Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Young Men and Fire Redux

I have been giving thought over the last few days about what I got out of Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire. Simply it is the story of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire where 13 firefighters died, twelve of them smoke jumpers. In the six weeks or so since I finished Norman’s book I have read one more book by his son, John Maclean’s Fire on the Mountain and have read or skimmed a few official investigative reports of fires where firefighters died, or were entrapped. In addition, I have read the investigative report of the 2000 Cerro Grande fire near Los Alamos New Mexico, a prescribed burn that broke containment (aka went out of control) eventually causing massive property damage in Los Alamos. Yet, it is Norman MacClean’s writing that stays with me.

He was a scholar of Shakespeare and the Romantic Poets and William Rainy Harper Professor of English at the University of Chicago. But he is more than that. He grew up in rural Montana, lived through the 1910 blowup (wildfires) and spent time as a young men on fire crews in Montana. His Montana house is within striking range, not of Mann Gulch itself, but of the nearest communities. He first heard about the tragic fire not long after it happened. Thus began his interest in the fire leading although he was not to begin much of his investigative work until he was in his seventies.

It was no surprise when I found that often throughout the book his writing was almost poetic. His words took me to Mann Gulch as the fire blew up, made its run up the Gulch killing these fine young men. And his poetic portrait of the tragedy stays with me.

But there is more. I got to know fire through his words, through his description of the tragedy, and through his journey to understand the fire and why so many young men died. I learned that fire travels fastest uphills (most of the time), of the role of winds in the narrow steep gully that is Mann Gulch. I respected a man of seventy plus returning a couple of times with his younger research partner, Laird Robinson, to walk the route that the young men who died traveled.

Oh, and there were survivors. Three of them, the crew foreman, Wag Dodge who died in the mid 1950s, Walter Rumsey who died about fifteen or twenty years ago, and Robert Salee who I think is still alive. Norman spends time on the fire that Wag Dodge lit, his escape fire. He lit the fire, and then lay down in it. And survived. He survived in a burned area where the main fire could not get him. He was the only one of crew who laid down in the fire, the rest of the crew ignored his pleas to stay in the escape fire with him and continued to try to ran away from the fast approaching fire. Only two got to the top of the ridge before the fire. Most of the rest could not run fast enough. The hill was very steep and the fire was moving faster then most of the men were. All but two were killed instantly. Two more died the next day.

Wag Dodge’s escape fire was controversial. Yet, for me, the point of Norman’s book was not Wag Dodge’s controversial or whether or not Norman accurately portrayed Salee’s escape route up the gulch and over the rim through a break in the rim rock –– Salee claim’s in an interview with John Maclean in John’s Fire and Ashes, that Norman and Laird got it wrong, insisting that Norman was wrong. It is fire that I remember.

Fire. The power of fire. Fire does what it does. And sometimes what it does is in the form of a fire storm or blow–up. I have written elsewhere about safety procedures for wildland firefighters that came along later, the 10 standard orders and the 18 watch out situations. These came about, in part, out of the Mann Gulch tragedy. These are shortened into an easy to remember acronym, LCES

Finally the last lesson that I learned from Norman Maclean: wildland firefighters, please stay safe.

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