Mann Gulch fire
Mann Gulch Wildfire Historic District
Investigators stand on the steep, now barren, north slope of Mann Gulch.
|Nearest city||Helena, Montana|
|Area||1,195 acres (484 ha)|
|NRHP reference #||99000596|
|Added to NRHP||May 19, 1999|
The Mann Gulch fire was a wildfire reported on August 5, 1949 in a gulch located along the upper Missouri River in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness (then known as the Gates of the Mountains Wild Area), Helena National Forest, in the state of Montana in the United States. A team of 15 US Forest Service smokejumpers parachuted into the area on the afternoon of August 5, 1949 to fight a 50-60 acre (20-24 hectare) lightning caused blaze, assisted by a local recreation guard. As the team approached the fire, an unexpected change in wind direction caused the fire to ignite heavy fuels, creating a "blowup" and cutting off the men's escape route to the Missouri River. The crew was forced to retreat uphill into a lightly timbered area with a dense groundcover of extremely flammable grass and brush. The fire moved rapidly up the slope, burning 3,000 acres (1,200 ha) in ten minutes and claiming the lives of 13 firefighters, including 12 of the smokejumpers. Only three of the smokejumpers survived. The fire would continue for five more days before being controlled.
The United States Forest Service drew lessons from the tragedy of the Mann Gulch fire by designing new training techniques and safety measures that developed how the agency approached wildfire suppression. The agency also increased emphasis on fire research and the science of fire behavior.
University of Chicago English professor and author Norman Maclean (1902–1990) researched the fire and its behavior for his book, Young Men and Fire (1992) which was published after his death. Maclean, who worked northwestern Montana in logging camps and for the forest service in his youth, recounted the events of the fire and ensuing tragedy and undertook a detailed investigation of the fire's causes. Young Men and Fire won the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction in 1992. The 1952 film, Red Skies of Montana starring actor Richard Widmark and directed by Joseph M. Newman was loosely based on the events of the Mann Gulch fire.:p.155
The location of the Mann Gulch fire was included as a historical district on the United States National Register of Historic Places on May 19, 1999.
Timeline of Events
The following chronology combines two parallel narratives: 1) Canyon Ferry District Ranger John Robert Jansson's effort to provide support for the smokejumpers and 2) the events surrounding the deaths of the 13 crewmen led by foreman R. Wagner Dodge in Mann Gulch.
4 August 1949
4:00 pm – An intense electrical storm passed over Gates of the Mountains Wild Area, sparking eight fires. John Robert Jansson, Canyon Ferry District Ranger, quickly organized the suppression of the four fires that had been reported in his jurisdiction. A lightning strike on the upper south slope of Mann Gulch (within the Canyon Ferry RD) produced a holdover fire (a so-called "sleeper") that initially went undetected. Fire danger rating on 4 August was not critical, ranking 16 out of a possible 100, but temperatures in recent days had been in the upper 90s °F (upper 30s °C) with low humidity. The cooler and wetter 1948 summer had provided for a prolific grass understory and seed production in the spring of 1949.
Concerned about sleeper fires, Jansson requested an aerial survey of the district for 6:00 am on the following day, 5 August.
5 August 1949
8:00 am – US Forest Service aerial observers report no new fires at Mann Gulch.
9:00 am (approx.) – Ranger Jansson contacted James O. Harrison, former smokejumper and recreation guard at the Meriwether Canyon guard station and directed him to conduct a foot patrol in Mann Gulch to search for possible sleeper fires.
11:30 am ("late morning") – Jim Harrison located a new fire on Mann Gulch.
12:15 pm – Harrison attempted to report the fire to Missoula office and the Canyon Ferry RD by radio, but was unable to establish contact. He climbed 1500 feet (460 meters) from the Meriwether Guard Station to reach the fire perimeter and began to work on the blaze with his Pulaski about 1:30 pm.
12:18 pm – Colorado Mountain Lookout, 30 miles away, reported smoke in Mann Gulch. Jansson, arriving back at Helena airport detected smoke on the district, but was perplexed because he just flew Mann Gulch and had seen nothing.
12:55 pm –Returning to Mann Gulch to fly a second survey, Jansson located a 6 to 8 acre (2.4 to 3.2 hectares) fire along the upper south slope of the gulch. He considered the rate of growth of the sleeper "unusual" and "exceptional."
1:00 pm (early afternoon) – Jansson begins to assemble and mobilize ground crews to fight the Mann Gulch fire.
1:45 pm – Helena National Forest Supervisor Arthur Duncan Moir believed the fire required a rapid response and ordered the deployment of twenty-five smokejumpers to the remote site. The blaze was regarded as manageable for a small firefighting crew until a larger ground crew arrived.
2:30 pm – A C-47 departed from Missoula's Hale Field, 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of the gulch carrying 16 jumpers and their equipment - the airplanes maximum capacity. (Additional smokejumpers were available for action, but all other transport planes were engaged on other projects). The smokejumpers, including the foreman, ranged in age from 17 to 33 (average age, 22). The majority of the firefighters were attending forestry classes at the Montana State University in Missoula. For most of them, this was their first year in the smokejumper program.
2:30 – 4:30 pm – Jansson and his alternate, Ranger Harry Hersey, recruited nineteen able-bodied ground firefighters, just three of whom had served previously on fires. Logistical and transportation delays plagued the mobilization. On the way to the planned assembly area at the mouth of Mann Gulch, Jansson suspected that the fire might be encroaching into Merriweather Canyon, a scenic area. He directed Hersey to ascend the Meriwether trail with the 19-man ground crew and attack the fire at the Mann Gulch/Meriwether ridge. The temperature at Helena, 25 miles to the south, was reaching 97 °F (36 °C), the hottest day on record to date. The fire danger rating was calculated at 74 out of 100: "explosive stage".
