Young Men and Fire
By: Norman Maclean
Book Review by DeVan Lord
The long history of firefighting in America is documented back to the late sixteen-hundreds. The earliest documented forest fire was recorded over two-hundred years ago in a journal entry dating back to October 1804. In the years following, fire groups, fire wardens, and fire towers were established to be watch outs for forest fires around the country. In the later years of 1886 the first Wildland Firefighter crews were created; considered more to be park rangers because they fought fires in their perspective areas of the national parks/forests.
Fire history truly began after the first firefighting group was formed, along the way, new firefighting methods were created, ways of putting out fires, ways to survey fire behaviors, and the different types of fires to types of buildings. In nineteen-thirty four a man by the name of T.V. Pearson came up with the idea of Smokejumping for the fire service in 1934. He meant for it to provide a quick means of initial attack by parachuting into a fire before it became too large, with the provisions to be self-sufficient for a minimum of forty eight hours with no outside resources or help. Even though the idea was proposed, it did not come into play until the mid-nineteen forty’s when two permanent air operations were set up, one in Winthrop, Washington and one in Ninemile camp, Montana; the first recorded jump was on July 12, 1940 into the Nez Pierce National Forrest. Soon after, the Montana air base moved to Missoula and the name change to the Missoula Smokejumper Base.
The Mann Gulch fire incident was fought by an eighteen man crew out of the Missoula Smokejumpers base. The fire was discovered by a lookout by the name of James Harrison who was a fire prevention guard for Helena National Forrest. The fire was first spotted at 1225 hours on August 5, 1949. The area being very dry and dense, it consisted of a very mature fuel load of sixty to one hundred year old Ponderosa Pine mixed with fifteen to fifty year old Douglas Fir. The fuel load was very consistent. Because of the thickness and density of the fuels and the lack of accessibility to such a remote area, the Missoula Smokejumpers were called out.
According to the crew foreman, R. Wagner Dodge, the jump was considered to be very regular, they flew over the fire doing some scouting and sizing up of the scene. The only thing that did not go according to plan is the supply drop into their landing zone. The cargo was scattered over a quarter mile, and the shoot for the crews radio did not deploy resulting in the radio breaking upon impact – which meant there was no communication with the outside world. Upon landing, the crew gathered all equipment and later that night R. Wagner Dodge met with the forest guard James Harrison to begin discussing tactics and the area where the fire was.
When the actual attack began, winds were recorded from coming in from the north and east ranging from about six to eight miles per hour. At 1530 hours, the winds switched from north and east coming in from the south at about twenty four miles per hour and continued to blow at about the same speed for the remainder of the day. The topography of the area was mountainous, covered in ridges and canyons, the wind created a strong turbulence at the mouth of Mann Gulch which caused strong winds going towards the crews inside. (The way it was formed would be considered a chimney) As the day went on the crew was being led by one of its lead members. Dodge and Harrison were on top of the ridge scouting the fires behavior when they noticed the fire coming up the mouth of the canyon. At 1740 hours Dodge and Harrison took back control of the crew, they continued on the designated route they were on for about five minutes when they came to find the fire blocking their passage way out of the mouth of the canyon. Spot fires rapidly increased the area around them. Trees started crowning, gusts picked the fire up and started burning at a rate of around one hundred and twenty feet per minute. At 1735 hours the crew turned around to get out of the canyon, at 1735 hours they dropped their packs and tools and started making a run for it scattering in all directions, at 1755 hours the crew was all over the place, Foreman Dodge set an escape fire around himself and survived inside the burnt our zone. Crewmembers Sallee and Rumsey ran into a rock formation on the side of the mountain and survived inside of there. At about 1800 hours the rest of the crewmembers had perished from the fire.
The events from above all happened in a very short time period. The crew had jumped at about 1610 hours, the scattered cargo had been gathered by about 1700 hours. At 1745 hours the crew had seen the fire coming towards them on the north slope when they turned to run. By around four minutes to 1800 hours the fire had swept over them. The time when the fire took over the men was determined by melted hands of a pocket watch found with Harrison frozen at 1756 hours by the intense heat. Studies estimate the fire covered over three-thousand acres in just ten minutes during the time of the blow-up, an hour and forty-five minutes after arrival, thirteen firefighters dies and three survived.
Those that were killed by the fire.
- Robert J. Bennett, age 22 from Paris, TN
- Eldon E. Diettert, age 19 from Moscow, ID, died on his 19th birthday
- James O. Harrison – Helena National Forest Fire Guard, age 20, Missoula, MT
- William J. Hellman, age 24 from Kalispell, MT
- Philip R. McVey, age 22 from Babb, MT
- David R. Navon, age 28 from Modesto CA
- Leonard L. Piper, age 23 from Blairsville, PA
- Stanley J. Reba, from Brooklyn NY
- Marvin L. Sherman, age 21 from Missoula, MT
- Joseph B. Sylvia, age 24 from Plymouth MA
- Henry J. Thol, age 19 from Kalispell MT
- Newton R. Thompson, age 23 from Alhambra CA
- Silas R. Thompson, age 21 from Charlotte NC
Those that survived:
- R. Wagner (Wag) Dodge, Missoula SJ foreman, age 33, died 5 years later from Hodgkin ’s disease
- Walter B. Rumsey, age 21 from Larned KA, Rumsey died in a plane crash in 1980 at 52 years old
- Robert W. Sallee, age 17, Willow Creek MT (only surviving member today)
If you notice, none of the men were even familiar with the area they were in, the only crew member who knew the area was Marvin L. Sherman, after the incident 450 men fought for five more days to get the fire, which had spread over 4500 acres under control. Thirteen crosses were made to mark the locations where the thirteen smokejumpers died in Mann Gulch. Many lessons were learned from the Mann Gulch incident, it would have a great impact on how firefighters would be trained. Though, some of the lessons were forgotten and the tragedy of Mann Gulch would be repeated in the 1994 South Canyon Fire when fourteen firefighters died.
There are several lessons we can take from Mann Gulch, one we learn that fire spreads faster on slopes. Mann Gulch was about 75% incline, slope also made it difficult to run from the fire. We also learn that the crew had poor leadership, Dodge did not know most of the crew, and this led to them to not trusting their foreman. We learn how vital communication is to a crew; it could have possibly prevented the disaster or helped to get aid more quickly to the two men who died later.
Mann Gulch was a sad incident for the Wildland firefighting world; we lost good firefighters for bad reasons. Though, we had many lessons come from the fire, the beginning of the watch out situations, and firefighting orders came from this incident, fire shelters began to develop, and the safety of our firefighters became a more important priority.