Saturday, July 29, 2017

Young Men and Fire, by Norman Maclean

Norman Maclean's carefully researched and even more carefully written book Young Men and Fire recounts the tragic death of thirteen young smoke jumpers in the August 5, 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana. Maclean is better known as the author of A River Runs Through It, but if the power of nature colliding head-on with strong young men heedless of mortality moves you, this is a book you must read.

A "perfect storm" of conditions engulfed the lives of sixteen young men, of whom only three survived. Two of the thirteen casualties were so badly burned that they died soon afterwards in a hospital; the rest perished in the conflagration that turned a dry windy steep grassy hillside into a pyre. Maclean walks us through information as reported by the survivors, as concluded by Forest Service investigators, as postulated by fire scientists, and as gleaned first-hand by Maclean and his Forest Service ally Laird Robinson, with whom he visited Mann Gulch numerous times over a period of years, experiencing on his final trip the scorching parched conditions that prevailed on that fateful August day, where the grass on the 78 degree slope was so slippery that his boots could find no purchase - and yet he calculated that the speed of the young men trying to outrace the fire reached "375 yards in about two minutes... 562 feet per minute, or six and a half miles per hour... a slow jogging pace [that] would have been almost beyond reality to maintain for 375 yards on a slope where I had to crawl with gloved hands on a hot August afternoon."

The principal controversy about the firefighters' actions was the decision of their foreman, when he realized they could not outrun the flames to safety, to light a fire near the top of the gulch. Through the roar of the flames his crew could not hear him, but thinking he was crazy, they ignored him, fleeing instead toward the top of the gulch. Only the two fastest among them reached the ridge-top and crawled through a rock crevice to the next gulch, and survived. But Wag Dodge was not crazy. He lit a fire then lay down in its ashes, a wet handkerchief against his face pressed to the earth, and the fire swept around the burned patch his small fire had created, and so he was not consumed in the horrific heat of the main fire.

The lessons imparted by vegetation, wind, and terrain provide a sense of inevitability to the rapid blow-up of the fire; the lessons of poor communication, a crew not acting as a team, and an unfamiliar leader show us the human failures compounding the tragedy. The fire conditions were unavoidable - the human conditions were not: "...the greatest loss was the loss that came in morale and organization in turning a crew around and retreating from the fire. The training schedule of Smokejumpers includes no class on how to run from a fire as fast as possible.  
    The fire was having no organizational problems. It was gaining speed all the time."

To study tragedy is to hope to learn from it, to prevent such loss when circumstances align again, and this is Maclean's mission. A longtime resident of the Montana mountains in the area near Mann Gulch, the author was well-suited to this investigation. The Publisher's Note prefacing the book states: "Young Men and Fire was where, near the end, all the lives [Maclean] had lived would merge: the lives of a woodsman, firefighter, scholar, teacher, and storyteller." When he died at 87 the book was still incomplete, but he had done the hard and thorough research, tracking down the survivors, learning how mathematical models of fire predicted its behavior based on fuel type, wind speed and direction, and fuel moisture content, and sharing his thoughts with those he expected to correct him. Above all, he was unwilling to have those thirteen smoke jumpers die uselessly; surrounded by their ghosts he pushed himself to his physical and mental limits to understand every factor in their deaths, and to share that knowledge.

He succeeds brilliantly, turning recitation of the crew's final moments into a heartbreaking convergence of human limits with a speeding conflagration. These hard-won facts do not support the story - they ARE the story, in as compelling a narrative as you will find. Read it and weep.