3:10 pm – C-47 pilot Kenneth Huber located the fire in Mann Gulch and began to circle. Spotter and jumpmaster Earl Cooley and crew foreman R. Wagner Dodge appraised the fire. They observed that since 4 August, the lightning caused blaze had scorched 50 to 60 acres, originating in Mann Gulch and spreading upslope and south to the crest at Meriwether Canyon, where it had crowned and burnt out without generating any spot fires. The fire was moving gradually downhill to the northeast (up gulch) through sparse grass. The fire appeared to be routine.
– An old firefighter rule
3:50 pm to 4:10 pm – Smokejumpers and cargo drops completed. (Figure 1) After dropping the men at the customary 1200 feet (368 meters) elevation, Huber took the C-47 to 2000 feet (613 meters) to drop the equipment because of heavy turbulence. As a result, the gear was widely scattered on the north slope delaying its retrieval.
Several of the sixteen smokejumpers experienced flight sickness due to the turbulence and one of them became too ill to jump. Merle "Skip" Stratton submitted his resignation from the US Forest Service when the airplane returned to Missoula that evening, before news of the tragedy was reported. He would be return to Mann Gulch to assist in the recovery operation of his deceased comrades.
Dodge was not provided with topographical maps of the area and was expected to obtain them when he encountered ground crews at the site. The single-sideband radio was smashed when its static line broke and the chute failed to deploy.
4:55 pm – Smokejumper equipment collected and assembled at cargo area. (Figure 1) The crew was about one mile as the raven flies up the drainage from the Missouri River. They could see the fire's perimeter about 0.25 miles (0.4 kilometers) to the southwest on the south slope which appeared to be burning away from the crew. The men were "not greatly impressed" with the blaze and only concerned that "the steep and rocky ground" would make mop up difficult the next morning. Smokejumper Robert Sallee later remarked, "I took a look at the fire and decided it wasn’t bad. It was burning on top of the ridge and I thought it would continue on up the ridge…"
5:00 pm – The smokejumpers heard a shout near the fire perimeter. Foreman Dodge ordered squad leader Bill Hellman to take charge while he went to investigate. He discovered Jim Harrison near the fire line.
5:02 pm – Jansson began his ascent up Mann Gulch by foot. Visibility was about 200 yards (182 meters) due to dense smoke. Winds in the lower gulch were between 20 and 30 mi/h (32 to 48 km/h), gusting to 40 mi/h (64 km/h), much higher than those occurring in Helena, 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the south.
5:10 pm – After spending about 10 minutes tooling up at the cargo area, the smokejumpers crossed the dry gulch bottom and began to climb the south slope towards the fire. Eleven of the smokejumpers were double-tooled, bearing both a Pulaski and a shovel. Two of the men carried the two-man crosscut saws and one man shouldered the 5-gallon (19 liter) jug mounted on a backpack.
5:12 pm – 5:15 pm – Dodge called to the crew to halt when they had advanced up the slope about 100 yards (92 meters) and he rejoined them immediately with Harrison. Dodge, in consultation with Harrison who has been on the fire for four hours, announced that the crew "had better get out of that thick reproduction [heavy fuels]" – dense stands of second-growth ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. The crew was downwind of the fire, a potential "death trap" according to Dodge.
Dodge directed Hellman to cross back to the north side of the gulch and march the men southwest and to "sidehill" (follow the contour) towards the Missouri River. He cautioned them to stay high enough up the north slope to keep the fire on the south slope in view. The plan was to attack the fire on its western flank (the upwind position) so as to prevent its spread into Meriwether Canyon. Dodge was not yet alarmed and returned with Harrison about 300 yards (276 meters) to the cargo assembly area to pick up some food and water while Hellman proceeded west with the smokejumpers. From the elevated position at the cargo area, Dodge could see that the fire was "boiling up" and determined he would evacuate the men from Mann Gulch.
"Blowup" and Retreat
5:15 pm – Ranger Jansson had walked almost 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) from the mouth of Mann Gulch in the thickening smoke. (Figure 1) Spot fires were appearing around him. He was witnessing the early stages of the south slope "blowup" about 300 yards (276 meters) south of where the smokejumpers would be forced to flee up the north slope just minutes later. Jansson believed he heard metallic noises of men wielding tools and walked another 200 yards (61 meters) upslope to investigate, but the sound was probably an aural hallucination caused by the raging fire.
The fire's rapid descent from the Meriwether Canyon ridge downslope to the mouth of the gulch was likely propelled by a brief thunderstorm at the Meriwether Canyon ridge . During this "blowup" event a wind vortex produced "fire whirls", lofting burning debris over to the north slope.
5:30 pm – Jansson began to retreat down the gulch. The superheated air had created a thermal "convection vortex" that threatened to sear his lungs. He made a dash to escape but momentarily passed out. Recovering just as flames were a few yards (meters) away, he fled down gulch and reached the river at 5:41 pm. Approximately the same time Jansson was fleeing from the "blowup" near the mouth of the gulch, Dodge and his men were, unawares, marching directly towards it.
5:40 pm – Dodge and Harrison overtook the crew to find that that the men had split into two groups about 500 feet (152 meters) apart. Dodge gathered the men into a single column and led them down gulch with Hellman taking the rear.
– 21-year old smokejumper Walter Ramsey
5:45 pm – Leading the column, Dodge saw that the south slope fire had jumped to the north slope of Mann Gulch directly west of them and was advancing towards them steadily, driven by the up gulch wind. The blaze was igniting heavy fuels, including conifer reproduction and creating high intensity crown fires, with multiple spotting. Btu’s per foot per second were estimated to range from 400 to 1000. Wind driven flames were about 7 – 10 feet (2.1 - 3.0 meters) high and moving diagonally uphill towards the smokejumpers.
The route to the river was clearly blocked. Dodge instantly ordered his men to reverse direction and move upslope and cross-contour, climbing obliquely to the northeast. (Figure 1, Pt 1) The fire front, about 150 – 200 yards (138 – 184 meters) distance was advancing at an estimated rate of 120 feet per minute (37 meters per minute) or 1.4 miles per hour [mi/h] (22 kilometers per hour) [km/h].
