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The Story That Tore Through the Trees

The Way Fire in Kern County, California, August 2014.  

The one who fell lowest on that steep hill was Stanley Reba, 25, born and bred in Brooklyn. He was found with a broken leg, though no one knows if it fractured while he was fleeing or snapped after death in a fire hot enough to explode rocks. The one who fell highest was Henry Thol Jr., 19, and it is his cross that moved me most. It was not that by going furthest he had come the closest to surviving; he fell a long way from the safety of the ridge. It was how very far toward nowhere he had run, how fast he must have borne himself despite the heat and steepness, how much he must have been dying before he died.

Of the 16 men in Mann Gulch that day, five did not perish on its north slope. Robert Sallee, 17 and technically too young to be on the crew, paused for a moment when Dodge lit his fire, then bolted for the ridge. His friend Walt Rumsey ran with him. They reached the top, found a crevice in the rimrock, squeezed through, and dropped down to the other side. Rumsey would later say that the smoke was so heavy they had no idea where the ridge was—only that if they could reach it, they would live. They did. Two others managed to get over the ridge as well: William Hellman, the second in command, and a man named Joe Sylvia. Both were too burned to survive.

That is four men. The fifth was Wag Dodge. The front of the fire had hit him, as he anticipated, at 5:55 p.m. Finding that all the fuel in the area had been consumed, it parted around him, another kind of red sea, and continued up the gulch. At 6:10 p.m., Dodge stood up unharmed and walked out of the ashes of his fire.

The rest can be told fast. Sallee and Dodge hiked down through what has ever since been called Rescue Gulch, made their way to Meriwether, and roused a team to help bring out the injured and the dead. Rumsey stayed with Hellman and Sylvia while they and the fire gradually died, the latter in a gothic theater of embers hissing to darkness and snags toppling over in showers of flame. That night, Rumsey said later, was a “pincushion of fire.” Hellman and Sylvia were evacuated to a hospital in Helena early the next morning and were dead of their burns by noon. As for taciturn, competent Dodge: His hands shook ever after, and because people will talk, they said it was the Mann Gulch ghosts. In fact it was Hodgkin’s disease, and five years later, it killed him.

Maclean, too, got to fire via water. At 73, newly retired from academia, he published A River Runs Through It, which made him famous in its own right and more so when Robert Redford turned it into a movie. Its two novellas and one short story draw heavily on Maclean’s childhood and adolescence in Montana. As chronicled in “USFS 1919,” the teenage Maclean spent a summer fighting fire in the Bitterroot Mountains; and, as told in the title novella, he was raised by a Presbyterian minister equally dedicated to fly-fishing and to God, and his maverick younger brother Paul was murdered at the age of 32.

So Maclean came to Mann Gulch with a preexisting interest in fire and in young men beyond help. He also came to it with an ear trained by campfire stories, sermons, and Shakespeare, and a mind undeterrable in its pursuit of the truth. He badgered the Forest Service for its records, talked both survivors into accompanying him to Mann Gulch (neither had been back since the fire), and monopolized the time, talent, and patience of a smoke jumper and USFS informational officer named Laird Robinson, who served simultaneously as liaison, Watson, hiking partner, encyclopedia, and ghost of Maclean past: a young man who had never turned away from the woods.

The book Maclean assembled from these parts begins like this: “In 1949 the smoke jumpers were not far from their origins as parachute jumpers turned stunt performers dropping from the wings of planes at county fairs just for the hell of it plus a few dollars, less hospital expenses.” So it continues for 300 pages, that yarny, colloquial voice unspooling from its bolt of iron control. Young Men and Fire contains some of the greatest facts, finest storytelling, and loveliest writing you will ever read, about the woods or anything else. A single additional example suffices. Although countless people have written about it since, no one has ever summed up so succinctly the innovation that kept Wag Dodge alive: What he did, Maclean wrote, was “burn a hole in the fire.”