Friday Open Thread: "What are you reading?" edition. ~ Young Men and Fire
On August 5, 1949, a crew of fifteen of the United States Forest Service's elite airborne firefighters, the Smokejumpers, stepped into the sky above a remote forest fire in the Montana wilderness. Two hours after their jump, all but three of these men were dead or mortally burned. Haunted by these deaths for forty years, Norman Maclean puts back together the scattered pieces of the Mann Gulch tragedy. Young Men and Fire won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992.
"A magnificent drama of writing, a tragedy that pays tribute to the dead and offers rescue to the living.... Maclean's search for the truth, which becomes an exploration of his own mortality, is more compelling even than his journey into the heart of the fire. His description of the conflagration terrifies, but it is his battle with words, his effort to turn the story of the 13 men into tragedy that makes this book a classic."—from New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice, Best Books of 1992
"A treasure: part detective story, part western, part tragedy, part elegy and wholly eloquent ghost story in which the dead and the living join ranks cheerfully, if sometimes eerily, in a search for truth and the rest it brings."—Joseph Coates, Chicago Tribune
"An astonishing book. In compelling language, both homely and elegant, Young Men and Fire miraculously combines a fascinating primer on fires and firefighting, a powerful, breathtakingly real reconstruction of a tragedy, and a meditation on writing, grief and human character.... Maclean's last book will stir your heart and haunt your memory."—Timothy Foote, USA Today
"Beautiful.... A dark American idyll of which the language can be proud."—Robert M. Adams, The New York Review of Books "Young Men and Fire is redolent of Melville. Just as the reader of Moby Dick comes to comprehend the monstrous entirety of the great white whale, so the reader of Young Men and Fire goes into the heart of the great red fire and comes out thoroughly informed. Don't hesitate to take the plunge."—Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post Book World
"Young Men and Fire is a somber and poetic retelling of a tragic event. It is the pinnacle of smokejumping literature and a classic work of 20th-century nonfiction."—John Holkeboer, The Wall Street Journal
"Maclean is always with the brave young dead. . . . They could not have found a storyteller with a better claim to represent their honor. . . . A great book."—James R. Kincaid, New York Times Book Review
Young Men and Fire (1992) by American author and University of Chicago professor Norman Maclean is a heavily researched look into the true story of 13 men who died in a wilderness fire in Montana. It was published two years after Maclean’s death and received the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award. Technically unfinished, editors at his publishing house completed fact-checking and some stylistic edits they thought were in line with his vision; Maclean was too ill to finish the book after 1987. The story of the 13 deaths haunted him for more than 40 years, and he spent 14 years actively researching and writing this book.
Its themes include compassion, mortality, human suffering, understanding tragedy, the search for truth, and self-identification. Maclean’s publisher wrote that the work combined all of the identities Maclean had engendered throughout his life, including teacher, woodsman, firefighter, and scholar.
The work begins on August 10, 1949 when McLean, then 47, saw the raging fires in the Helena National Forest. The fire had been going on since August 5th. It was especially dangerous because it formed in a dry, deep valley (known as a “gulch”). McLean was in the area to spend a couple months at his cabin in western Montana near the Missouri River.
A postwoman tells him that 13 men died in the gulch while trying to escape the fire; most of them were still in college, and the youngest only 15 (later it turns out the youngest was really 17). In this first chapter, “Black Ghost,” Maclean describes how he walked toward the fire, which was still raging away from the gulch, and hallucinated seeing a “black ghost” which represented the cruel, inhuman force of the fire.
As he talks to more people in town, he learns that all of the men were official and voluntary firefighters. The fire was trigged by a lightning strike. It was first noticed by a forest ranger, who radioed the fire station and started doing what he could to fight the fire. On the hottest afternoon ever recorded in Montana, the fire was primed to grow at a ferocious rate.
Maclean learns that 15 men in total flew out to the fire on a C-47. They parachuted from the sky. Unfortunately, the wind was incredibly powerful, and one man became so sick that he couldn’t make the jump. As Maclean hears about the inexperience of the firefighters, he considers their inexperience and youthful bravado and figures that none of them stood a chance of curbing the fire. Their escape route was also cut off when their radio broke during the helicopter jump. Still, at this point, none of the 15 men think that the fire will be lethal.
Looking at pictures of the previously uncharred area, Maclean writes that the fire spread rapidly because of weeds that were two to four feet high. That the men had to battle these huge weeds along with the smoke and air pressure that bottled up in the valley, and the flames that easily climbed toward the top of an incredibly steep valley (when the author visited the site later, he had to crawl and clutch the remaining grass to not fall backwards), it’s not as surprising that so many of them perished.
Maclean learns even more after interviewing the survivors and reading reports from the city’s Board of Review. One of the men, 33-year-old R. Wagner “Wag” Dodge who served as the boss, lit his own fire then sat in the embers to wait out the larger fire. The other men didn’t realize that after the micro fire was set, the larger blazes could not once again strike that area of land; there would also be a thin layer of oxygen they could breathe for some time. Dodge was one of three survivors. In one sad example of human folly, one victim was preoccupied taking photos so that he didn’t focus on running from the fire.