The men proceeded up the cross-contour 18% grade through scattered stands of mature ponderosa pine. The grassy groundcover stood about 2.5 feet (0.75 meters) high (thigh to waist deep). The men were walking at a rate of 2 mph (3.2 km/h) and still carrying their firefighting equipment.
The behavior of the fire was about to change under the influence of the turbulent winds, steep slope and the lighter and more volatile ground cover. When the wind, estimated at 30 mi/h (48 km/h), pushed the fire into the grass understory, its speed accelerated to an estimated 280 feet per minute (86 meters per minute) or 3.2 mi/h (5.1 km/h). Heat intensity also increased, rising to 2500 – 4000 Btu. The leading edge of the flames were reaching 16–20 feet (4.9 to 6.1 meters) in height. While the fire accelerated under the influence of the increasing slope, the smokejumpers progress slowed.
5:53 pm – Dodge ordered the crew to drop tools and packs (some men had already jettisoned their equipment, others continued to cling to them). (Figure 1, Pt 2) Artifacts discovered later at the tool drop site were found within a 50-foot radius (15 meter), indicating that the column was still cohesive at this point. Testimony from survivors suggests that beyond the drop site some of the men began to break away in a race for the ridge.
The advancing wall of fire was about 100 yards (92 meters) from the column and rapidly overtaking them from the west and south. By this time, the men knew they were in a desperate situation. Unburdened, they increased their pace to about 4 mph (6.4 km/h).
The crew suddenly emerged from the sparse timber and into a mostly treeless expanse where they could clearly see the top of Mann Gulch ridge. The groundcover here was dry and highly combustible Cheat grass and Fescue, tinder dry in the near 100 °F (38 °C) heat. Leaving the timber behind, the surface winds were estimated to have increased, with gusts up to 40 mph (64 km/h).
When the fire blew into this open landscape it was travelling at a variable rate 360–610 feet per minute (110 – 187 meters per minute), or 4.1 to 6.9 mph (6.6 to 11.0 km/h). The Btu's had risen to 5,500 -9000. The flames ranged in height from 10 – 40 feet (3.1 – 12.3 meters).
5:55 pm – At 220 yards (202 meters) beyond the equipment drop, Dodge walking in the lead of the column, reached a small grassy clearly at a steep grade break. (Figure 1, Pt 3) This position was 200 yards (184 meters) from the top of the ridge, measured at right angles (perpendicular) to the contour.
Dodge judged that he and his men could not reach the ridge before being overtaken and engulfed by the flames. The fire was advancing at an estimated average rate of 660 ft/min (202 meters/mi) or 7.5 mi/h (12 km/h), an extremely rapid spread. The temperature of fire was estimated to measure at least 1500 °F (815 °C).
Applying a principle of basic fire science, Dodge immediately ignited a flimsy "gofer" match and swept it across the grass. The flames quickly spread uphill, initially burning at relatively low intensity. The wind at his position was lighter due to the backdraft created by the approaching inferno. Within seconds his grass fire had grown to one hundred square feet (9.2 square meters). Dodge's intention was to create a fuel-free zone, where the crew could take refuge. He expected that the main fire would roar around the burnt over area, leaving the men unharmed. No protocol existed in the US Forest Service for this so-called "escape fire."
Four smokejumpers at the head of the column – Walter Rumsey, Robert Sallee, Eldon Diettert and squad leader Hellman – reached the foreman first and were bewildered by his actions, despite his efforts to explain his purpose. The men hesitated for a few moments, then one of them said "To hell with that, I’m getting out of here" and the men rushed straight uphill towards the ridge about 200 yards distance. Sallee, a survivor, would later declare that "No one could live who left Dodge even seconds after we did." (Figure 2)
GRANGER: After the fire… [d]id you at that time know what had happened to the rest of the crew?
DODGE: I had a fair idea. I didn't think any of them had made the ridge.
GRANGER: You didn't think any of them made the ridge?
About eight crewmen (exactly which of the crewmen is uncertain) advanced close enough to Dodge and the escape fire to see him motioning with his arms towards the burnt area and calling to them over the din of the roaring fire just yards (meters) away. There is conjecture that four of the smokejumpers may have already fled ahead or were too far back in the column to hear him. A number of the firefighters reached further up the slope to a distance of about 375 yards (345 (meters) beyond the escape fire. This suggests that they may have been in advance of Dodge before be ignited his survival fire.
These eight firefighters hesitated briefly, perhaps no longer than 10 or 15 seconds before plunging onward up the canyon and angling towards the ridge. None of these men heeded Dodge.
Several of the firefighters had little more than a 15-second lead on the wall of fire as they passed the escape fire perimeter. Unable to climb faster than 400 feet/min (123 meters/min) or 4.5 mi/h (7.5 km/h), these men were overtaken by the flames in probably less than 45 seconds before they had covered more than 100 yards (92 meters) beyond the perimeter of Dodge's escape fire.
Four of the firefighters reached further up the slope to a distance of about 375 yards (345 (meters) beyond the escape fire before they were engulfed in the flames. This suggests that they may have been in advance of Dodge before be ignited his grass fire. These firefighters ran perhaps 620 (570 meters) after casting off their equipment at the drop site, jogging upslope at 460 feet/min (142 meters/min) or 5.3 mi/h (8.4 km/h), an astonishing rate to maintain on an 18% grade over rough terrain.
One smokejumper, Stanley J. Reba broke a leg in his effort to escape the flames, a measure of how steep and treacherous the footing.
Of the four firefighters who fled from Dodge to scramble the 100 – 140 yards (92 – 129 meters) straight to the ridge top, two survived: Robert Sallee and Walter Ramsey. The 17-year old Sallee mistakenly thought that Dodge's intent was to create a firebreak to slow the advance of the main fire. He, Ramsey and Diettert ascended to the right (east) of the growing escape blaze as it moved upslope. (Figure 2)
Approaching the crest, these three firefighters encountered a 6 to 12 foot high (1.8 to 3.7 meter) wall of rimrock or "reef" that blocked access to the top of the ridge. Ramsey and Salle were fortunate to notice a breach or crevice in the rimrock and ran through it to the ridge. Ramsey testified that he could feel the intense heat of the main fire on his back as they neared the top of the ridge. Diettert, just steps behind them, either did not see the crevice or chose to search elsewhere to cross over. His remains were found a hundred yards (92 meters) eastward at the base of the reef.
