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The Story That Tore Through the Trees

The book, meanwhile, burned a hole in the fire community. “It’s fascinating the effect Maclean’s book had,” says Stephen Pyne. “I call it a disturbance in the force.” Pyne is a former firefighter, former ­MacArthur fellow, professor at Arizona State University, and one of the world’s leading experts on fire history and management. He and I are talking in Missoula, where the International Association of Wildland Fire and the Association for Fire Ecology are holding a joint conference. “I’m not dismissing them,” he continued, “but Maclean’s book had more impact than 50 years of Forest Service work.”

Some of that impact concerned safety. The sudden spotlight on Mann Gulch prompted the USFS to establish new protections for firefighters—especially since, soon after the book came out, 14 of them died in Colorado’s South Canyon under eerily similar circumstances. Meanwhile, those interested in fire behavior began following Maclean’s example by undertaking detailed, on-the-ground analyses. “It seems inconceivable today to say this,” Dave Thomas says, “but it used to be you didn’t go to an old fire to learn how to fight fire. You did it in the classroom.” When he took that first group of firefighters into Mann Gulch in 1994, the Forest Service looked askance at the idea. Today, it champions such visits, and thousands of firefighters participate in them every year.

Stories, like wildfires, sometimes spread strangely after they ignite. Since Maclean wrote about it, the Mann Gulch fire has become a pet anecdote not only in the fire community but also among safety experts, at business schools, and in those corners of the self-help industry dedicated to fostering leadership, boosting brains, and enhancing creativity. It has been used, thoughtfully, by the University of Michigan business-school professor Karl Weick, in “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations”; by the health-care-policy expert Don Berwick, in a famous 1999 talk called “Escape Fire”; and by the doctor and New Yorker staff writer Atul Gawande in his 2007 book Better. Jonah Lehrer rehashed it in his 2009 How We Decide, and further versions have made their way into (among many others) The Leadership Moment, How Winning Works, Does It Feel Right?, Make Your Brain Work, and a book called, regrettably, Igniting the Leader Within.

Some of these renditions use the story of Mann Gulch as an object lesson in innovation. Some use it to illustrate the value of experience, or of outsider status, or of a cool head. Some use it to show how a series of small missteps can concatenate into tragedy. Some tell it as the story of a man who couldn’t lead; others as the story of men who couldn’t follow. Yet these widely different interpretations have one thing in common. Although they all mine the fire for its dramatic value, they are chiefly interested in the human interactions: in the relationship between Dodge and his brain, or between Dodge and his men.

Maclean was interested in something else. He recognized that Dodge was an imperfect leader, but he was not fundamentally interested in team dynamics. Nor was he fundamentally interested in fire dynamics, for all his doggedness in investigating them. He thought about firefighters and fire as a novelist would: They were his characters, his protagonists and antagonist. In the end, Young Men and Fire delivers exactly what its title promises. It is a story about the relations between men and fire—and, by extension, between mankind and nature.

This was Maclean’s genius, and also his weakness. He saw in Mann Gulch something bigger than any industrial accident, more existentially gripping than any leadership training. The story of man against nature is one of the most ancient and compelling of all human narratives. But it is also, by definition, adversarial. Not by coincidence did Maclean come to Mann Gulch after years of trying to write about Custer’s Last Stand—another small group of men succumbing to the enemy on the side of a hill. The book he wrote instead is the seminal text in our national war on fire. As an account of how that war is fought, it is accurate and thrilling. As an elegy for the victims, it is beautiful. But, like many such stories, it fails to ask the crucial question: whether that war should ever have been fought in the first place.

To start a fire, you need three things: oxygen, fuel, and enough heat to initiate a chemical ­reaction between them. On Earth, we have had sufficient oxygen in our atmosphere to sustain fire for about 420 million years. That’s not very long in geologic terms—there was no fire on our planet for its first 4 billion years—but it is extremely long in terms of evolution. Four hundred and twenty million years ago, there were no vertebrates (except some primitive fish), and barely any terrestrial fauna or plants. Everything that evolved on Earth from that point on did so in the presence of fire.