The other two men who survived were Walter B. Rumsey and Robert W. Sallee. This surprised Maclean, as they were on the younger side and very inexperienced with managing wild fires. He’s further surprised by Dodge’s description of the moment the fire went out of control. Dodge describes a “blowup” firestorm that, from the bottled wind and heat, exploded to over 200 feet tall and 300 feet wide. The firestorm sounds like a train blaring out of a tunnel and coming directly toward them. The fire was at least 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In less than two hours of landing at the fire side, 13 of the men were dead. When it first started, the fire was .09 square miles. By the time it killed more than a dozen firefighters, it was over 78 square miles.
The families of the victims were understandably aggrieved and angry. They blamed Dodge for not doing more to save their loved ones. On a national level, the tragedy prompted a national review of firefighting policy and increased funding for fire science. Maclean, who placed a high premium on truth, does question whether the event was a true tragedy. The young men were, after all, brash and self-confident heading to the fire; he views their actions to be at once heroic, foolish, and reflective of human nature.
Maclean concludes Young Men and Fire with a discussion of why he wrote the work, mostly because all the victims were young, didn’t leave much behind, and deserved to be remembered.
It roared from behind, below, and across, and the crew, inside it, was shut out from all but a small piece of the outside world.
from Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean
Then Dodge saw it. Rumsey and Sallee didn't, and probably none of the rest of the crew did either. Dodge was thirty-three and foreman and was supposed to see; he was in front where he could see. Besides, he hadn't liked what he had seen when he looked down the canyon after he and Harrison had returned to the landing area to get something to eat, so his seeing powers were doubly on the alert. Rumsey and Sallee were young and they were crew and were carrying tools and rubbernecking at the fire across the gulch. Dodge takes only a few words to say what the "it" was he saw next: "We continued down the canyon for approximately five minutes before I could see that the fire had crossed Mann Gulch and was coming up the ridge toward us."
Neither Rumsey nor Sallee could see the fire that was now on their side of the gulch, but both could see smoke coming toward them over a hogback directly in front. As for the main fire across the gulch, it still looked about the same to them, "confined to the upper third of the slope."
At the Review, Dodge estimated they had a 150- to 200-yard head start on the fire coming at them on the north side of the gulch. He immediately reversed direction and started back up the canyon, angling toward the top of the ridge on a steep grade. When asked why he didn't go straight for the top there and then, he answered that the ground was too rocky and steep and the fire was coming too fast to dare to go at right angles to it.
You may ask yourself how it was that of the crew only Rumsey and Sallee survived. If you had known ahead of time that only two would survive, you probably never would have picked these two—they were first-year jumpers, this was the first fire they had ever jumped on, Sallee was one year younger than the minimum age, and around the base they were known as roommates who had a pretty good time for themselves. They both became big operators in the world of the woods and prairies, and part of this story will be to find them and ask them why they think they alone survived, but even if ultimately your answer or theirs seems incomplete, this seems a good place to start asking the question. In their statements soon after the fire, both say that the moment Dodge reversed the route of the crew they became alarmed, for, even if they couldn't see the fire, Dodge's order was to run from one. They reacted in seconds or less. They had been traveling at the end of the line because they were carrying unsheathed saws. When the head of the line started its switchback, Rumsey and Sallee left their positions at the end of the line, put on extra speed, and headed straight uphill, connecting with the front of the line to drop into it right behind Dodge.
They were all traveling at top speed, all except Navon. He was stopping to take snapshots.
The world was getting faster, smaller, and louder, so much faster that for the first time there are random differences among the survivors about how far apart things were. Dodge says it wasn't until one thousand to fifteen hundred feet after the crew had changed directions that he gave the order for the heavy tools to be dropped. Sallee says it was only two hundred yards, and Rumsey can remember. Whether they had traveled five hundred yards or two hundred yards, the new fire coming up the gulch toward them was coming faster than they had been going. Sallee says, "By the time we dropped our packs and tools the fire was probably not much over a hundred yards behind us, and it seemed to me that it was getting ahead of us both above and below." If the fire was only a hundred yards behind now it had gained a lot of ground on them since they had reversed directions, and Rumsey says he could never remember going faster in his life than he had for the last five hundred yards.
Dodge testifies that this was the first time he had tried to communicate with his men since rejoining them at the head of the gulch, and he is reported as saying—for the second time—something about "getting out of this death trap." When asked by the Board of Review if he had explained to the men the danger they were in, he looked at the Board in amazement, as if the Board had never been outside the city limits and wouldn't know sawdust if they saw it in a pile. It was getting late for talk anyway. What could anybody hear? It roared from behind, below, and across, and the crew, inside it, was shut out from all but a small piece of the outside world.