The squad leader, Hellman, ascended the slope parallel to these three firefighters, but on the left (west) side of the escape fire. He was forced to run a gauntlet of flames as he reached the rimrock barrier, but managed to pass over the ridge into Rescue Gulch.
Moments before the main fire reached Dodge, he threw himself face down on the smoldering ashes of the escape fire. His mouth and nose were covered with a wet bandanna. The slope he had burned was ample enough in area so as to shield him from injury from heat radiation or from direct contact with the flames of the main fire. He was almost lifted from his prone position several times by powerful gusts of superheated air during the few minutes it took the inferno to pass.
Sallee and Ramsey fled into Rescue Gulch. Ramsey momentarily collapsed from exhaustion but with Sallee's urging they reached a downslope blockfield largely free of vegetation that afforded them some protection as the main fire continued over the ridge to burn downslope past them.
6:10 pm – Dodge rose from the smoldering escape fire, his face and clothing blackened by the smoke, but otherwise virtually unscathed. All twelve of the crewmen who failed to reach the ridge perished in the inferno. Had they been able to grasp what their foreman was doing, or obeyed his commands, they probably would have survived.
Dodge found the badly injured Joseph B. Sylvia just 100 yards (30 meters) to the east of the escape fire. He made Sylvia as comfortable as he could and provided him with water. Dodge departed to seek medical assistance for him.
Sallee and Ramsey discovered the badly burned Hellman just 90 feet (28 meters) west of their position and helped him to the blockfield. Dodge joined them shortly thereafter, and he and Salle descended Rescue Gulch to the Missouri River. Ramsey remained with Hellman.
8:50 pm – Dodge and Sallee reached the Meriwether Guard Station after flagging down a boat and radioed for assistance.
11:30 pm – Two medical doctors from St. Peters Hospital in Helena were escorted up Rescue Gulch by Dodge and Sallee. Sylvia and Hellman were administered plasma and morphine and their wounds dressed.
6 August 1949
Daylight – The two injured smokejumpers were carried by stretcher to the mouth of Mann Gulch and transported by boat to St. Peters Hospital in Helena. Both Sylvia and Hellman had suffered third degree burns over 65% to 85% of their bodies, as well as severe damage to their respiratory systems. They both died later that morning.
The eleven other smokejumpers – Robert Bennett, Eldon Diettert, Phillip McVey, David Navon, Leonard Piper, Stanley Reba, Marvin Sherman, Henry Thol, Jr., Newton Thompson, and Silas Thompson, as well as recreation guard James Harrison are believed to have succumbed quickly from asphyxiation and burns they suffered shortly after 6:00 pm on 5 August.
Those that were killed by the fire:
- Robert J. Bennett, age 22, from Paris, Tennessee
- Eldon E. Diettert, age 19, from Moscow, Idaho, died on his 19th birthday
- James O. Harrison, Helena National Forest Fire Guard, age 20, from Missoula, Montana
- William J. Hellman, age 24, from Kalispell, Montana
- Philip R. McVey, age 22, from Babb, Montana
- David R. Navon, age 28, from Modesto, California
- Leonard L. Piper, age 23, from Blairsville, Pennsylvania
- Stanley J. Reba, from Brooklyn, New York
- Marvin L. Sherman, age 21, from Missoula, Montana
- Joseph B. Sylvia, age 24, from Plymouth, Massachusetts
- Henry J. Thol, Jr., age 19, from Kalispell, Montana
- Newton R. Thompson, age 23, from Alhambra, California
- Silas R. Thompson, age 21, from Charlotte, North Carolina
Those that survived:
- R. Wagner "Wag" Dodge, Missoula SJ foreman, age 33 at the time of the fire. Dodge died 5 years after the fire from Hodgkin's disease.
- Walter B. Rumsey, age 21 at time of the fire, from Larned, Kansas. Rumsey died in an airplane crash in 1980, age 52.
- Robert W. Sallee, youngest man on the crew, age 17 at time of the fire, from Willow Creek, Montana. Last survivor of the smoke jumpers. Died May 29, 2014.
Much controversy surrounded Foreman Dodge and the fire he lit to escape. In answering the questions of the Forest Service Review Board as to why he took the actions he did, Dodge stated he had never heard of such a fire being set; it had just seemed "logical" to him. In fact, it was not a method that the forest service had considered, nor would it work in the intense heat of the normal tall growth forest fires that they typically fought. Similar types of escape fires had been used by the plains Indians to escape the fast-moving, brief duration grass fires of the plains, and the method had been written about by James Fenimore Cooper (1827) in The Prairie, but in this case Foreman Dodge appears to have invented it on the spot, as the only means available to him to save his crew. None of the men realized what it was and only Dodge was saved by it.
Earl Cooley was the spotter/kicker the morning of the August 5, 1949 Mann Gulch fire jump. Cooley was the first Smokejumper to jump on an operational fire jump. The first jump was a two-man jump, and was performed on July 12, 1940. Mr. Cooley was the airborne supervisor who directed the crew of smokejumpers who dropped in to fight the Mann Gulch fire. In the 1950s Mr. Cooley served as the smokejumper base superintendent and was the first president of the National Smokejumper Association. Mr. Cooley died November 9, 2009, at age 98.
