When deBit was 18 his father died from blood poisoning. The two elder children were married now and Ralph felt it was his responsibility to care for his mother and two younger sisters. Good jobs were scarce in Council Grove but he had read that in the booming lumber camps of the Northwest work was plentiful. Besides, it was said that the National Forest Service was recruiting men to serve as Forest Rangers in the great timber reserves of Idaho and Montana. He reasoned that if he could apply at the Services Training School in Bayview, Idaho, he might have a good chance of being taken on. In the meantime he would work in the lumber camps, learn the territory, and if he were rejected he could still earn a livelihood. He proposed that his mother sell their home and move to Spokane. Bayview was close to the Washington state line, only a short distance from Spokane.
His mother agreed, and with a few dollars in his pocket and a pack on his back, Ralph left home in April of 1901. His mother and sisters would follow by train a year later. Walking and riding the rails, it took young deBit several months to arrive at his destination.
He found a job in a lumber camp near Wallace, Idaho, and at the first opportunity made the trip to Bayview and applied to the Forestry Training School. He was to wait nearly two years for his appointment, during which time he established himself as an honest, hard-working young man of sound principle and able to accept authority in the presence of men much older than himself.
Eventually he started his own business, cutting and stripping fence posts to sell to the homesteaders in the area.
He was accepted for training at Bayview in 1904. During his stay there he met a pretty young girl named Jessica Maybelle Needum. Upon graduation he was assigned to establish a Ranger's cabin in Avery, Idaho. He asked Jessica to come with him as his wife.
(Vitvan would marry again and have two families: two surviving children by Jessica and two children by Isona
Brown deBit. His marriage to the beloved Connia Lowe deBit in 1930 lasted until her death Thanksgiving Day, 1963)
They were married in the late summer of 1905 at Bayview, going to Avery at once. Ralph build their cabin before the first snow fell. In the next four years he fathered three children and lost the eldest to diphtheria.
The territory he had been assigned covered 40 square miles in the Bitter Roots Mountains. The
near-impossible task of patrolling the vast area necessitated being on the trail, riding horseback, for three and four weeks at a time, with only a week or so at home between trips.
It was a full and adventurous life, and his responsibilities were numerous. Besides maintaining vigilance over the vast land tract under his jurisdiction he was expected to organize and direct search parties for men lost in the wilderness, transport injured lumbermen and miners to the rail head and protect and conserve wild life in the area. Secondarily, he served as Sheriff for the many shack-towns that ringed the lumber camps.
During the dry season, when fire was a constant threat, deBit had to spend weeks at a fire lookout two days and one night's ride from the cabin at Avery. He would make the trip with his horse and one pack mule loaded with food and supplies for a week. Four days later Jessica, with the children, would ride out with a similarly-laden mule and follow his trail. There was a prearranged spot two days out where her trail dust was visible from the tower. She would camp there and he would ride down to meet her. The young lovers would spend a night under the stars, then deBit would back-track with the new supplies and Jessica would return to Avery. They would continue their exchange until the rains came and he could return home.
On several occasions deBit had to deal with illegal timber strippers. He commented:
"I had a protective belligerence about the forest. I was so much among the trees and growing things that I felt a strong kinship with them. There were several incidents with lumbermen who did not share my views and, besides, flagrantly broke the law to line their own pockets. My exceptional ability with a revolver and rifle helped to discourage these practices. However, I don't recall any lasting injuries to any of the parties involved."
In August of 1910 a calamitous forest fire swept the timber reserves of Northwest Idaho and Montana. A dramatic account of the fire is given in the December 10th issue of Everybody's Magazine under the title, "A World Afire--Heroes of the Burning Northwestern Forests." There is an accompanying photograph of a stern young man in ranger garb with a revolver strapped to his waist. The caption reads, "Many fire fighters, miners and settlers are alive today through the prompt action of R. M. deBit, who had charge of 800 men."
Further in the article the story continues, "Ranger R. M. deBit, in charge of the forestry station at Avery, Idaho, sent messengers into the threatened territory before the fire broke, ordering everybody out. Those in his district who heeded the warning were saved, reaching the railroad in time to be taken on board the relief trains. One gang of fire fighters on the north fork of the St. Joe River ignored deBit's order to get out and most
of the men were lost. It was at the request of deBit, also, that the Chicago, Milwaukee and Puget Sound Railway ran special trains from Avery to St. Joe, carrying out the inhabitants and picking up refugees along the line. But for those relief trains hundreds must have perished along the St. Joe River."
DeBit wrote, "Never had I seen such force and power as that calamitous fire. The incinerating heat waves that were generated in the vortex of the flames would often lash out in an inexplicable fashion. Many times I saw men a hundred yards further from the fire than I stood turned to ash by these capricious tongues of cremating heat.
"Many fire fighters returned to their homes to find their entire families wiped out. Thankfully, my wife and children were my first thoughts and I was near enough to provide for their safety. I gathered them up, together with the old lady who was the local postmistress, and loaded them into a boxcar that was parked on a rail siding. I coupled it to a handcar and pushed down the track two miles to a tunnel that was no longer in use. I parked the boxcar midway in the tunnel and told them all to remain until someone came for them. I kissed them goodbye and left to fight the fire.
"They had to remain in the tunnel six days. Many times the smoke threatened to overcome them, but they survived. They would have had little chance outside. In that particular area only one out of every hundred lived through the fire."
In December following the fire deBit applied for a leave of absence and took his family to Spokane to visit his mother and sisters. He never returned to the Bitter Roots.
next chapter 3