Sallee had before the main fire consumed them, which was running 1,500 to 1,600 feet at a 45-degree angle in 2 minutes. 

“My mom almost made it,” said Colt. “On the Mann Gulch fire, there were just three survivors – Rumsey, Sallee, and Dodge.” 

The visit to the hillside said Colt was “scary to think that something like that happened right here and it could happen any time again.”

They also played the song Cold Missouri Waters that was written about Dodge and Mann Gulch. 

“When we did, two eagles flew overhead. I think they were the jumpers who were happy we were there to honor and remember them. I love the place and think that it’s very important,” said Colt. 

“I have also been frustrated because a lot of people don’t know that the Miss Montana plane that flew to Europe for the 75th year anniversary of D-day was also the plane that dropped the Mann Gulch smokejumpers. People have forgotten, and they have forgotten that those men died and we now have much better safety programs, training, and equipment for firefighters like my mom,” he said.

Colt wants to be a smokejumper and a history teacher. 

“I want to be a jumper like Wag Dodge and honor the smokejumpers before me. I also want to teach history so that people WILL always remember Mann Gulch,” said Colt. 

“I have never done anything like this before, but I think anyone who has ever had someone they cared about would want them to be remembered,” said Colt. “These men were very brave, these jumpers and other firefighters like my mom, protect our land, mountains, trees, and plants. These men and women many times are gone for months; away from their families. They are heroes; we need to remember them. Every time you see smoke or fire in the trees remember that those people are someone’s Mom, Dad, brother, sister, friend.” 

In January 2020, Colt will be playing in an elite East vs West football game as a receiver. He will remember and honor the Mann Gulch firefighters at this game by having football sleeves made with the names of all the jumpers. 

“Those that survived and those that died. I want people to remember these men,” he said.

For more information on the Mann Gulch Project and the races, call GYAS race director and owner Sam Korsmoe at 406-570-4531 or contact him by email at