The C-47/DC-3, registration number NC24320, was the only smokejumper plane available at Hale Field, near the current location of Sentinel High School, on August 5, 1949, when the call came in seeking 25 smokejumpers to fight a blaze in a hard-to-reach area of the Helena National Forest. The C-47/DC-3 could only hold 16 jumpers and their equipment. Even though more help was needed, fire bosses decided not to wait for a second plane, and instead sent No. NC24320 out on its own. NC24320 flew with Johnson Flying Service from Hale Field in Missoula, Montana and was used to drop Smokejumpers as well as for other operations for which Johnson Flying Service held contracts. The C-47/DC-3 that carried the smokejumpers that day is on exhibit in Missoula at the Museum of Mountain Flying. The aircraft was restored and now serves as a memorial to the Smokejumpers and the Fire Guard that lost their lives at Mann Gulch on August 5, 1949.
Four hundred fifty men fought for five more days to get the fire under control, which had spread to 4,500 acres (1,800 ha).
Wagner Dodge survived unharmed and died five years later of Hodgkin's disease.
Thirteen crosses were erected to mark the locations where the thirteen firefighters who died fighting the Mann Gulch fire fell. However, one of the smokejumpers who died in the Mann Gulch fire was David Navon, who was Jewish. In 2001 the cross marking the location where Navon died was replaced with a marker bearing a Star of David.
Several months following the fire, fire scientist Harry Gisborne, from the U.S. Forest Service Research Center at Priest River, came to examine the damage. Despite a history of heart problems, he nevertheless conducted an on-ground survey of the fire site. He suffered a heart attack and died while finishing the day's research. Gisborne had forwarded theories as to the cause of the blowup prior to his arrival on site. Once there, he discovered several conditions, which caused him to change his concepts of fire activity, particularly those pertaining to fire "blow-ups". He noted this to his companion just before his death on November 9, 1949.
There was some controversy about the fire, with a few parents of the men trying to sue the government. One charge was that the "escape fire" had actually burned the men.
Lessons learned from the Mann Gulch fire had a significant effect on firefighter training. Two training protocols—"Ten Standard Firefighting Orders" and "Eighteen Situations That Shout Watch Out"—were incorporated into Forest Service firefighter training program, and safety training made mandatory to achieve certification to work on a fire line. However, the training methodology proved inadequate and the tragedy would be repeated twice, in the 1990 Dude fire in Arizona, which killed six firefighters, and in the 1994 South Canyon Fire in Colorado, in which 14 firefighters died. A primary factor in the latter appeared to be surprise of the sudden transition from surface fire to crown fire, leading to the development and adoption of LCES, an acronym for a four-point safety procedure to increase observance of the previous training protocols. LCES consists of posting lookouts, providing all firefighters radio communication with lookouts, identifying escape routes, and designating valid safety zones, and ensuring that all members of the process, from "hotshot" crews to seasonal Type 2 crew volunteers to "crew bosses", understand and follow its tenets.
Several factors that combined to create the disaster are described in Norman Maclean's book Young Men and Fire.
- Slope – Fire spreads faster up a slope, and the north slope of Mann Gulch was about a 75% incline. Slope also makes it very difficult to run.
- Fuel – Fire spreads fast in dry grass. The north slope of Mann Gulch was mostly knee high cheatgrass, an especially volatile fuel, and the entire area had been left ungrazed because it had been recently designated a wildlife area and closed to local cattle.
- Leadership – Dodge did not know most of the crew, as he had been doing base maintenance work during the normal training and "get acquainted" time of the season. This may have contributed to the crew not trusting his "escape fire." Furthermore, Dodge left his crew for several minutes, during which the second-in-command let them spread out instead of staying together.
- Communication – The crew's single radio broke because its parachute failed to open. It could have possibly prevented the disaster or helped get aid more quickly to the two burned men who died later. There were other dangerous fires going on at the same time and Forest Service leaders did not know what was happening on Mann Gulch.
- Weather – The season was very dry and that day was extremely hot. Winds in the Gulch were also strong "up gulch'" the same direction in which the men tried to run.
Young Men and Fire
Norman Maclean's son John wrote a book in 2003 titled Fire and Ashes: On the Front Lines Battling Wildfires, and it also includes a section on the Mann Gulch fire. In 2004, John N. Maclean also published an article called "Fire and Ashes: The Last Survivor of the Mann Gulch Fire," in Montana: The Magazine of Western History. The article was adapted from the Mann Gulch section of his book, in which he interviewed Bob Sallee, the last remaining survivor of the fire.
James Keelaghan wrote a song about this fire entitled "Cold Missouri Waters" after being inspired by Young Men and Fire. The song was covered by Richard Shindell, Dar Williams, and Lucy Kaplansky on their album Cry Cry Cry. It was also covered by Hank Cramer in his album, Days Gone By. It was again recorded by Paul McKenna Band on their 2012 album "Elements". A cover version also appears on the 2014 album "The Call", by Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar. In 2016, Irish singer Pauline Scanlon covered the song on her album Gossamer. It is sung from the perspective of foreman Dodge, lying on his deathbed dying of Hodgkin's disease five years after the fire. It imagines Dodge saying of his decision to set the escape fire:
"I don't know why, I just thought it. I struck a match to waist-high grass, running out of time. Tried to tell them, 'Step into this fire I set. We can't make it, this is the only chance you'll get.' But they cursed me, ran for the rocks above instead. I lay face down and prayed above the cold Missouri waters."
Ross Brown, a musician/songwriter from Townsend, MT (about 35 miles south of Helena) wrote another song entitled "The Mann Gulch." A scratch version of this song is available on YouTube.
The song also has been recorded on Black Irish Band's album "Into the Fire" released in 2007. The album is all songs about firefighters. The album also features Michael Martin Murphey. Underneath Montana Skies is another song about the Mann Gulch fire written by Patrick Michael Karnahan also on this album.
The song was recorded for the second album from The Maguire Brothers, a Kansas City, KS based Irish style band in 2017.
- National Park Service (9 July 2010). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
- Maclean, Norman. Young Men and Fire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). ISBN 0-226-50061-6
- National Book Critics Circle. All Past National Book Critics Circle Award Winners and Finalists. Retrieved July 31, 2013.
