The moment I heard about the Arizona wildfire that killed 19 elite firefighters last week, I had an odd and awful flashback to a similar tragedy that I did not even witness, which happened years before I was born.
On a hot, breezy August afternoon in 1949, 16 men parachuted into a wooded canyon 20 miles north of Helena, Mont., to fight a small fire. Less than two hours later, 11 of those 16 men were dead. Two more perished the next day of injuries they received from the inferno in Mann Gulch.
Like the Arizona team, which went by the name Hotshots, the men who jumped from that DC-3 in Montana were hand-picked and highly trained, the best and bravest of a courageous breed of young men who fought fire on the nation’s forests and grasslands. (Women did not do this work at all in those days and do not do much of it today.) They were Smokejumpers, employed by the U.S. Forest Service and based at the small airport in Missoula, Mont., 100 miles west of Mann Gulch.
The youngest man out of the plane that day was Robert Sallee, just 17. The oldest, at 33, was the foreman, R. Wagner “Wag” Dodge. None of the others were older than 28. A dozen of the 16 had seen service in World War II.
Smokejumping was terrifying and dangerous work, but the job paid well and was highly sought after by college students and war veterans. There had not been a single fatality in the 10 years the program existed prior to that August day. The men who jumped into Mann Gulch were mostly from Montana, but some hailed from as far away as Brooklyn, N.Y., Plymouth, Mass., and Alhambra, Calif.
The Missouri River flows from south to north through a narrow canyon at the point at which the Smokejumpers’ plane crossed it. Lewis and Clark, coming upstream from the opposite direction, knew they were leaving the Great Plains, with its familiar hazards of aggressive grizzlies and fierce Blackfeet Indians, for the unknown trials of a trip across the Rockies in search of the Pacific Ocean beyond. They named this place the Gates of the Mountains.
Mann Gulch rolls down to the river from the east. The fire broke out high on the ridge on the south side of the gulch, on the right when seen from the Missouri. According to Forest Service investigator Richard Rothermel, the jumpers landed far up the canyon on the north ridge, opposite the fire. Dodge decided it was too dangerous to attack the fire from that direction, so he sent his men down the canyon, toward the river, in order to confront the fire with the wind at their backs.
But first the men had to get through a thicket of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir near the river. A change in the wind direction, along with the turbulence induced by the heat of the fire itself, set fire to the thicket. With fire blocking their path, the Smokejumpers reversed course and headed back up the gulch, climbing up the steep north ridge with their packs, which contained around 70 pounds of equipment each. (Although these men had to be exceptionally fit, they were not particularly large; aircraft loading constraints led the Forest Service to reject applicants who weighed more than 180 pounds.)
They could not keep ahead of the flames. Pushed by the gusting wind, the fire jumped from tree crown to tree crown. High up the ridge, the men made it out of the dense forest into a prairie of tall grass – but that only enabled the fire to move even faster. Dodge ordered his men to drop their packs and run, but they could not scramble up the steep slope ahead of the flames, which Rothermel and other scientists calculated might have been as tall as a four-story building.
In desperation, Dodge lit a fire of his own. It has come to be called the “escape fire.” He tried to summon his men to join him in the circle of burning grass he created. As the escape fire burned outward, it created a zone that was stripped of fuel and was thus bypassed by the main fire. Dodge lay down, alone, in the ashes of his escape fire. He survived. Two of the youngest members of the group, Sallee and 21-year-old Walter Rumsey, saved themselves by taking the steepest but shortest route to the ridge top, where they found refuge in a rock slide. The others tried to run up the canyon ahead of the flames. It was, according to Rothermel, “a race they could not win.”
I landed in Missoula as a college freshman in 1974, 25 years after those young men took off on their last flight. Smokejumping was still a sought-after job during my college days, just as it still is today. The first woman joined the corps in 1981.
I first heard the story of Mann Gulch in 1979. I was living in Helena and took a boat tour through the Gates of the Mountains. We stopped at the bottom of Mann Gulch and our guide told the tale of the men who died in the flames 30 years earlier.
At around the same time, Montana-born writer Norman MacLean (you probably know him as the author of “A River Runs Through It”) became fascinated with the details of Mann Gulch. His second and final book, “Young Men and Fire,” was published posthumously in 1992.
We have a growing problem with wildfire in this country. More people live at the boundary of forest and civilization, which means more lives and property are at risk every fire season. Decades of fire suppression, economic and political limits on forestry, infestations of insects and disease, and periodic droughts together mean that fires are burning bigger and hotter than before. The Hotshots of the Prescott, Ariz., Fire Department were not fighting fire for glory; they were fighting to protect their neighbors.
There is an argument to be made that it is wrong to fight fires like the one in Mann Gulch. No lives would likely have been lost if the fire had been allowed to burn naturally. The area is a roadless wilderness, and any nearby campgrounds could have been evacuated. Fires have always been a natural, and in many ways essential, part of the ecosystem. But there is no way to tell how large a natural fire might grow, and no way to ensure that a fire will not ensnare unknowing hikers or campers, even in a wilderness.
So our Smokejumpers and Hotshots continue to answer the call. There is just no getting around the fact that any wildfire is a potential Mann Gulch.