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The Story That Tore Through the Trees

Map by Joel Kimmel  

Firefighters, being human, generally move downhill quickly and uphill slowly. Fire does the opposite. You can see why for yourself, if you light a match, hold its butt end against a piece of cardboard, and then, keeping the match still, angle the cardboard until it slopes like the side of a hill. The downhill part of the paper will now be further from the flame, while the uphill part will be closer, and will begin to grow warm. In the same way, a fire on a hillside is always preheating the fuels above it. All else being equal, fire on a 30 percent incline burns twice as fast as fire on flat ground, and fire on a 55 percent incline burns twice as fast again. If you are ever near a wildfire, do not be above it.

Roughly halfway up Mann Gulch, the ground, previously gradual, suddenly sheers upward into a 76 percent slope. As Maclean explains, that means that for every ten feet you advance, you gain nearly eight feet vertically. On the boat, Tim had warned me that however much I’d read about the gulch, I would be surprised by its steepness. “You’re walking along, doot de doot de doot, ‘I don’t understand, what’s the problem here?’ And then next thing, you’re on a black-diamond ski slope. Even Norman couldn’t tell you how steep that son of a gun is. Even photographers can’t do it.”

I climbed that slope on a mild spring morning, with the grass low and green and moisture still binding the earth. It was moderately hard to walk up it, very hard to walk across it—it is steep enough that, moving sidewise on the contour line, you start to slip—and brutally hard to run it. When you finally reach the top, you have not reached the top. The actual top of Mann Gulch is the former bottom of the ocean, pushed upward over the course of millions of years. Slower to erode than the rock around it, it now forms a fortress, 12 to 20 feet high, along much of the gulch’s rim. You can scale some parts of it, or walk along it until you find a breach—or run along it; but I did not.

In August, when the smoke jumpers were in Mann Gulch, the grass was waist-high and the ground was dry and crumbling underfoot. Below them was the fire. Above them was the slope, and above the slope was the rimrock. “This is a story,” Maclean wrote, “in which cartography and plot are much the same thing.” At roughly 5:53 p.m., with the fire 500 feet behind them, Dodge ordered the men to drop their tools and run.

Maclean made Mann Gulch famous, but even he could not have done so without what happened next. For 15 men, the fire became a footrace. For the 16th, it became a logic problem. As the group took off uphill, Dodge realized they would not outrun the fire. They had a head start, but the flames had that slope, plus a wind strong enough to make an experienced smoke jumper vomit in his plane. Richard Rothermel, an engineer with the Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, calculated that the fire on the north slope was burning at 1,500 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit and spreading at 660 feet per minute.

Dodge was not an engineer, but he was experienced on the ground, and he estimated that the fire was going to hit him in 30 seconds. And so he did something no one in the firefighting business, including him, had ever done, seen, or heard about before. He stopped running, took out a match, and started a fire of his own. In the superheated fuels and high winds, it burned off a hundred square feet of hillside in the few seconds that he stood there, shouting for his men to join him. Some didn’t hear, some thought he’d gone mad, someone said, “To hell with that,” all 15 continued upward through the gulch. Dodge walked alone through the burning edge of his fire and lay facedown in the fresh blackness it had created. He reckoned his chance of survival at “more than even.” Seconds later, the main fire hit.

The Forest Service, as I said, maintains no trails in Mann Gulch. But it does maintain crosses: 13 of them, each marking a place where a smoke jumper fell. From reading Young Men and Fire, I expected those crosses to be strung out like a terrible footrace frozen in time. They are not. Other than its steepness, what surprised me most about the gulch is that the men died so far away from one another. Nearly all the tools Dodge ordered them to drop were found within a circle a hundred feet in diameter. The crosses are scattered over some 11 acres. Their placement does not suggest men felled in order of speed while running toward safety. It suggests men who were not running toward anything—only running away, trying to keep the irregular edge of the fire at their back. No doubt they couldn’t see where they were going. The smoke would have filled the gulch, Maclean wrote, “like a leak in a lobe of the brain of the universe.”