- Maclean, 2017. p. 87-88
- Maclean, 2017. p. 88
- US Forest Service, 1991
- Maclean, 2017. p. 88: "...conditions [on the 4th] were not critical..."
- .Lillquist, 2006. p. 565: "...an early August heat wave..." and "The elimination of commercial cattle grazing on the gulch, due to its 1948 designation as part of the Gates of the Mountains Wild Area [now wilderness area] "was relatively insignificant...because the north side of Mann Gulch was generally too steep and lacked water for cattle."
- US Forest Service, 1991: "...so concerned in fact, that he requested that a plane fly his District at 6:00 am."
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 3
- US Forest Service, 1991: "Ranger Jansson was still concerned, so he flew the District, including the Mann Gulch area, at 11: 00 am. He reported no new fires, and landed in Helena at 12:25."
- Maclean, 2017. p. 71
- Maclean, 2017. p. 89
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 565: "...officially sited by Colorado Mountain lookout (located about 29 miles southeast of Mann Gulch) at 12:18..."
- Maclean, 2017. p. 89: "...eight acres in extent (six acres by a later survey)."
- US Forest Service, 1991: " The fire was doing some minor crowning in juniper and pine reproduction, but was not spreading excessively, even though it had already grown to 8 acres in an hour."
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 565: "...fire covered eight acres…"
- Maclean, 2017. p. 90-91
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 565
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 2: "One of the basic tenets of firefighting is to reach a fire quickly [and] attack it when it is still small. Smokejumpers are very effective" in this regard.
- Maclean, 2017. p. 49, p. 91
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 2
- Maclean, 2017. p. 71: "a tourist treasure..."p. 93
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 566: "...to prevent from burning into the beautiful Meriwether Canyon."
- US Forest Service, 1991: "Jansson instructed [Hersey] to take all 19 men and to attack the fire from the Mann Gulch/Meriwether Saddle, and to try to hold the fire on the ridge."
- Maclean, 2017. p. 49, p. 88
- Maclean, 2017. p. 48-49
- US Forest Service, 1991: "Spotter Earl Cooley and Jumper Foreman Wag Dodge chose a jump site at the head of Mann Gulch. The fire was estimated at 60 acres, but they still considered it a routine fire."
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 56
- Maclean, 2017. p. 55, p. 63
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 565-566: "The plane had to drop its cargo from a higher elevation than normal because of turbulent air, thus the stronger winds aloft had more opportunity to caster the cargo…fifty minutes to collect gear and cargo…"
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 2 "The cargo drop did not go smoothly… [the plane] encountered heavy turbulence at normal drop altitude and was forced to climb before dropping the remaining cargo. The firefighting gear was scattered..."
- Maclean, 2017. p. 58
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 565
- Maclean, 2017. p. 49
- Maclean, 2017. p. 64
- Maclean, 2017. p. 94-95
- Maclean, 2017. p. 65
- Maclean, 2017. p. 95
- US Forest Service, 1991: "Jansson then headed down [the Missouri] river, trying to size up the fire. By now, the canyon was so full of smoke he could hardly see. He landed at Mann Gulch and began to scout the fire."
- Maclean, 2017. p. 65, p. 69
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 566
- Maclean, 2017. p. 72
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 2: "….not the safest place to attack the fire..."
- Maclean, 2017. p. 73
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 2: "The smokejumpers believed they were going to attack the fire...on the upwind side…near the [Missouri] river...a safer location..."
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 566: "Dodge and Harrison hurried back to the [cargo dump] where they filled their canteen and grabbed some ration packs in anticipation of a long night of firefighting."
- Rothermel, 1993. p. "Dodge had a clear view of the fire and could see it was burning more rapidly than before."
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 2: "...the wind had been blowing from the north and west at 6 to 8 mi/h that afternoon. At 3:30 pm [it] switched to the south [blowing at] 14 to 22 mi/h." and p. 3: "...as the crew proceeded down the gulch, they were walking into a strong headwind."
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 3: "...the crew was not worried about safety" at 5:40 pm, despite Dodge’s comment about a "death trap".
- Maclean, 2017. p. 95-96, p. 99
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 3-4: "...after the tragedy that followed, fire experts were particularly concerned with understanding how the fire got from the ridge high on the south side of Mann Gulch to the mouth of the gulch and later to the north side. To this day, two opinions persist. One is that downdrafts of a small local thunderstorm blew the fire off the ridge into the mouth of the canyon. This idea is supported by motion picture films (now lost) taken by a Forest Service photographer from the same aircraft that dropped Dodge’s crew… Other fire experts suspected whirlwinds may have spread the fire. Fire whirls and downdrafts from thunderstorms or the fire’s convection column can occur together...This very likely could have been the case because the ridge between Meriwether and Mann Gulch would cause a southerly wind to form a vortex on the lee side in perfect position to loft numerous firebrands and carry them to the north side of Mann Gulch.
- Maclean, 2017. p. 99
- Maclean, 1992. p. 85-86: "At about the same time the Dodge and his crew were hurrying down gulch into the blowup, ranger Robert Jansson at the lower end was running from the blowup back to the river."
- Maclean, 2017. p. 75
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 2-3: "Foreman Dodge and...Harrison overtook the crew at about 5:40 pm.
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 566: "Dodge took the lead and Hellman the rear of the column as it contoured toward the [Missouri] river."
- Maclean, 2017. p. 79, p. 300-301
- Maclean, 2017. p. 79: "...angling toward the top of the [north] ridge on a steep grade...the ground was too rocky and the fire coming too fast to dare to go a right angle to it [straight up]."
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 3: "...they saw fire blocking their route to the river..."
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 567
- Maclean, 2017. p. 302
- Maclean, 2017. p. 300-301
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 5: "...initially the men were still carrying their packs and tools."
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 4
- Maclean, 2017. p. 302-303
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 4: "More grass and brush appeared in the understory. The crew may not have recognized the consequences of the fuel. The lighter fuel would have produced a faster spreading fire. Other factors were in the fire’s favor. The fire was burning uphill with a following wind; the uphill grade slowed the crew, but it caused the fire to accelerate.