They had come to the station of the cross where something you want to see and can't shuts out the sight of everything that otherwise could be seen. Rumsey says again and again what the something was he couldn't see. "The top of the ridge, the top of the ridge.
"I had noticed that a fire will wear out when it reaches the top of a ridge. I started putting on steam thinking if I could get to the top of the ridge I would be safe.
"I kept thinking the ridge—if I can make it. On the ridge I will be safe . . . I forgot to mention I could not definitely see the ridge from where we were. We kept running up since it had to be there somewhere. Might be a mile and a half or a hundred feet—I had no idea."
The survivors say they weren't panicked, and something like that is probably true. Smokejumpers are selected for being tough, but Dodge's men were very young and, as he testified, none of them had been on a blowup before and they were getting exhausted and confused. The world roared at them—there was no safe place inside and there was almost no outside. By now they were short of breath from the exertion of their climbing and their lungs were being seared by the heat. A world was coming where no organ of the body had consciousness but the lungs.
Dodge's order was to throw away just their packs and heavy tools, but to his surprise some of them had already thrown away all their equipment. On the other hand, some of them wouldn't abandon their heavy tools, even after Dodge's order. Diettert, one of the most intelligent of the crew, continued carrying both his tools until Rumsey caught up with him, took his shovel, and leaned it against a pine tree. Just a little farther on, Rumsey and Sallee passed the recreation guard, Jim Harrison, who, having been on the fire all afternoon, was now exhausted. He was sitting with his heavy pack on and was making no effort to take it off, and Rumsey and Sallee wondered numbly why he didn't but no one stopped to suggest he get on his feet or gave him a hand to help him up. It was even too late to pray for him. Afterwards, his ranger wrote his mother and, struggling for something to say that would comfort her, told her that her son always attended mass when he could.
It was way over one hundred degrees. Except for some scattered timber, the slope was mostly hot rock slides and grass dried to hay.
It was becoming a world where thought that could be described as such was done largely by fixations. Thought consisted in repeating over and over something that had been said in a training course or at least by somebody older than you.
Critical distances shortened. It had been a quarter of a mile from where Dodge had rejoined his crew to where he had the crew reverse direction. From there they had gone only five hundred yards at the most before he realized the fire was gaining on them so rapidly that the men should discard whatever was heavy.
The next station of the cross was only seventy-five yards ahead. There they came to the edge of scattered timber with a grassy slope ahead. There they could see what is really not possible to see: the center of a blowup. It is really not possible to see the center of a blowup because the smoke only occasionally lifts, and when it does all that can be seen are pieces, pieces of death flying around looking for you—burning cones, branches circling on wings, a log in flight without a propeller. Below in the bottom of the gulch was a great roar without visible flames but blown with winds on fire. Now, for the first time, they could have seen to the head of the gulch if they had been looking that way. And now, for the first time, to their left the top of the ridge was visible, looking when the smoke parted to be not more than two hundred yards away.
Navon had already left the line and on his own was angling for the top. Having been at Bastogne, he thought he had come to know the deepest of secrets—how death can be avoided—and, as if he did, he had put away his camera. But if he really knew at that moment how death could be avoided, he would have had to know the answers to two questions: How could fires be burning in all directions and be burning right at you? And how could those invisible and present only by a roar all be roaring at you?
On the open slope ahead of the timber Dodge was lighting a fire in the bunch grass with a "gofer" match. He was to say later at the Review that he did not think he or his crew could make the two hundred yards to the top of the ridge. He was also to estimate that the men had about thirty seconds before the fire would roar over them.
Dodge's fire did not disturb Rumsey's fixation. Speaking of Dodge lighting his own fire, Rumsey said, "I remember thinking that that was a very good idea, but I don't remember what I thought it was good for. . . . I kept thinking the ridge—if I can make it. On the ridge I will be safe."
Sallee was with Rumsey. Diettert, who before being called to the fire had been working on a project with https://vimeo.com/435817771 Rumsey, was the third in the bunch that reached Dodge. On a summer day in 1978, twenty-nine years later, Sallee and I stood on what we thought was the same spot. Sallee said, "I saw him bend over and light a fire with a match. I thought, With the fire almost on our back, what the hell is the boss doing lighting another fire in front of us?"
It shouldn't be hard to imagine just what most of the crew must have thought when they first looked across the open hill-side and saw their boss seemingly playing with a matchbook in dry grass. Although the Mann Gulch fire occurred early in the history of the Smokejumpers, it is still their special tragedy, the one in which their crew suffered almost a total loss and the only one in which their loss came from the fire itself. It is also the only fire any member of the Forest Service had ever seen or heard of in which the foreman got out ahead of his crew only to light a fire in advance of the fire he and his crew were trying to escape. In case I hadn't understood him the first time, Sallee repeated, "We thought he must have gone nuts." A few minutes later his fire became more spectacular still, when Sallee, having reached the top of the ridge, looked back and saw the foreman enter his own fire and lie down in its hot ashes to let the main fire pass over him.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 70-75 of Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1992 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.