Former smokejumper Charles Palmer of Missoula had two goals after he read an Acantha article in 2003 about five men who died in the Waldron Creek wildfire west of Choteau on Aug. 25, 1931.
“I read the story and got interested in the whole event. It planted the seed,” Palmer said in an interview last week.
The two goals were to provide headstones for the three men without them and to write a book about the incident.
The first goal will be met at an Aug. 24 memorial service and dedication ceremony at 1 p.m. in the Choteau Cemetery when he unveils headstones for firefighters Hjalmer “Harry” Gunnarson, 39, and Charles Allen, about 37, who were buried there in unmarked graves. Ottis Bryan, a retired pastor of the Choteau Baptist Church, will officiate at the ceremony, Palmer said.
He invited U.S. Forest Service employees, public service employees and the public to attend the brief ceremony to honor Gunnarson and Allen who died in the line of duty.
In 2011, Palmer arranged for a headstone in Highland Cemetery in Great Falls for firefighter Herbert Novotny, 20, who was also buried in an unmarked grave. After much research and the assistance of a private investigator among other resources, he located Novotny’s daughter in California. She, her daughter and granddaughter were at the ceremony.
Palmer was also grateful to three men in the Raynesford Volunteer Fire Department for their impromptu attendance at the grave, arriving in an old brush truck and in yellow Nomex (fire retardant) shirts. They had read of Palmer’s mission in the Great Falls Tribune.
A fourth firefighter, Frank Williamson, 24, has a headstone at Highland, and the fifth man, Ted Bierchen, 47, was buried in Chicago.
“It seemed incomplete without having a headstone. It angered me a little bit, that the government did not do that for them,” Palmer said.
He paid for Novotny’s monument himself. He was able to purchase headstones for Gunnarson and Allen with financial help from the National Smokejumpers Association, the National Museum of Forest Service History and Chris Sorensen, an affiliate member of the National Smokejumpers Association. Malisani Inc. in Great Falls supplied the engraved stones. Choteau Cemetery caretaker Jerry Kimmet built the cement bases and installed the flat tablets.
Novotny’s memorial service began at the Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Great Falls. Novotny was all or partially of African-American heritage.
Many of the church members then came to the graveside service, Palmer said, who is originally from Great Falls. Palmer’s wife, Christine Engel, also attended.
“Choteau was the next logical step. The loops were closed in Great Falls,” Palmer said of his quest to secure headstones for all three men.
The 2003 Acantha article written by this reporter, explained in some detail the backgrounds of the men, who were regular guys who signed up to fight a wildfire that blew up in the direction they ran for safety, foregoing a burned area. The local coroner said the men had “no one to blame but themselves.”
Palmer said there has to be more to the story. “It is too easy to say they needed the money, and it turned out to be a fateful decision. I have to believe they were in it for more than the money.” He speculated that fighting a wildfire was exciting to them and with some of them being veterans, they had a strong desire to help.
“Why did they take off in the wrong direction? That fascinates me,” Palmer said.
A University of Montana associate professor, Palmer, 49, spent his early adulthood fighting fires for a summer job on a helitack crew, then seasonally and full-time for 10 years as a smokejumper.
Along the way, he earned an advanced degree in education, became a school psychologist, and in 2006 joined the UM faculty.
He is the author of “Fired Up,” a performance and training guide for firefighters.
Palmer still has that book to write about the Waldron Creek fire. He said he wants to explore the human factors that contributed to the men’s tragic decision to run uphill, and how one operates under stress. He wants to determine what happened because he has studied past forest fire fatalities and has concluded that it’s way too easy to blame the victims.
“They made mistakes, they got themselves killed; that is my sense of this, they got blamed for their own deaths, but it might not be accurate; it is way more complex,” Palmer said, adding that he hopes to ferret out the “upstream factors.”
“I see them as deaths in the line of duty, similar to a veteran’s death. They were working for their country. That is important,” he said.