Huntington-area man killed on Colorado fire

July 04, 2002 12:00 am

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

And The Associated Press

No one wielded a chain as skillfully as Alan Wyatt.

"He was probably the best faller I've ever known," said Travis Bloomer of Baker City, who worked with Wyatt in 1996.

Wyatt, 51, was a professional tree faller who also ranched near Durkee before moving to Moores Hollow near Ontario several years ago, died late Tuesday when an 80-foot alder tree fell on him as he cleared timber on the Missionary Ridge fire near Durango, Colo.

Wyatt was sawing a nearby tree when the alder hit him, officials said.

He died of severe blunt trauma to the head, said Dick Mullen, the coroner of La Plata County, Colo.

On June 21 a van carrying 11 firefighters crashed on Interstate 70 near Parachute, Colo., about 150 miles north of Durango.

Five of the passengers died, including Bart Bailey, 20, a Baker High School graduate attending Oregon State University, and Daniel Rama, 28, of Baker City.

Friends say Wyatt's skill with a chain saw was almost legendary.

When wildfires were burning across the West, federal agencies often hired Wyatt to fall hazardous trees near firelines, said Ted Bloomer of Durkee, who became good friends with Wyatt after Wyatt moved to Durkee from Cave Junction about 1988.

During the summer of 1996 Bloomer's son, Travis, worked as Wyatt's "swamper" — the person who carried his saw, gas can and other equipment.

Travis Bloomer said all the other tree fallers working on big fires near Ukiah deferred to Wyatt, who had 30 years of logging experience.

"He had been well-known as probably the best feller I've ever known of, and out there he basically was," Travis Bloomer said.

"If there was a tree that was 90 percent burned, Alan would be the one to fall it."

A few years ago the U.S. Forest Service asked Wyatt to train U.S. Marines to fall trees, a job for which he won a federal award, Ted Bloomer said.

Wyatt's advice was sought after not just because he was skilled, but also because he was safe, Travis Bloomer said.

"He was by far the safest faller I've ever had to pack gas and stuff for," Bloomer said. "When he's on those fires he takes control.

"He kind of had that John Wayne swagger — you just knew he knew his stuff."

Wyatt also was well-known in rodeo circles.

He was a saddle bronc rider in his younger years, and his son, Wells, is a top rider as well, Ted Bloomer said.

He was an excellent team roper.

"If you needed something roped, you could depend on Alan," he said.

"He was a nice guy — a real nice guy," said Bruce McKinney of Huntington, another of Wyatt's friends.

Wyatt also was a deeply religious man, who sometimes led the Bible study and gave the sermon at the community church in Durkee.

"He was a man of the Lord," Bloomer said. "He's really going to be missed."

Other friends and family members remembered Wyatt as a religious man who had a quick smile to go with his swagger.

‘‘He leaves behind a lot of people who love him,'' said his daughter, Leigh Ann Evans. ‘‘The world won't be the same without him.''

Just before Tuesday's accident, Wyatt and three others had hiked to a mesa covered in pine, conifer and alder that was blackened by the fire, kgw.com reported. Their job was to cut down the dangerous snags and charred trees left behind the fire inside the San Juan National Forest.

Wyatt had stopped to fell a ‘‘hazard tree'' when the nearby alder collapsed, crushing him ‘‘like a vice,'' Mullen said.

The alder had at first appeared healthy and untouched by the fire, said Pam Gardner, a U.S. Forest Service information officer at the Missionary Ridge Fire.

‘‘The root system on trees can burn out,'' she said. ‘‘The tree appears to be sound, but is really unstable. We sometimes call these widow-makers.''

Wyatt's crew called for medical help around 5:45 p.m. and he was pronounced dead when rescue workers and a medical-evacuation helicopter arrived.

The Forest Service was looking into whether Wyatt had been hired as a temporary fire worker. Early reports suggested he was working for a private contractor, but Gardner said the Forest Service itself may have hired him.

Tuesday was Wyatt's first day on the Missionary Ridge Fire, which has burned more than 50 Colorado homes in 25 days and remains largely out of control.

He checked in at about 4 p.m. and spent less than two hours on the lines before the tree killed him, said Bonnie Lippitt, an information officer with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

He had come from the Million Fire, just to the east.