Young Men and Fire

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Sometimes a writer can empathize with events so terrible that they forever etch themselves upon his or her memory. Often these events occur during the formative years, and they can be so compelling that the writer’s memory becomes obsessed with them. Such was the case with the Mann Gulch fire on August 5, 1949, in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area of the Helena National Forest in Montana. Thirteen young fire fighters from the U.S. Forest Service’s elite Smokejumpers unit died in a sudden “blowup” of a fire on the north ridge of Mann Gulch, trapped by the fire that had outflanked them.

After his retirement as a professor at the University of Chicago, Montana writer Norman Maclean spent the last fourteen years of his life researching the Mann Gulch fire and trying to reconstruct what actually happened to the doomed fire crew on its fatal jump. Young Men and Fire, which was awarded the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction, was written as an expression of his “antishuffleboard” philosophy of old age. Maclean tracked down and interviewed the two survivors, Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey, in an attempt to understand how they survived when their companions died. He spoke with U.S. Forestry Service officials, fire fighters, and fire scientists to assemble the scattered pieces of the Mann Gulch tragedy. Maclean left the manuscript of the book uncompleted at his death, and it was prepared for publication by the editors at the University of Chicago Press. In Maclean’s terse narrative, the Mann Gulch fire takes on the dimensions of a Greek tragedy, complete with hubris, nemesis, tragic fate, and purgation: the young crew’s inexperience and ignorance of blowups; the combination of circumstances favorable to a serious fire at Mann Gulch; the crew’s bad luck in being outflanked and outrun by the fire; and the increased knowledge of forest fires that has come about indirectly from the Mann Gulch tragedy.

In Part 1, Maclean describes the setting at Mann Gulch, a steep, jagged area in west-central Montana that has been described as “one of the roughest areas east of the Continental Divide.” Mann Gulch is a dry gulch two and one-half miles long that empties into the Missouri River. The north slope of Mann Gulch was rocky and steep, with long, dry grass and brush and only a scattering of trees, while the south slope was densely timbered. The summer of 1949 had seen record heat, and the tall bunch and cheat grass and the thick stands of second-growth ponderosa pine and Douglas fir were tinder- dry. Along with the record heat, there were hot, dry winds that scoured the slopes. The fire risk that week was rated at 74 out of 100, or “explosive.” All the conditions were present for a catastrophic fire.

In the West, three-quarters of forest fires are started by lightning. Thunderheads gather, and even without rain there are lightning storms with many strikes on tall, exposed ridges, where a dead pine or fir can smolder for days before dropping live sparks on the dry grass or brush below. Wildfire is a natural part of the ecology of the West, but the policy of the U.S. Forestry Service at the time was to try to contain small fires before they burned large areas of national forest.

When the fire spotters’ reports were radioed in to the regional fire fighting headquarters in Missoula, a crew of fifteen Smokejumpers was dispatched in a C-47 airplane under the direction of foreman R. Wagner Dodge. The pilot reported a great deal of turbulence over Mann Gulch, so the Smokejumpers were dropped from two thousand feet instead of the customary twelve hundred. Their equipment was scattered, and their radio was smashed when its parachute failed to open. The men and cargo were dropped by 4:10 P.M., and they had retrieved their equipment and regrouped by 5:00. No one was worried. They faced a sixty-acre fire that they were confident they could mop up by the next morning. Dodge left his men in the charge of the assistant squad leader, Bill Hellman, and went ahead to scout the fire. Dodge rejoined his group at about 5:30 P.M. By 5:40, the fire had jumped the gulch and was quickly working its way toward them. The men began to hurry. Dodge ordered them to drop their equipment and run. By 5:45, the fire was almost upon them, and it was every man for himself. By 6:00, thirteen young fire fighters were dead or dying.

It is hard to imagine the horror of being caught in a blowup, a swirling holocaust of whirling wind and fire that seems to feed on itself. Inside the blowup, the men faced a two-hundred-foot wall of solid flame and swirling smoke, burning embers, and the roar of the fire like a tornado. In such an inferno, the superheated air quickly sears the lungs. The two greatest dangers are the toxic gases, especially carbon monoxide, and the lack of oxygen. The only hope for survival is to stay as low to the ground as possible and find a burned-out spot...

(The entire section is 2017 words.)