Book Review: Young Men and Fire: A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire

Young Men and Fire: A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire

September 1, 1992

by Norman Maclean 

This is a multidimensional story.  It is the story of the sixteen-man crew that in 1949 fought a wildfire at Mann Gulch, Montana and of the thirteen who died there.   It is also the story of an on-the-spot innovation, subsequently made famous by studies of quick thinking, when crew leader Wag Dodge saved himself from the fire by lighting another, burning the fuel and then sheltering in the burned out area.  We have the problem of organizational behavior and small-unit cohesion among a group and a leader unaccustomed to working with each other.  There is the story of fire-science that was greatly stimulated by the tragic events at Mann Gulch.  We could talk about the investigation of incident and court cases resulting or about the investigation, much of it never-to-be-resolved, finished as much as it ever will be by the author almost forty years after the event, with the final report cut short by the death of the author himself.

So, I recommend this book for if you are interested in any of the above subjects, or if you just want an exciting tale or are attracted by the forces of nature.  Since I cannot cover all the details, I will go after those most related to my interest and experience.  I bought this book as part of my study of the ecological use of fire and “Young Men and Fire” is a classic for fire science.  But I first became aware of the book when studying innovation and organizational behavior, so I will talk about those things.

My study has concerned mostly prescribed burning in Southeastern pine forests, but I have also looked into fire in ponderosa pine in the West and in tallgrass prairie ecosystems.  The ecology in Mann Gulch included grassland, brush along with ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.  This was no prescribed or controlled fire.

Maclean sets the stage very well.  He describes the young smoke jumpers, their attributes and attitudes.  These were fit young men whose mission was to parachute ahead of fires and put them out before they got too big.  Consider that in 1949, not long after World War II, the parachute was still a relatively new technology.  Paratroopers had been heroes of the War and this was no doubt not lost on the young smoke jumpers, who saw themselves in military terms, fighting fires as they would any other enemy.  They knew that their task was dangerous, but they had the confidence of fit young men who had not seen failure.  An important flaw in this organization, and one that may have been fatal, was that smoke jumping crews were assembled from a list of volunteers at each need. They were not a team used to working together.   And their leader, Wag Dodge, through experienced in the woods and with fire fighting, did not know them well.  Humans are not interchangeable parts.  When the crisis breaks and they need to rely on quick thinking or training, it is important that the team think like a time.  The men in Mann Gulch did not.

It is also to think back to the mindset of the Forest Service at that time.   This was before the science of ecology had developed, before fire behavior science had developed and before the idea the fire could be a natural and necessary part of the environment was even seriously considered.   The Forest Service treated fire in the woods as you would a fire in your living room.  Put it out, they hoped before 10am.  Lurking in the minds of all the rangers was the memory of the Big Burn fire of 1910, which had burned more than three million acres and killed at least 78 fire fighters.  (You can get a good background on that from “The Big Burn” on the “American Experience.)

The Mann Gulch fire behaved in particularly nasty ways for a variety of reasons.  The topography was important.  The walls of the gulch channeled the wind and the rock faces created eddies, sort of mini-tornadoes of flame. Beyond that was the combination of timber and grass. A timber fire can get very hot but does not move very quickly.   A grass fire is very rapid but not as hot, as the grass burns quickly and then goes out.  Often only top of the grass burns.  The Mann Gulch fire combined the dangerous attributes of both, with the rapidly moving grass fire supported behind by the intense heat of the timber fire.  It was hot enough to kill the firefighters and fast enough to outrun them.

The Mann Gulch became a blow up fire, which is a sudden increase in fire intensity or rate of spread accompanied by violent convection.  The smoke jumpers just were not expecting this.  The smoke jumper ethos was based on the idea that they would be able to put out small fires before they became big ones.  Their tools were simple.  They used shovels and simple tools to bury fire and beat it to death.  These tools and methods are unsuited to a big fire, which Mann Gulch became evidently in a matter of minutes.   The firefighters have to stop fighting and get out of the way of what they cannot stop.  This was the problem; they could not get out the way fast enough.

The fire was coming fast because of the wind blowing up the gulch and from the wind created by the fire itself.  A large fire creates its own wind.  You can see that in a campfire or a fire in a fireplace.  The fire draws in cool air, heats it and pushes it out.  The hot exhaust and gasses are what often kills.  It burns lungs and suffocates.  According to Maclean, it is ironically similar to drowning.

The fire also moved faster because it was going up hill.  Fire burns up faster than it burns down.  On the other hand, humans are slower running up hill. The young man did not have much of a chance to outrun the fire and this is were Wag Dodge has his idea.   He no doubt understood the idea of a back-fire, i.e. a fire set in front of an oncoming head fire designed to burn combustible material in advance of the big fire. Deprive it of fuel and it goes out.  (This is one of the principles of conducting prescribed fires.  Burners set a backfire to end the progress of the head fire.)  But nobody had used that principle to create an escape fire.

Dodge set a fire that burned the grass in front of the oncoming big fire and then laid on the ground in the ashes and let the fire burn over him.  He tried to get his fellow firefighters to join him, but they evidently (we can never know) did not understand or thought the idea was insane.  Dodge survived and the principle of an escape fire entered the training manuals for fire fighters.  BTW, the escape fire works in grass but not in timber fires.  A timber fire burns slower but much hotter and longer.

I recommend the book, as I wrote above, but I do need to point out that the book is inconsistent through not fault of the author.  Maclean died before the book was finished.  His editors tried to do what they thought he would have done and they usually succeed, but there is a little too much step-by-step description of Maclean’s last visit to Mann Gulch.  I suspect that these were first drafts or notes that Maclean would have tightened up.

“Young Men and Fire” has become classic in diverse fields of fire science, forestry and organizational behavior.  It is also generally fun to read.   One advantage of a “classic” is that it has been in print a long time.  You can get this book for one penny (plus shipping) on Amazon.

P.S.   This fire and the crew involved has been studied in great detail.  The story of Wag Dodge has become an example of innovation, while the problems of coordination have been studied by organizational theorists.  There is a good online exploration of the ground Mann Gulch at this link.

P.S.S. –  An added aspect of this tragedy is that it need not have happened at all.  Researchers have talked about the tactical problems of leaders, organization, geography, weather and bad luck.  All these thing indeed came together in a kind of perfect storm.  But there is a mega-issue.  This fire did not need to be fought at all. Fire is natural part of this ecosystem and there was nothing that needed to be saved in Mann Gulch.  If you look at the photos of Mann Gulch today you are seeing the natural landscape.  The fire was severe and deadly.  It killed thirteen brave young men.  But it did not destroy or even harm the long-term natural environment of the gulch.  In fact, the natural environment today would have been worse had they succeeded in controlling that fire by 10am, as we the Forest Service standard of the time.

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