ASHTON — In 1979 Kyle Pattee was eagerly anticipating marriage and a new life with loved ones when he went to work maintaining a wild fire near Ship Island Creek and lost his life. Jordan Fisher Smith, who worked for this 29-year-old fire management officer, is writing a book about Pattee’s life and the incident that cut it short.
Smith spent 21 years as a ranger for the California State Parks, the National Park Service, and the Forest Service in California, Wyoming, Idaho, and Alaska. He’s written for magazines like the New Yorker, Orion, Men’s Journal, Discover, and others. He published two books including his most recent novel “Engineering Eden, the true story of a violent death, a federal trial, and the struggle to restore nature in our National Parks,” according to a short bio provided by Smith.
It was June of 1978 when Smith met Pattee. Smith’s roommate in college was working with Pattee and introduced the two. Smith would then work with Pattee and see him everyday at work for the next year.
“I started work in the first season in Ashton while still in college,” Smith said. “And Kyle (Pattee) was the fuels officer and FMO in Ashton. I was commuting to a university in California. Kyle took a full time job at the Ashton office. I’d like to say that the district ranger in Ashton today, whose highly experienced with fire, is very aware of Kyle and his story. There are at least one or two memorials to Kyle still hanging in that office. In addition to that there is a bronze plaque at the Warm River Campground memorializing Kyle. People around here still remember him and his story.”
According to a newspaper clipping from an Ashton paper at the time, on July 26, 1979, Pattee and a crew of 20 headed out to a fire that was caused by lightning.
Smith said they intended to use the fire as a Managed Fire for Resource Benefit, which is similar to a prescribed burn fire, but created naturally.
“Kyle was one of these young people, he was 29 when he died, whom everybody looked up to,” Smith said. “All of us really saw him as a bonafide fire expert, he was the leader of our crew and you know I had a feeling that this story had never really been fully told. The simple story was that Kyle and his crew and another crew from the Lolo Hot Shots from Montana were overrun by a blow-up which in many ways very much resembled the famous blow up on the Mann Gulch Fire. In which on that particular day in the Salmon River Breaks had all but been predicted, meaning the fire weather for that day was considered very dangerous. And the official version was that Kyle and another man, Jim Camp, were trapped on a temporary hela-spot.”
Smith said a hela-spot is an area that is temporarily designated as a helicopter pad. Somewhere that a helicopter can land temporarily without hitting nearby trees, or mountain range, or brush. They are used for the duration of a fire.
“A young woman, a member of the crew, on her first fire having just gone through fire school had somehow lost her gloves. And Kyle, whose job it was to take care of everyone on the crew, had given her his [gloves],” Smith said. “And when the fire overran Kyle and he deployed his fire shelter, which is a pop-tent made of a silver reflective material that reflects radiant heat from burning materials around them, Kyle was unable to hold down the shelter in the fierce winds that the fire itself generated. In addition, a quantity of gear and supplies that was on the heli-spot with the two men caught fire and added to the heat.”
Smith said that did survive the ordeal but was rushed to the hospital for severe burns.
“He was kind to the younger dumber people like me, he was helpful,” Smith said about Pattee. “He took care of other people. He was a natural leader who inspired in others a great confidence in his judgment. And his supervisor on the forest recently told me that there were few young men of his age that had more fire experience than he did at that time. He may have been on, at that time, 300 fires. So the story that I’m working on may be more than gloves and burning gear. And the reason that I put up a message on Facebook in St. Anthony was to look for anybody who knew him, who worked on the Targhee regular crew at that time, and especially anyone who was on that fire.”
Smith said that at the time of Pattee’s death, the country was still learning how to handle natural fire in a new way, something they still struggle with today.
“At the time of Kyle’s death the forest service was trying to do something about a problem we still have,” Smith said. “That problem is how to live with a certain amount of natural fire. This fire was caused by lightning, lightning still causes fires. It will cause them this summer and this fall. And it’s clear now that we can’t put them all out. In some cases, if a fire is allowed to burn at low intensity it makes a place that will stop the next fire from burning into a town. So at that time the forest service was implementing a new approach to fire which was to allow certain fires in wilderness areas to burn and help the forest become a better forest. But the people on this fire had spent their entire careers putting fires out and you know, the devil is in the details.”
Smith says that he has interviewed dozens of people for his book including Pattee’s family. He said Pattee’s younger brother and his brother’s wife plan to make a pilgrimage to Ashton later this summer for the 40th anniversary of Pattee’s death.
“He grew up in the mountains and observed the mountain way of life,” Smith said. “Kyle loved the outdoors. And he also loved the idea of service, of serving his fellow americans at his own peril.”
Recently Smith has been trying to locate the woman who was Pattee’s girlfriend and he says that he has correctly identified her and has reached out to her.
“Pending my conversation with her, they certainly say they [Pattee and his girlfriend] were serious,” Smith said. “And on the way to the fire, Kyle couldn’t stop talking about her. And another member of the crew had to tell him ‘you know this is going to be a dangerous and difficult fire I need to get some sleep now.’ The forest supervisor of what is now [referred to as] the Caribou Targhee was in charge of investigating the death. But before the investigation he had the terrible job of telling Kyle’s girlfriend that he [Pattee] was dead. He’s 83 years old now and when he told me that he wept.”
When asked what kind of new perspectives he hoped to unveil, Smith said that his perspective is that he is always trying to tell a good story with admirable people in it.
“People who care enough to take risks,” Smith said. “People who have an interest in serving their fellow people. We are living in such an environment of every man for himself and we are exposed everyday to people who are supposed to be our leaders who demonstrate tremendous selfishness. And I like to tell a good story about someone like Kyle who risked everything to serve. Because I think the idea of service to our fellow human beings is highly underrated right now.”
When asked what he hopes to accomplish by writing this story he said that he hoped people would not only enjoy his book but receive a new outlook on the world and learn more about public lands.
“People buy books as entertainment and I hope to write things that people enjoy or that they feel something, they have feelings,” Smith said. “And I also hope that this form of entertainment will carry some values and allow them to see the world in a different way. And I have to say that after retiring from 21 years of being a ranger, I have this tremendous believe in the institution of public lands.”
Smith says that it takes about nine months to a year after a writer finishes a manuscript to get it into book form. He said he estimates that his book could be ready for purchase sometime in 2021 or 2022.
If anyone has information/stories about Kyle Pattee’s life or worked with him at the Targhee National Forest or worked on the Ship Island Creek Fire, please contact Jordan Fisher Smith by phone at 530-277-3087 or email him at jordanfishersmith.com/contact/
This article has been edited.
In a previous version of this article there was mention of people buying up public land. That is inaccurate people cannot purchase public lands.
"What I actually said referred to June 22 New York Times article about billionaires buying up huge swaths of Private, not public lands, putting private lands out of reach for purchase by regular people for homes, ranches, and small businesses," Smith said. "In some cases these absentee investors have gated off dirt roads and trails used by generations of neighbors for fishing and hunting, and hired security guards to keep people out."