Observing the Mann Gulch fire at 70
Started by lightning, the fire raged on what was then the hottest day on record for nearby Helena, Montana: 94 degrees. The surrounding area had been declared a wilderness the previous year, closed to grazing. By the time the fire started, grass grew tall in the area. Smokejumpers parachuted into the area behind the fire, but the wind soon shifted and pushed the fire toward them, forcing a retreat to the other side of the steep gulch. The fire pursued and then a “blow up”: a firestorm fueled by a draft of wind that provided additional oxygen to an intensely hot blaze, which within minutes incinerated a large swathe of grassy hillside. The firefighters attempted to outrun the fire to the ridgeline but, except for two, they failed to do so, suffocating and then burning. The crew’s foreman survived by setting another fire and lying flat in its ashes as the main fire raged by. All this occurred within hours of their parachuting into the site.
I am observing this anniversary by reading Young Men and Fire (1993) by Norman Maclean, author of the more famous A River Runs Through It. Maclean was a professor of English literature at the University of Chicago. He visited the scene of the Mann Gulch tragedy soon after it happened in August 1949 and spent his later years piecing together what had happened, resulting in this posthumous publication. The prose is spare, but the focus is nearly obsessive about the details of how a routine fire spun out of control. Maclean is more interested in the physics of fire than public policy. To the extent his work is anything of a lamentation on policy failures, it has more to do with the institutional shortcomings of the U.S. Forest Service, still in 1949 a young agency largely reliant on amateurs with little institutional expertise in the emerging science of fire behavior.
Each successive generation is bound to look at such a tragedy through its own lens of concern. We honor the victims of tragedy by remembering them for themselves and on their own terms, but also by trying to understand what they might teach us about ourselves, today. We now tend to talk about forest fires in the context of climate change and land management. These issues were not widely discussed in the context of the Mann Gulch fire, in its own time or even as Maclean was writing about it about thirty years ago. Nevertheless, the story speaks to both issues.
The extreme heat of Aug. 5, 1949, is emphasized repeatedly in contemporary analysis of the Mann Gulch fire. Reading such today, it is hard to avoid the thought that 94 degrees is hot but unexceptional. 94 degrees is about the average daily high for a particularly warm Montana summer, and the all-time high recorded at Helena is now 105 degrees. When I hiked up Mann Gulch two years ago, the weather was in the high 80s, and while hot on the exposed terrain, the weather struck me as simply normal. It would not have been normal when Maclean was a boy in Montana.
Then there is land management. The area around Mann Gulch—the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness—is one of Montana’s hundreds of natural wonders. The area is profoundly beautiful and worthy of preservation. (See for yourself below.) Its designation as a wilderness means there is no grazing or forestry, and that there is plenty of fuel to burn. If fuel doesn’t necessarily mean more fires, it does tend to mean more intense and more devastating ones. We either must let it burn—which then would destroy its perceived beauty, to some at least—or fight it, in which case we plainly defy the concept of “wilderness.” Ironically, even as the human impact on the world has become more profound, some seek now more than in the past century to imagine away the inevitable: that for now, humans are the managers of ecology, incapable of having a genuinely passive role over even uninhabited land like Mann Gulch.
The Mann Gulch tragedy haunted Maclean for reasons that are obvious. Its plotline rhymes with the work of the Romantic poets, who along with Shakespeare were Maclean’s primary area of study. The Mann Gulch fire was a tragedy whose victims, though cast in roles of action (what’s more evocative of that than a young man who literally parachutes into a raging fire?), were helpless to exercise their role in the face of nature and in the shadow of their society’s institutional failings.
Say a prayer or think a kind thought for the young men who, had they survived, might still be alive even today. Below is a picture of Henry Thol’s grave marker. Seventy years ago, he was 19.