- Rothermel, 2006. p. 6: "The official report states all tools were found within a 100-ft circle, so the crew was together at that point… Sallee said that Navon, a former paratrooper, who fought with the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II, could be seen up the slope ahead of the crew. Others may already have joined him, because the final position of the bodies showed four crew members traveled much farther than the others. In his book, Maclean describes these men as the ‘four horsemen’."
- Maclean, 2017. p. 80-81, p. 300
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 567: "...225—300 feet behind" when they dropped their gear.
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 5: "At [5:53 pm] Dodge told his men to drop their tools."
- Maclean, 2017. p. 103
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 5: "Most of the crew realized now that they were in real trouble."
- Maclean, 2017. p. 303-304, p. 305
- Maclean, 2017. p. 305
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 5: At this point "the timber was even thinner [which] allowed the wind to increase…the fire’s spread increased to somewhere between 360-610 ft./min."
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 9
- Maclean, 2017. p. 104-105
- Rothermel, 1993. p.4 Since the start of the retreat "the crew went faster during each successive leg of the journey. But the fire went even faster."
- Maclean, 2017. p. 304
- Maclean, 2017. p. 83-84, p. 102
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 567: "...Dodge realized that the crew did not have time to make the ridgetop before being overrun by the fire rapidly approaching from the rear."
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 6
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 7: "Dodge is reported to have lit his fire with book matches, further evidence of a momentary period of calm, since such matches are notoriously poor for sustaining a flame in a wind.
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 7: "Dodge’s grass fire would have spread up the slope if there were no wind to drive it up the canyon with the main fire. Consequently, as reported, it would have spread up the side of the gulch to the north toward the rimrock."
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 567: "Dodge lit clumps of grass on fire ~5:55 p.m. in hopes of creating a burned over, fuel-free zone around which the main fire would burn thus providing a safe haven for the men. When later asked by the Board of Review whether he had been taught to set an escape fire in such a situation, Dodge replied "Not that I know of. It just seemed the logical thing to do. I had been instructed if possible to get into a burned area"
- Rothemel, 1993. p. 6: "Dodge must have realized they could not reach safety [by fleeing] and conceived the idea of burning away a small clearing. The escape fire, as it came to be called, would quickly clear an area [of] fire fuels, giving the crew a chance to escape the main fire."
- Maclean, 2017. p. 106
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 567: "...among the first to pass Dodge as he lit the [escape] fire."
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 6: These four men "took the shortest but steepest route directly up the slope to the ridge top."
- USFS Board of Review Testimony, Mann Gulch Fire, 26 September 1949. https://www.nifc.gov/safety/mann_gulch/suggested_reading/Board_of_Review_%20Sept%2026_28_1949.pdf
- Maclean, 2017. p. 84
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 567: "...deafening roar of the fire..."
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 6-7
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 6-7: "Dodge sized up the situation better than most of his crew, who either thought they could outrun the fire or saw no other alternative. Some if not all of the crew stopped briefly to see what Dodge was doing and listen to his pleas for them to get into the burned-out area he was preparing. Someone is reported to have said: "To hell with that, I’m getting out of here!" No one stayed with Dodge. The crew members split up afterward, with the majority continuing to run up the canyon. I estimate they delayed no longer than 15 s at point 3, probably not that long. Some traveled on the contour and others went slightly downhill. The slowest of the crew members only got about 100 yards before being caught by the fire. One man broke his leg while fleeing on the steep, rocky slope. The fire could have covered 100 yards in less than a minute at its calculated rate of 600 to 750 ft. /min. Dodge estimated the men were caught in 30 s. If they had a 15-s lead on the fire after leaving him and traveled 100 yards before being caught 45 s later, they would have been running about 400 ft./min or 41⁄2 mi/h, a little faster than they were running when they approached Dodge at point 3. The four horsemen, who were found 375 yards beyond Dodge, may not have been with him when he started his fire. We can examine how fast they would have had to run to end up 375 yards beyond point 3, starting at either point 2 or point 3. From point 2 where the men dropped their tools to where the four horsemen died is 620 yd. If they were at point 2 at 5:53, the fire, according to my estimate, would have caught them at about 5:57 pm, just a minute or so after it caught the slower members. They would have had to have run 462 ft./min or 51⁄4 mi/h from point 2—an incredible pace on that slope. If they had been with Dodge and paused 15 seconds to catch their breath and watch him start the escape fire, they would have left him at 5:55 pm. They would have had to run 375 yards in about 2 min, a pace of 562 ft. /min or 61⁄2 mi/h. That is a jogging pace of about 9 min/mi; such a pace could be sustained on a level surface, but would be all but impossible to maintain for 375 yards in heat and smoke on an uphill slope with rocks and grass underfoot. Both scenarios would have required extreme effort. Since both were possible, we cannot say whether the four horsemen were with Dodge when he lit his fire. But the comparisons indicate that they probably were not."
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 7: "Since the crew did not understand why Dodge was firing the grass, no one stayed with him. Sallee and Rumsey thought Dodge had set a fire that would somehow shield them from the main fire."
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 567: "Two other crew members who ignored Dodge also survived the fire. Sallee, Rumsey, and Eldon Diettert were among the first to pass Dodge as he lit the fire. Sallee thought that Dodge wanted the men to follow the edge of his fire up to the ridge crest with Dodge's fire acting to slow down the inferno moving upgulch. Rumsey later testified "I remember thinking it [the escape fire] was a good idea...don't know whether I understood. If I had fully realized it I probably would have gone right in. I kept thinking the ridge-if I can make it. On ridge I will be safe. I went up the right hand side of Rumsey reported that he could feel the heat of the main fire on this back as he neared the ridge crest
- Rothermel, 1993. p, 7: "These two men, along with another jumper [Diettert], scrambled up the right-hand side of Dodge’s fire to the base of the rimrock. Maclean estimates this distance to be 100 to 140 yd. Fortunately, Sallee and Rumsey found a crevice in the rimrock through which they climbed to the relative safety of the ridge above. Here Rumsey collapsed in a juniper bush, too exhausted to move until Sallee rousted him out. They took refuge in a rockslide nearby. The third jumper, who followed the pair to the base of the rimrock, did not go through the crevice to the ridge above; his body was found at the base of the rimrock a few hundred feet away"
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 7: "The squad boss Hellman also ran toward the rimrock, but he went up the left side of the escape fire, putting him between the main fire and the escape fire. He was caught somewhere near the crevice in the rimrock. Although he made it over the top, he died from his burns the next day.
