Remembering those who died

It has been seventy years since the Mann Gulch fire took the lives of 13 firefighters near the Gates of the Mountains in the Helena National Forest in Montana. The fire occurred before I was born, but I grew up knowing the basic outlines of the story. At the end of the Second World War it was known that parachuting from airplanes was an effective way to get fairly large numbers of people to remote locations. The airplanes that had been used in the Normandy invasion had transported the largest number of paratroopers every dropped in a single wave. The bulk of those paratroopers jumped from US C-47 aircraft, manufactured by the Douglas Aircraft Company. At the end of the war, there were a lot of surplus airplanes available for purchase by civilian flyers. The C-47s could bee converted to Douglas DC3 airliners and many were thusly converted. A few retained their cargo doors and were used for various applications. Johnson Flying Service in Missoula, Montana, in cooperation with the US Forest Service pioneered the use of aircraft to drop firefighters by parachute into remote locations.

The Mann Gulch fire was a lightning-caused fire in tinder dry conditions in the middle of August, some of the hottest days of the summer. Johnsons dispatched a plane with 16 smoke jumpers to respond to the fire. The hot afternoon and the mountains resulted in moderate to heavy turbulence for the entire flight and one of the smokejumpers got sick during the flight. 15 jumped on the fire. Within a couple of hours of the jump, ten of the smokejumpers were dead along with another firefighter who had been dispatched vie ground transportation. Two other smokejumpers were critically injured and died the next day. Only 3 of the 15 who jumped survived.

The area where the firefighters died was a very steep hillside and the fire was burning up the hill. As the firefighters attempted to outrun the fire it exploded into an inferno with flames reaching 200 feet into the sky. It created its own winds as it tore through the dry fuels.

Today the steep ridge is a national historical landmark and 13 crosses mark the places where the firefighters fell.

Norman Maclean is the author of the memoir “A River Runs Through It” made famous by the 1992 movie directed by Robert Redford based on the book. That story of two brothers, sons of a Presbyterian Minister, growing up in the Mountains of Montana paints a glorious picture of the geography and culture of the mountains despite the complex and tragic life of Paul. Norman wrote the book in part to sort through his grief and to tell the story of his brother. the book brought a lot of attention to the former University of Chicago professor during his retirement years.

Less popular and less known is the last book by Norman Maclean to be published. Young Men and Fire is his exploration of the Mann Gulch Fire. It represents a long obsession that McLean had with the events of that terrible day when the firefighters perished. Maclean had worked as a firefighter and had experienced close brushes with the power and danger of fire, while working a fire in the Lolo area west of Missoula. He visited the Mann Gulch area late in the fall following the fire and began what was a long obsession with the fire and the events of the day the firefighters died.

He wasn’t alone in studying the fire. Many of the safety rules and fire survival techniques taught to all Forest Service firefighters are based in lessons learned from the investigation of the Mann Gulch Fire.

I grew up in family whose primary business was based on the surplus airplanes and airplane parts that became available after World War II. Our family also used airplanes for fire patrol and on occasion leased planes from Johnson Flying Service and used our planes to guide smokejumper planes to the fires. I considered becoming a smoke jumper until I learned that I was not able to pass the eye test. It seems that glasses could be a liability when jumping out of airplanes to fight fires.

When I read Maclean’s book about the Mann Gulch Fire, I already knew the outlines of the story. What struck me was his obsession with the way that the men died. He went into each individual’s experiences as far as possible, examining where the bodies were found, what injuries occurred and imagining what their experience might have been like as they collapsed from heat and exhaustion and succumbed to the fire. I never understood Maclean’s obsession with how the men died.

Smokejumpers are generally young people. The crew that was dropped on the Mann Gulch fire ranged from 17 to 33. The youngest of those who died perished on his 19th birthday. The oldest to jump, the crew foreman, was the only one over the age of 30. He survived the fire by lighting a backfire and moving into the burned out area.

What is missing from Maclean’s book, in my opinion, are the stories of the lives that the firefighters lived. By focusing on their deaths, we never hear of what drew them to work for the Forest Service, what they loved in life, and what kind of people they were. Having grown up around wildland firefighters, I know a bit about the culture of those who fight fires. In general they are people who ave a special appreciation for the beauty of remote places. They love to hike and hunt and fish and explore. They often enjoy the solitude of wild places. They have a passion for living. The tragedy of the death of those who have fallen cannot extinguish the bright light of the joy of living shared by those who survive. The way in which the young men died is nowhere near as important as the lives they lived.

The last survivor of the Mann Gulch Fire was the youngest member of the crew. He died in 2014. The responsibility for telling their story has now been passed to those of us who were not living at the time. I hope that we will not forget that these were exuberant, passionate, wonderful people, full of life with hopes and dreams of the future. How they lived seems more important than how they died.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!