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The Story That Tore Through the Trees

Where the fire burned in Mann Gulch, August 1949.  

The world unravels along strange seams. Like many people, I went to Mann Gulch because of Young Men and Fire—because I had long loved it, but also because I had grown troubled by its role in the wildfire crisis we are currently experiencing. Maclean told, quite beautifully, the story of a tragedy. But also, quite tragically, he told the wrong story.

There are no trails in Mann Gulch. If you start at the river—as you must, if you do not start in midair—you can walk up the dry creek bed at the bottom, or follow the goat paths left by other visitors, or go, as I did, with someone who knows the area. This wasn’t Tim, who turned back at the mouth of the gulch, but a man named Dave Thomas, a retired fire-management officer for the ­Forest Service. Dave grew up in Montana, studied literature and journalism in college there, and worked on fire crews in the ­summer to earn money. One day at a ranger station, he met a USFS higher-up who was writing a fire-management plan. “I knew nothing about fire,” Dave says, “but the guy who was doing it knew nothing about writing.” Dave wrote the report, joined the Forest Service, and worked his way up from fighting fires to analyzing them to managing fire programs throughout Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah. He was the first person to take firefighters to study Mann Gulch, back in 1994, and, this May, he agreed to take me.

Late May is early spring in Montana, and everything is in bloom. In the gulch’s brushy lower reaches, Dave points out chokeberry and larkspur, shooting stars and arrowleaf, yarrow and phlox. There are fire scars on standing trees and, here and there, fallen trunks burned to chalky black, but most of these are deceptive: Fire swept through Mann Gulch again in 2007. No one jumped from a plane to fight it. No one died in it. Other than locals, almost no one even knows about it.

The first person to know about the 1949 fire was a lookout stationed on Colorado Mountain, some 30 miles away. It was August 5, bone dry and 97 degrees, and a snag that had been smoldering since a lightning strike the day before had burst into flames. At 2:30 that afternoon, with those flames starting to spread, the Forest Service sent 16 smoke jumpers from a base in Missoula to extinguish them. The day was as windy as it was warm, and one of them got sick from the turbulence on the way over. He returned to base with the pilot and, upon landing, tendered his resignation.

The other 15 were made of the stuff that, for good or ill, compels a person to abandon in the middle of the sky a perfectly functional airplane. They were all men, and all young—13 of them between the ages of 17 and 23. The oldest was the crew foreman, a man with the half-epic, half-comic name of Wagner Dodge, who was 33 and by all accounts neither epic nor comic but exceptionally competent and taciturn as a tree.

By 4:10 p.m., all 15 smoke jumpers were on the ground, up near the top of the gulch on its north side. They looked at the fire opposite them, judged it an easy job, and set about readying their gear. This did not include water, which they carried chiefly to drink, but saws, shovels, and a double-headed tool called a Pulaski, with an ax on one side and a hoe on the other. Wilderness firefighters do not so much extinguish fires as starve them to death, by clearing a perimeter around them in which nothing remains that can burn: no trees, no stumps, no roots, no leaves. The work bears less resemblance to putting out house fires than it does to digging ditches.

By 5 p.m., the men were ready. Dodge sent them downhill to fight the fire from below, with the river at their backs in case they needed to retreat. Meanwhile, he crossed the canyon to scout the blaze head-on. Once on the south side, he met the man fated to take the 16th smoke jumper’s place: Jim Harrison, a forest ranger who had hiked to the fire from his station just upstream at Meriwether Canyon. Dodge didn’t like that position, so he and Harrison headed back across the gulch and, partway to the river, rejoined the men.

It was by then 5:40. As leader, Dodge resumed his position at the front of the line, and so, five minutes later, he was the first to see it: The fire had jumped from the south side of the gulch to the north, cutting off access to the river and spreading uphill. The foreman knew what he was looking at, which was the balance of power in the act of reversing itself. The men had been heading toward the fire; now the fire was heading toward the men. Dodge turned them around and began leading them back up the gulch.