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 567: "As the roaring inferno neared, Dodge covered his mouth and nose with a canteen-moistened bandanna and lay down in the hot ashes. The main fire hit Dodge's location (Figure 5) "within seconds after the last man passed." Three violent gusts of superheated air nearly lifted him from the ground."
- Rothermel, 1993. p. 7: "Dodge lay down within the area he had burned off. The grassy slope quickly burned away, giving him a large area free of fuels to prevent the main fire’s flames or radiation from injuring him. Dodge said fierce winds lifted him off the ground three times during the few minutes it took the fire to pass over him. personal communication). At 6:10 Dodge was able to sit up and move about between the pockets of fire that were still burning.
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 568: "Another 100 yards of running in the head of what is now known as Rescue Gulch brought Rumsey and Sallee to a vegetation-free blockfield about 5 minutes ahead of the fire. They survived by moving around the blockfield as the fire approached from different sides."
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 567: "Amazingly, Dodge survived the blasts of the fire literally unscathed. Nearby evidence indicated that surface temperatures of the main fire reached 1500-1800°F and that the main fire covered 3000 acres in ten minutes or less."
- Maclean, 2017. p. 111
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 567: "Soon after hearing a voice to the east, he discovered crew member Joe Sylvia who was badly burned. Dodge moved Sylvia to a large rock, removed his boots and gave him his canteen. He then departed to seek medical help for Sylvia."
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 568: "Dodge and Sallee reached Meriwether Guard Station at about 8:50 p.m. after hiking down Rescue Gulch and flagging down a boat. By 11:30 p.m., Jansson and Sallee were leading a rescue party, including two doctors, up Rescue Gulch. The doctors treated Hellman and Sylvia with plasma and morphine, and dressed their wounds.
- Lillquist, 2006. p. 568: "Soon after daylight on 6 August, both were carried on stretchers to the mouth of Mann Gulch where they were transported by boat and subsequently by ambulance to St. Peters Hospital in Helena. Both died later that day of massive third degree burns (65-85% of their bodies) and heat-induced damage to their respiratory systems.
- Lillquist, 2006. p. "All other members of the crew-Robert Bennett, Eldon Diettert, Phillip McVey, David Navon, Leonard Piper, Stanley Reba, Marvin Sherman, Henry Thol, Jr., Newton Thompson, and Silas Thompson, as well as James Harrison (Figures 2 and 4; Table 2)-perished immediately in the fire. Death likely came very rapidly to these men as the result of suffocation due to consumption of oxygen by the fire.
- A Star for David
- Matthews (2007), pp. 222–225
- Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire (excerpt), 1992. Retrieved February 28, 2007.
- Maclean, John N. (2004). "Fire + Ashes: The Last Survivor of The Mann Gulch Fire". Montana: The Magazine of Western History. 54 (3): 18–33. Retrieved October 25, 2006.
- Folk tune becomes tribute to fallen Arizona firefighters, USA Today, July 2, 2013
- ♫ Paddy Dies at the End - The Maguire Brothers. Listen @cdbaby, retrieved 2018-09-19
- Lillquist, Karl. 2006. Teaching with Catastrophe: Topographic Map Interpretation and the Physical Geography of the 1949 Mann Gulch, Montana Wildfire Journal of Geoscience Education, 54:5, 561-571, DOI: 10.5408/1089-9995-54.5.561 http://www.nagt.org/files/nagt/jge/abstracts/lillquist-v54p561.pdf Retrieved 28 August 2018.
- Maclean, Norman (1992). Young Men and Fire. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-50061-6.
- Rothermel, Robert C. 1993. Mann Gulch Fire: A Race That Couldn’t Be Won. United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service Intermountain Research Station.General Technical Report INT-299. May 1993 https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_int/int_gtr299.pdf Retrieved 28 August 2018.
- US Forest Service. Mann Gulch. Department of Agriculture. https://www.fs.fed.us/science-technology/fire/people-working-fire/smokejumpers/smokejumper-base-contact-information/missoula-smokejumpers/history/gulch Retrieved 28 August 2018.
- Maclean, Norman (1992). Young Men and Fire. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-50061-6.
- Maclean, John (2003). Fire and Ashes: On the Front Lines Battling Wildfires. Owl Books. ISBN 0-8050-7591-7.
- Matthews, Mark (2007). A Great Day to Fight a Fire: Mann Gulch, 1949. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-3857-2. 
- Rothermel, Richard C. (May 1993). Mann Gulch Fire: A Race That Couldn't Be Won. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station, General Technical Report INT-GTR-299.
- Turner, Dave. (Spring 1999). "The Thirteenth Fire". Forest History Today.
- Weick, Karl E. (1993). "The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster". Administrative Science Quarterly. 38 (4): 628–652. doi:10.2307/2393339. JSTOR 2393339.
- "August 5, 1949: Mann Gulch Tragedy". Peeling Back the Bark blog, the Forest History Society.
- Wildfire Lessons from Mann Gulch Fire
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Mann Gulch.|
- Vecchione, Judith. "Fire Wars". NOVA Transcripts Fire Wars PBS. Retrieved July 16, 2015.
- Mann Gulch Fire, 1949, a history of the Mann Gulch fire from the Forest History Society website.
- Mann Gulch Virtual Field Trip
- Satellite map of Mann Gulch, showing a forest fire in progress (via Google Maps)