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The Story That Tore Through the Trees

Up on top of the north rim of Mann Gulch, Dave and I are observing, not intentionally, a moment of silence. Maclean called this place an amphitheater, and from here you can see the whole stage: where the fire started, where it spread, where the smoke jumpers landed, where they walked, where they ran, where they died.

It is, at present, a theater full of wildflowers. Meriwether Canyon lifts its head over the ridge opposite us, across a mile of sky. The Rockies stand stock still on the horizon. Things buzz. A hawk rises up on its invisible elevator and gets off at the 200th floor. The crosses are unobtrusive in the grass. The gulch, folded in half lengthwise, funnels itself toward the river, then vanishes near its mouth behind ridgelines and trees. The only thing you cannot see from up here is how to get out.

In 1906, William James gave a speech called “The Moral Equivalent of War.” In it, he argued that to put an end to the atrocity of warfare, humankind would need some other channel for the longings militarism satisfied and the finer qualities it encouraged: loyalty, hardiness, self-sacrifice, courage. James believed he had found such a substitute. He proposed “a conscription of the whole youthful population, to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature.”

James’s vision came partway true. We didn’t do away with militarism, but we did conscript entire generations into a war with the natural world. The assault on wildfire was just one of that war’s many fronts, different in content but not in kind from, say, the bounties we paid for wolves and bears—a 10 a.m. policy for species we deemed undesirable and that, like wildfire, we are struggling to reintroduce today. We can be horrified by the outcome of those battles, or grateful, or some of each. But it is impossible not to be awed by the energy with which our forebears prosecuted them, and by their unwavering conviction that they would win.

Now, in the adolescence of our own century, that conviction is fraying. It is true that our impact on the planet has been staggering: We dammed rivers, drained wetlands, erected cities, eradicated diseases, banished darkness from the night, created deserts, uncreated icecaps, extinguished species, and, one way or another, altered almost every part of the Earth’s surface and waters and, now, its ­atmosphere. But impact is not the same as control. Today, diseases we thought we had mastered are reemerging. The drugs we used to defang them are themselves increasingly defanged. The climate we changed we cannot stabilize, and the disasters it will usher in—droughts, heat waves, hurricanes—we cannot avert. “What a beautiful world it was once,” wrote Maclean in A River Runs Through It, mourning his brother, mourning everything.

I flew back from Montana on May 26. Robert Sallee, former smoke jumper, former 17-year-old, died in Spokane at the age of 82 while I was midair. Even those who survived are dead men now. Maclean told us everything about what they suffered in Mann Gulch, but he never spoke of what they suffered for. By the time he wrote Young Men and Fire, the 10 a.m. policy was history, its consequences were apparent, and much of the fire community had disavowed it. According to Richard Manning, an environmental journalist who reviewed the book in Northern Lights soon after it came out, Bud Moore, the USFS’s chief of fire control and air operations, pushed Maclean to address the broader policy context of the disaster. Maclean declined. He was 17 when he showed up on a fire crew. The Forest Service was 14. To him—to the era—the war was a given. Mann Gulch was a tragic loss in it, sanctified by one strange and wonderful victory.

Today, the battle in Mann Gulch seems worse than pointless. “Look at that piece of ground,” says Colin Hardy, a program ­manager at the Missoula fire lab. “You’re not saving anything but natural resources that historically burn every seven to 25 years anyway.” The tactics seem misguided. “Outside of Alaska, I don’t see the point,” says Pyne of smoke jumping: Most fires too remote to reach by foot or vehicle would be better left to burn. “We’re keeping the smoke-jumping corps,” he says, “for the same reason the U.S. Army maintained the cavalry after World War II.” Meanwhile, our own war goes on, now with light helicopters, heavy helicopters, air tankers, and vlats—very large air tankers, reconfigured 747s and DC-10s. A 2010 USFS review questioned the efficacy of airborne retardants, and that same year, a federal court, concerned about the ­environmental impact, ordered the Forest Service to reassess them. But retardant-­spewing planes make for great optics, and communities and politicians now ­routinely demand them. To put out fires, the old saw goes, drop money on them until it rains.

Young Men and Fire is a true story, but it is also, in every sense, a myth. Its hero arrives from the sky, like a god, to master air and fire and earth. He pays a terrible toll but, through ingenuity, cheats death. It is a beautiful book, and I still love it very much. To love a book is to acknowledge the power of stories to move us; but we should also acknowledge that not every story moves us in the right direction. “At the end,” Maclean wrote at the end, “our point of view of the fire changes radically.” I hope it does. Otherwise, we will remain locked in a war that, as we now know, we lose even when we win.