A beloved Hellsgate volunteer firefighter who battled the Wallow and Yarnell fires, kept aging fire trucks running and did endless favors for his many friends, collapsed and died Friday while taking a fitness test.
Lt. Bobby Mollere, 61, left behind a stunned and devastated brotherhood of firefighters, who tried desperately to revive him on the Payson High School track, then gathered in the funeral home to keep vigil over his body.
Chief Gary Hatch who worked with Mollere on the largest wildfire in state history said, “only a few times in your life do you come across someone that affects your life in everyday events — but Bobby was that person.”
A pipe fitter who lived in the Valley and had a cabin in Christopher Creek, Mollere volunteered countless hours and also earned his certifications as an EMT, a wildlands firefighter and a structural firefighter. He is survived by Willie, his wife of 27 years. They had no children.
During both the Wallow Fire and the Yarnell Fire, Mollere drove a water tender on rutted dirt roads to keep engines on the front lines filled.
Several times during the Wallow Fire, the fire overtook the water tender — and Hatch and Mollere kept the flames at bay by opening the pressure lines on the truck to spray the surrounding area. Once, they made a last-ditch stand to keep a team of pumper trucks supplied with the water that saved five houses.
But he was most loved by his fellow firefighters for his joy, delightful sense of humor, endless analysis and unending willingness to help — whether by welding a coworker’s metal fence or showing a coworker how to repair her car.
“He could piss you off because he just wanted to analyze everything. He’s a pipefitter and everything had to fit. But he also acted like a teenager — jumped up on the top of the truck. He was our most beloved. He just loved life.”
Mollere died taking the fitness test necessary to keep his certification as a wildlands firefighter. The test involved covering three miles wearing a 45-pound pack.
He had fast-walked seven of the 12 laps comfortably ahead of the 45-minute pace necessary to qualify. He was joking with another, firefighter who had lapped him. Mollere quipped, “I think I ought to give all of these kids a hard time if they let an old man beat them.”
They both laughed. But then Mollere suddenly stumbled, stood up straight — then fell backwards into his friend’s arms.
Firefighters came running from all over the field and worked feverishly to revive him. They couldn’t get his pulse back. They rushed him to Payson Regional Medical Center where doctors labored for another hour trying to revive him.
But he was gone.
Mollere was one of the most experienced of the core of volunteer firefighters who provide the bulk of the manpower for Hellsgate, which protects Star Valley and a host of small, unincorporated communities — including Tonto Village and Mead Ranch where Mollere mostly worked. The volunteers get paid a dollar an hour to stay on standby, then an hourly rate based on their certifications when called out to fight a fire. They get no benefits.
Hatch said the department has a modest life insurance policy and that a group that raised money for the families of the Yarnell firefighters has already given the widow $10,000. It’s also possible Mollere will qualify for federal benefits.
Mollere endeared himself to his friends by his generosity of spirit. For instance, one of the women who worked at the station decided she would change the motor mounts on her Nissan. She refused all offers of help, but when she got ready to do it, Mollere quietly showed up.
“I’m here to assist you,” he said.
She replied, “No. I want to do it myself.”
“I didn’t say I was going to do it for you. I’m here to help.”
He then stood by and handed her tools he’d brought as she needed them.
In another case, he showed up to provide expert welding on the fence of one of the fire captains. When he finished, the captain said, “How much do I owe you?”
Mollere said, “Nothing.”
“You can’t do that. Let me pay you something,” said the captain.
“I can’t do that. If I let you pay me, you’re taking away my feeling of goodness.”
Hatch said he grew to love Mollere during the two weeks they spent battling the Wallow Fire, which nearly consumed Alpine and Springerville.
The pair ran a water tender, coaxing it down remote dirt roads in an unending shuttle operation to fill the pumper trucks of the frontline fire engines. They called themselves the “old geezer” squad. They slept between two tarps, exhausted and sore every night, anchoring the tarps against the fierce wind that would have blown over tents and using a water cooler to keep the tarp off their faces while they slept.
At one point, they played a prank on the crew of one of the pumper trucks, which drenched the other firefighters with a most satisfying blast of water. They had to leave their camp on a call soon after that — and when they returned they found their chairs, the cooler and much of their gear high up in a tree, festooned with pink ribbons.
“He laughed and laughed,” recalls Hatch. “I grew to love the guy out there.”
Beneath the jokes and macho, Mollere had his struggles. Two sisters he loved dearly died hard, agonizing deaths of cancer — which shook his faith in the universe, said Hatch. “It tore him up. After that, he said ‘I want to go fast.’ And he did,” said Hatch, composing himself after a night of standing vigil.
Now, Hatch remembers his friend in the midst of the Wallow Fire, madly running the hose from the tanker truck to the waiting crews grimly determined to turn back the flames advancing on a cul de sac of homes that looked almost impossible to save. As it turns out, one of those houses belonged to the mayor.
“I stayed back running the truck. I said, ‘Let me do it,’ but he said, ‘No, I got it,’ because of my foot. He just jumped up on that truck with that hose and you’d swear he was a teenager.
“So to have him just drop dead and be gone — that doesn’t make any sense at all, no sense at all,” said Hatch.
To honor Mollere, the flag at Star Valley Town Hall is at half-staff.