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The Mann Gulch fire of 1949 was a wildfire in the Helena National Forestmarker, Montanamarker, United Statesmarker, which claimed the lives of 13 firefighters including 12 smoke jumpers who were parachuted into the area to fight the fire, but were unable to control it.

Sequence of events

It started when lightning struck the south side of Mann Gulch, which is in the Gates of the Mountains Wildernessmarker, an area named by Lewis and Clark. The fire was spotted by a forest ranger around noon on August 5, 1949. James O. Harrison, the recreation and fire prevention guard for Meriwether Canyon Campground, had given up his former job as a smokejumper to find a less dangerous profession. On this day, however, he fought the fire on his own for four hours before he met the crew of smokejumpers who had been dispatched from Missoula, Montanamarker, in a C-47.

Foreman Wagner Dodge told the team to get on the North side of the gulch and 'sidehill' (keep the same contour) and move "down gulch" towards the Missouri Rivermarker. Then they could fight the fire from behind it. He went back with Harrison to eat, which the others had already done. He noticed however that the smoke was starting to boil, and he became concerned. He decided to get back to his men as quickly as possible and get them out.

The fire, by that time, had jumped the gulch from the south side to the north side, downgulch from the men. It had 'blown up', spreading much faster than anticipated, due to various weather and environmental conditions. This was unknown to the crew because various ridges running down the slope obscured their view of the slope. Only when they came over a ridge did they see the huge fire coming at them, only a few hundred yards distant. The men had to turn around and run for it. Soon after, Dodge ordered them to drop their heavy tools (shovels, Pulaskis, saws).

When Dodge realized that they would not be able to outrun the fire, he started an escape fire, taking a match and lighting a ring around him so that the fire would "jump" over him and his crew. He ordered everyone to lie down in the area he had burnt down. In the book that he later wrote, he claimed that he had been "lifted off the ground" several times by the fire. He later claimed he had never heard of such a fire being set, it just seemed "logical", and it was thought to be an on-the-spot invention. However, plains Indians had used the technique to escape grass fires and it had been written about by authors in fiction stories in the 1800s.

However, it is unknown if the crew heard or understood him. The group had 'spread out' in the absence of Dodge, and was strung out along a good stretch. The noise of the fire had also become intense by that time. The 'escape fire' technique had not been part of their training. Dodge later stated that someone said, "The hell with that, I'm getting out of here". The other team members hurried towards the ridge of Mann Gulch. This is because they knew that fires spread much more slowly once they reach the top of a ridge.

Only two of them, Bob Sallee and Walter Rumsey, managed to escape through a crevice, came to the other side of the ridge in Rescue Gulch, and found a safe location, a rockslide with little vegetation to fuel the fire. Diettert had been close behind Sallee and Rumsey, but he did not go for their crevice, for unknown reasons. The two had no way of knowing if the crevice actually 'went through' so it was lucky that they survived. Two other members survived with heavy injuries and died within a day. Unburnt patches underneath the bodies indicate that the rest of the team, including Jim Harrison, suffocated before the fire caught up with them.

Everyone had jumped by around 4:10 pm. The scattered cargo had been gathered at about 5:00 pm. At about 5:45 pm, the crew had seen the fire coming up towards them on the North slope and had turned to run. By 6:00 pm, the fire had swept over them. The time of the fire was judged by wristwatches stopped by the heat.


450 men fought for five more days to get the fire, which had spread to 18 km² (4500 acres), under control.

Wagner Dodge survived unharmed and died five years later of Hodgkin's disease.

Several months following the fire, fire scientist Harry Gisborne, from the US Forest Service Research Center at Priest River, came to examine the damage. Having 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 9 November 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 great impact on firefighter training. However, some of the lessons were forgotten and the tragedy would be repeated in the South Canyon Fire of 1994, in which 14 firefighters died.

Contributing factors

Several factors described in Norman MacLean's book "Young Men and Fire" are described that combined to create the disaster.
  • Slope - fire spreads faster on a slope, and the north slope of Mann Gulch was about 75%. It also makes it very difficult to run.
  • Fuel - fire spreads fast in dry grass, the north slope of Mann Gulch was mostly tall grass, left ungrazed by nearby rancher's cattle because the area had been recently designated a wildlife area.
  • Leadership - Dodge did not know most of the crew, as he had been doing base maintenance work during the normal training '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 the 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 the men tried to run.

Young men and Fire

The Mann Gulch fire was the subject of Norman Maclean's book Young Men and Fire, which was edited by Norman Maclean's son John Norman Maclean and published after Norman Maclean's death. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction in 1992. John Maclean's 2003 book, Fire and Ashes: On the Front Lines Battling Wildfires, also includes a section on the Mann Gulch Fire, and John Maclean published an article in 2004, adapted from that section of the book, in which he interviewed the last remaining survivor of the fire, Bob Sallee, and corrected some of the mistakes in his father's book.

Folk Song

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 the band Cry Cry Cry. It is sung from the perspective of foreman Dodge, lying on his deathbed dying of Hodgkin's disease five years after the fire. The song might be slightly confusing, because it says, "15 of us dropped", "none but 2 survived", and "13 crosses high above"... One of the grave markers is for David R. Navon, who was Jewish and is of course not a cross, but a gravestone with the Star of David. The 15 jumpers did jump, but Harrison was a ranger who was already there in the area. Thus, there were 16 on the mountain, 15 jumpers, 13 deaths, and 3 survivors. (There was also another man, Jansson, down near the river, but this is not in the song). The song also says, "they cursed me and ran for the rocks above instead", but it is actually unknown if all of the men even heard Dodge tell them to get into the fire - the book describes him saying that he only heard some unknown person say "to hell with that". Another confusion in the song is when he says, "when I rose like a phoenix, in a world reduced to ashes, there was none but two survived" - actually four survived the initial fire, but two died later of their injuries.

See also

External resources


  1. Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire (excerpt), 1992. Retrieved February 28, 2007.

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