Young Men and Fire tells the tragic true story of the Mann Gulch Fire. The Mann Gulch Fire, which burned in its namesake in Montana for many days in August 1949, is one of the ten deadliest forest fires for firemen in United States History. Sixteen of the most talented young forest fighters in the country jumped over Mann Gulch on August 5, 1949. Three survived.
A little backstory: In the 1930’s, the Forest Service started to employ what they called Smokejumpers. These men would jump from a plane into the hard-to-reach areas of the wilderness where they would then have to fight forest fires. I’ve decided this is the scariest job I have ever heard of.
Norman MacLean (of A River Runs Through it fame) was himself a forest fighter and woodsman in the early days of his life. This book then is an interesting intersection between his interests in storytelling and his interest in the dead forest fighters, of which he could easily have been one. This was MacLean’s last work, and was published posthumously.
My disappointment in this book was that it seemed to focus less on the story of the boys (very little is known about their final minutes) and more on MacLean’s process of discovery. My favorite parts of the book were MacLean’s ramblings on the meaning of life. I flagged a few of these passages as a I read and have included them throughout this post.
I grew up knowing the story of the Mann Gulch fire, thanks to my father’s love for Richard Shindell. Shindell covered the song “Cold Missouri Waters”, which was originally written by James Keelaghan after he read Young Men and Fire. For those unfamiliar with the story, the reason the fire has lived on for so long is because of the questions surrounded the boys deaths. Many parents of the deceased believed that Wagner “Wag” Dodge (the Foreman of the jump) killed their boys when he lit an escape fire. The main idea behind an escape fire is that it will burn the surrounding greenery so that by the time the actual fire catches up with where you are standing, there will be nothing left for it to burn and it will leave you alone. This did work for Dodge, but the other boys, who ignored his orders and continued for the top of the cliff, were potentially killed by Dodge’s fire. Furthermore, there is some evidence to suggest that the Forest Service covered up a lot of seemingly trivial details about the fire.
In his decades of research, MacLean encountered numerous interesting accounts of the way the Forest Service handled the incident immediately after the fact. While one man on the rescue crew attested to finding at least five burnt watches on the Mann Gulch hillside, the official inquest states explicitly that there was only one watch found, and that the hands had fused together at 5:55. What is interesting is that the member of the rescue crew who found the other watches swore that they all read somewhere between 5:30 and 5:45.
MacLean learns very little about the fate of the Smokejumpers that was not already known previous to his years of research. Even after taking the two remaining survivors, Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey, back to Mann Gulch to reenact their run from the fire, very little becomes clear of what happened that day. Perhaps the biggest take away MacLean had from his research, and what I find to be the most important lesson from this book, is this: while this accident was tragic and horrifying, it did help to prevent numerous deaths from fire in the years to come. This poignant paragraph discusses MacLean’s biggest takeaway.
Walter Rumsey was 21 at the time of the fire. He died in 1980 in a plane crash.
Robert Sallee was 17 at the time of the fire and the youngest member of the crew, as well as the oldest surviving member. He died in 2014.