Many years later, Norman Maclean tried to re-enact the race up the hill and piece together the events of the Mann Gulch fire. In Young Men and Fire, he recounted his visits to fire research centers, discussions with the fire’s survivors, and exploration of the canyon itself. His poetically written investigation into the events of Mann Gulch sought lessons from the fire while presenting pieces of beautiful writing on every page.

The book is extremely compelling and use of language is both touching and elegant. Young Men and Fire combines a captivating primer on fires and firefighting, a powerful, amazingly real reconstruction of a tragedy, grief and human character. It is a magnificent drama of writing that pays tribute to the dead and offers rescue to the living. Maclean’s quest for the truth that becomes an exploration of his own mortality, is more inspiring even than his journey into the heart of the fire. His description of the conflagration frightens, but it is his efforts to turn the story of the 13 men into tragedy that makes this book a classic.

The Mann Gulch fire occurred when a wildfire in the Helena National Forest, Montana, United States, spread out of control. The fire was first spotted by a forest ranger around noon on August 5, 1949. James O. Harrison, the recreation and fire prevention guard for Meriwether Canyon Campground had quit his former job as a smokejumper to find a less dangerous profession. On this day however, he fought the fire on his own for four hours before he met the crew of smokejumpers who had been dispatched from Missoula, Montana, in a C-47.

Foreman Wagner Dodge led the team towards the Missouri River. The fire however, spread faster than anticipated and had already cut off the path to safety. The men had to turn around. When Dodge realized that they would not be able to outrun the fire, he started an escape fire and ordered everyone to lie down in the area he had burnt down. The other team members hesitated and hurried towards the ridge of Mann Gulch instead. It was a mistake. Only two of them managed to escape through a crevice and found a safe location, a rock slide with little vegetation to fuel the fire. Two other members survived with heavy injuries but died within a day. Unburnt patches beneath the bodies indicated that the rest of the team, including Jim Harrison, suffocated before the fire caught up with them. Later 450 men fought for five more days to get the fire, which had spread to 18 km (4500 acres), under control. Wagner Dodge survived unharmed and died five years later of Hodgkin’s disease. Lessons learned from the Mann Gulch fire had a great impact on firefighter training and over the years the science behind fire rampage continued to develop further.

Numerous factors shape fire growth. In the case of Mann Gulch certain aspects led to one of the most violent of fire hazards, a blowup. This is a sudden increase in fire intensity or rate of spread strong enough to prevent or upset fire control measures. Blow-ups are often accompanied by violent convection and may have other characteristics of a fire storm. Sometimes flare-ups can occur where there is a sudden acceleration of fire spread or intensification. Unlike a blow-up, a flare-up lasts a relatively short time and does not radically change fire control measures.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *