Saturday, November 01, 2008

Maclean's Fire and Ashes

I promised a short synopsis on the book that I read, Fire and Ashes, by John Maclean.

In Fire and Ashes, John Maclean tells the stories of three fires. He starts with the story of the 1953 Rattlesnake Fire in Mendocino National Forest in California, set by an arsonist. Fifteen fire fighters were killed in this fire, fourteen of whom were volunteers from a nearby Christian missionary training camp. In addition to writing about the fire itself he interviewed the arsonist, adding a tragic twist to the story.

The second fire he writes about is the 1999 Sadler Fire in northern Nevada where a crew of six fire fighters were trapped by the fire, and all survived. Here Maclean makes what to me is an eerie connection to the fire he writes about in Fire on the Mountain, the 1994 South Canyon Fire where fourteen firefighters died. This is because one of the survivors (Tom Shepard) of the South Canyon Fire had a supervisory capacity in the Sadler Fire. Here I came away impressed that Maclean talked to Shepard, allowing Shepard to tell his side of the story and focusing on where Shepard’s story differed from the official investigation of the fire.

In his last story, he writes about Bob Sallee, the last survivor of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire (Montana) where twelve smokejumpers (firefighters who parachute in to fight a wildfire) and one former smokejumper then a wilderness guard died. In a very real sense, this is a follow–up on his father’s (Norman Maclean’s) book recounting the Mann Gulch fire, Young Men and Fire. So, having perhaps read books in reverse order, I am going back and reading Young Men and Fire. He finishes his book with a short history of wildland fires in the United States.

There are two things that jump out at me about Fire and Ashes. The first is that I have learned a little about what is involved in fighting wildfires, the terminology, firefighter safety and wildland firefighting strategies, if you will. When I say I learned something about strategies, I learned about some changes that came about because of these fires, especially as relates to the importance of wildland firefighter safety. I’ll write more on what I have learned about firefighter safety in a later post.

Finally, I came away with feeling like I got to know some of the firefighters that Maclean wrote about and interviewed for this book. I could go on, but risk getting into clich├ęs, so I’ll stop there.

I will save comparisons between the difference in father and son’s writing styles for a later post.

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